NBA 2K21 review: Maxing out the current-gen consoles

2K Sports
2K Sports /

NBA 2K21 on current-gen consoles is more of a sidestep and less of a leap from last year’s game.

Title: NBA 2K21
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K
Platforms: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, Stadia
Release Date: September 4, 2019

There’s a running joke in the sports video game world that a new game in a series is nothing more than a $60 roster update. For NBA 2K21, that’s not even the case, although not entirely to the fault of Visual Concepts or 2K.

Thanks to COVID-19, the entire sports world has been thrown into chaos, with seasons delayed, postponed or flat-out canceled. As the NBA currently finishes up the postseason for its delayed 2019-20 season, the league is still putting plans in place for when to conduct the offseason and start the 2020-21 season which, of course, is the one reflected in NBA 2K21. As a result, rosters in NBA 2K21 can’t be updated, removing one of the most exciting parts about a new sports game.

Coupled with a console generation seemingly maxed out, there’s little room for the current-gen version of NBA 2K21 to make major leaps forward. The end result is little discernable improvement from last year’s game.

That’s not to say there isn’t change, though. In an attempt to create a more fluid shooting experience, NBA 2K21 introduces a new shot stick meter. Tied to the right joystick, the revamped system allows you to transition smoothly from dribbling to shooting the ball. At least, that’s the intention. In actuality, it feels very clunky and awkward.

The new shot stick introduces an aiming mechanic, so it’s not just about perfectly timing your shot. Now when you pull back on the right stick, you must also guide it to the left and right depending on your meter for an accurate shot. While I understand Visual Concepts’ goal with the shot stick — to create more of a skill gap — it definitely needs to be tuned. It’s incredibly unforgiving. If you don’t get it in the green, especially as a lower player in Neighborhood, you can expect a miss.

The new shot meter isn’t necessarily a bad change but it just needs to be tuned properly. To 2K’s credit, they’ve already taken steps to reduce the shooting difficulty in certain modes to make NBA 2K21 more forgiving for newcomers. But when you have a sports game in which the majority of it is based off a shooting mechanic that only works for a small percentage of players, that’s a problem.

The old shooting mechanic is still there but even in Neighborhood, shooting feels far too difficult. Games in The Park feel like a middle school pick-up game with brick after brick. As for the online community, it’s like playing with Sandy Lyle from Along Came Polly. Rain dance!

I’ll be the first to admit that I consider myself more of a casual NBA fan. I play NBA 2K21 for fun — to experience a sport that I’ll never be able to play with the same grace as those I watch on television. When I’m unable to hit even the most basic free throw, it’s a little disheartening.

2K Sports
2K Sports /

Perhaps that’s why I took a liking to the story in MyCareer. “The Long Shadow” is the newest cinematic experience guiding your MyPlayer from high school to the pros and it features a star-studded cast led by Jesse Williams, Djimon Hounsou, and Mirelle Enos. The acting talent is incredible, elevating an already compelling storyline. The addition of college teams is also a nice touch, especially for those longing to experience a college basketball game.

But it’s where The Long Shadow ends where NBA 2K21 starts to shift gears towards the more hardcore competitive community. Both MyCareer and MyTeam feel intimidating to newcomers. With very little guidance, the MyTeam menus feel like a cluttered mess with no real direction of what to do first. Not to mention, the in-depth mechanics of the card-collection, fantasy mode — while appreciated by the veterans of the community — are very overwhelming at first.

MyTeam introduces quite a few new systems aimed at rewarding competitive players. Limited is a new competitive mode that runs from Friday to Sunday only and is aimed specifically at high-level players. Again, as a father of one (soon two), it feels like this mode is actively trying to push people like me away, or trying to persuade me to spend VC to keep up.

Limited-time Seasons create another FOMO for MyTeam. This is a new progression-based program that continuously introduces unique situations for you to complete to earn themed content. I’m not a huge fan of timed-exclusive content, as I like to play at my own leisure, but a constant influx of new content — even if I don’t have time to complete the old stuff — is a net positive for the community that this mode is aimed towards.

With MyTeam and MyCareer geared towards a competitive community, I find myself flocking towards MyLeague. I’ve always been more of a franchise guy in all my sports games. I love the fantasy aspect of playing as my favorite franchise and building them into contenders, while also competing with my small circle of friends for bragging rights.

And when it comes to franchise-type modes, nobody does it better than the NBA 2K series. It seriously has some of the most in-depth franchise-managing mechanics and features. The new boom-bust system, which overhauls the traditional progression system, means nothing is guaranteed anymore. A player’s trajectory can be thrown off by an injury, or an undrafted rookie can play his way into superstar status. This dynamism of this new system ensures no MyLeague experience will be the same and I love that. It’s also more reflective of real-life because nothing is guaranteed.

Graphically, NBA 2K21 still looks great but it’s not a huge leap from last year’s version. That’s likely more to due with current-gen limitations than Visual Concept’ potential, so I’m eager to see what NBA 2K21 will look like on PS5 and Xbox Series X. You’ll still encounter some awkward animations or computer AI but overall, it’s a smooth gameplay experience.

NBA 2K21 remains a top-tier basketball simulation game, although one that has seemingly maxed out its potential on current-gen systems. Things like the shooting difficulty can and will be adjusted with patches over time. Rosters will, of course, be updated in due time. But with the majority of modes focused on the hardcore competitive community and crowning the next big star, it leaves casual players and fans feeling lost and overwhelmed.

7. NBA 2K21 on current-gen consoles is more of a sidestep and less of a leap from last year’s game. The new shot meter, which is the biggest change, still feels clunky and unforgiving despite 2K’s attempt to patch it. If you put in the time and work, you’ll probably learn to love the new skill gap it provides, but it’s definitely not for everyone. And that’s where NBA 2K21 misses its mark; it feels geared more towards the hardcore competitive community, leaving a casual player like me feeling left behind.. Visual Concepts. . NBA 2K21

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.