For more than a decade, the NBA 2K franchise has been at the forefront of the sports game genre. Not much changes with NBA 2K21, but that may just be its biggest problem.
No one expects an annual sports video game to reinvent the wheel — certainly not within the same generation — but the package needs to feel somewhat fresh to truly justify that purchase. It’s true that fans of NBA 2K — and pretty much every other annual sports release — have a fairly low ceiling for that justification. I personally fit into that bracket, guilty as charged. But for whatever reason — maybe it’s the fact we know there’s another NBA 2K21 release on the horizon on the Xbox Series X and PS5 — NBA 2K21 in the current generation feels weirdly stale.
That’s even in the face of one of the more significant — and controversial — changes to come to the gameplay: that of the game’s refined shooting mechanics. Such was the push-back from the community on these changes, a patch was quickly released to essentially lower the learning curve completely on lower difficulties. To best summarise these changes: there’s an added layer of accountability on the player to not just time their shots perfectly, but to also aim them perfectly. It’s not easy.
Yet I think the change needs to be applauded: when executed well, the new shooting mechanics are perhaps the most satisfying addition to the gameplay that we’ve seen in years. The fundamentals that surround it still persist, but shooting is now tougher, more realistic, and satisfying, albeit rage-inducing to start. Unless you’re a seasoned NBA 2K shot stick veteran that can quickly grasp gameplay, technical and mechanical fundamentals, you’re going to be putting up bricks for a long while.
Is this level of difficulty really necessary? You could argue two ways here. Firstly, yes: NBA 2K21 is supposed to be a basketball simulation, and so anything that ultimately enhances the burden for the player to play to real life restrictions only enhances the game’s sense of realism. Secondly, no: I can’t help but feel that the shooting changes — while welcomed purely from a realism and simulation perspective — feel somewhat forced, like as if there may be some hidden agenda there to force players to look at alternatives, or ways to improve their shooting efficiency in inorganic ways.
Okay, that’s some conspiracy level BS, I admit it, but the sheer abundance and infatuation with microtransactions I feel has reached new heights in NBA 2K21, and it’s propelled even higher thanks to the new shooting mechanics.
Let’s take a look at the bread-and-butter of the NBA 2K experience, the feature that drives so much of what’s on offer in the franchise: My Player. The My Player Builder allows you to create a “build”, shaped around key attributes and Badge distribution. With that enhanced level of realism in NBA 2K21 comes an even stronger reliance on attributes and Badges. I won’t go into too much depth on either, as I have written plenty of guides on both. The concern is that, to build your created player’s attributes up, you need to play more.
Each time you play, you need to perform as well as possible. The better you play, the more you unlock and the more Virtual Currency you earn. The more VC you earn, the more you can upgrade your attributes. The more you upgrade your attributes, the better you play, and the more Badges you unlock. The more Badges … and you get the drift. It’s a chicken-egg scenario here, and the grind is quite frankly utterly ridiculous.
How does this tie into shooting? There are Badges that give you a slight boost if your timing is off, as an example. But that doesn’t matter if you don’t have the attributes backing up your shooting capacity anyway, so first you need to upgrade that area. See where I’m going with this? In advancing the game’s realism, NBA 2K21 has actually put an even heavier reliance on the grind to upgrade. The problem is that the rate of improvement hasn’t been amended to reflect the increase in difficulty, and so the grind is even tougher and longer than in past years.
Add to this the jarring reliance on Badges, and the weird under-reliance on your player’s actual statistics, and the entire NBA 2K experience feels like a slot machine, one that occasionally rings out the sound of “bonus games!” and “boost power!”.
It doesn’t help that the game’s defensive and offensive AI is as tight as ever: the AI reads the pick-and-roll perfectly; you’re constantly forced into mismatches; and there’s an added explosiveness added within space. NBA 2K21 is a brutal beast at its most realistic, and that’s a good thing. On the court, in isolation, it’s a refined masterpiece. But nothing is ever that simple, and there isn’t enough there to keep you engaged, so you need to move around elsewhere. MyTeam, Neighbourhood, MyCareer. Everything ties into everything else, and it all falls back to microtransactions. I’d appreciate and embrace the game’s shooting mechanics more if they didn’t make me feel like dropping $30 on VC was a necessary evil to progress.
Am I being too harsh? Maybe it’s a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” scenario, because they made effort to genuinely improve the gameplay with NBA 2K21. But the gift is veiled by a driving curse of microtransactions. I know that we’re not forced to purchase anything. But where the game is designed in such a way as to make spending real money a more realistic, as opposed to actually playing the game, the balancing act is all wrong.
I’m old-fashioned when it comes to what I want in my NBA 2K games. I want a padded franchise mode. I want a My Career mode that punishes and rewards in equal measure. I don’t want to look at genuine improvements to gameplay as more of a burden because they amplify the need to spend additional money. It’s so obvious why MyGM and MyLeague have been left to rot in recent years: there’s no money in them. They quite literally feel like the exact same modes as the past two years. Where’s the genuine encouragement to enjoy what it is that made NBA 2K what it is today, and that’s an actual basketball simulation?
Ironically, that’s where NBA 2K21 thrives the most: on the court. I genuinely, honestly believe that at the base level, the quality of basketball gameplay is the best it’s ever been. It’s tough, unforgiving, and rewarding. And it makes you fall in love with the game. But everything else? It makes me resent the game. My Career is quite possibly in the worst place it’s ever been: I would highly recommend skipping high school all together and going straight to the NBA. Harsh, but fair: its uninteresting, shallow and patronising story feels rushed. Understandably given there’s obvious focus on the next-gen versions of the mode, but it’s still a let-down.
The Neighbourhood, perhaps my favourite mode last year, is still a lot of fun. But again, its connection to a financial backbone makes it quite literally the definition of “pay to win”. Unless you actually spend the money to boost your player’s attributes, the Badge earning rate is so slow you may not max out a field until NBA 2K22.
NBA 2K21 isn’t a bad game. At its core it’s actually quite good. The key frustration for me, however, is that so much of the good work achieved with the gameplay is undone by smothering microtransactions. I’d otherwise not care they existed if the grind was reasonable enough. But with each passing year, NBA 2K21 feels less like a video game, and more like a casino.
That said, there’s still fun to be had there. I still deeply enjoy MyLeague, even if it’s been grossly neglected in recent years. MyCareer is actually a great way to learn fundamentals, and understand how the game’s AI reacts to your own player. The Neighbourhood and its Rep system is always a lot of fun at its core, with nice pacing and a slick Venice Beach backdrop that is welcomed during such troubling global circumstances.
I’m hoping that in NBA 2K21, with obvious technical advancements available, the next-gen version propels natural on-court progression more. Until then, we may need to drop a few more dimes to make NBA 2K21 feel truly worthwhile.