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NBA 2K21 PS5/Series X review: Shiny and slick, but there’s still room to grow

Seven years ago, NBA 2K14 launched on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 to much fanfare. It was a monumental leap over the 360/PS3 version of the game, expanding on key features and areas, namely MyCareer and MyGM. Put simply, the game was a stunning evolution of the NBA 2K franchise, a staggering leap graphically that also hit the boards on the features front.

NBA 2K21 arrives on PS5 and Series X with somewhat of a mixed response from the community, but I feel that’s more to do with expectations being so high than it being objectively a “poor” or average game, especially given the comparison to last generation’s leap.

nba 2k21 review

The reality is that as last generation progressed, NBA 2K appeared to lose some of its pizzazz, drowning in an ocean of microtransactions and a shift away from being a basketball “sim” towards more of a basketball “experience” and world. For better or worse, the 2K franchise has grown perhaps faster and bigger than any other sports franchise in recent years, and with that saw an increase in community angst, ironically in correlation with said rise in popularity.

Interestingly, despite the frustration and anger aimed squarely at the franchise’s subtle shift towards pay-to-win in-game currency and systems, the NBA 2K franchise has perhaps never been more “lively” than it is now. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely despise the microtransactions, but I’d be lying if I said I never purchased VC to boost my player’s credentials. That doesn’t justify it, or dilute its impact, but I’ve come to accept it as a component of the way the NBA 2K franchise is now shaped, and you simply can’t ignore the current popularity.

However, popularity doesn’t necessarily equate to quality, although that’s not to say NBA 2K21 doesn’t make amends on some of the misgivings of the previous gen’s version. It does make genuine attempts to innovate and improve. The City, for example, the newest version of The Neighbourhood, is obviously the game’s attempt at showing how “next gen” it is. Aesthetically and technically, it’s great. In theory, it’s amazing. But in execution it’s obvious that we’re at least a year away from it being actually worth the space it demands.

nba 2k21 review

The City just doesn’t feel inviting to me, in part because it is so big. There’s a lot of emptiness there, which seems pointless next to the intent. Ten matches to move beyond Rookieville, and a small albeit growing feast of aesthetic and apparel options makes The City feel more ambitious than genuinely fun. I admire the attempt, and can see a lot of room to grow here, though.

I have similar thoughts of MyCareer. It’s pretty much the same story from the past-gen version, with the main change being you play through the G League out of high school, instead of progressing through college. Because of that it actually feels like more of a grind, and is very difficult to sit through for a second time. Here are my thoughts from the NBA 2K21 Xbox One review:

“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.”

nba 2k21 review

My thoughts are the same in the next-gen version. It’s possibly the most disappointing feature of this version of NBA 2K21, because, much like how MyGM and MyLeague have been slowly neglected over time, it appears the intent was to over-invest in The City — one of the franchise’s big money-makers — and slowly phase away from the single-player area that may not incentivise enough for people to spend money. Just a theory, but it seems fairly obvious.

Interestingly, there has been some attention given to both MyGM and MyLeague in the next-gen version of NBA 2K21, having the two games fused into a single mode called MyNBA. As an old-school franchise sim player I welcome the change, because it simplifies the experience a bit while maintaining a lot of the charming complexities that can make those modes so much fun to play. I’m craving a more indepth and realistic franchise mode in future versions of NBA 2K, but I absolutely love the customisation options available in MyNBA. It’s a slick change and improvement, made all the more accessible by the faster load times.

So all the above aside, how does the core basketball game actually play? Well, this is why you’re going to want to buy NBA 2K21 on PS5 or Series X. Not only is it arguably the best looking game on the consoles right now — and it truly is stunning — but it probably nails the game’s fundamentals better than ever. Here’s what I said about the past-gen version:

nba 2k21 review

“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.”

That’s all true in the next-gen version, but you can up the dial a bit. The visual capabilities actually contribute to a smoother and fundamentally tighter basketball offering. Players no longer “skate” around; their feet actually move one by one. Player reactions to physical contact create reactive feedback that impacts defensive structures and rotations. Play calling, AI movement, and shooting all see refinements that correlate with these graphical improvements, and it all makes for a broadly improved experience.

It’s not perfect, though: there are conflicts whenever a player is caught mid-animation, and they’re approaching a boundary line or running out of clock. That lack of urgency and responsiveness still isn’t quite there, which can be frustrating, particularly in dying seconds of a close match. Broadly though, it all works well, looks great, and feels like a genuine “next gen” upgrade that we’ve come to expect.

nba 2k21 review

The Final Verdict

NBA 2K21 on Series X and PS5 wants me to love it, but I can’t go that far … yet. It gets the fundamentals right on so many levels, but appears firmly embedded in a transitional period for the franchise. It’s undoubtedly a must-play for basketball fans, and if you’ve invested in either console than an upgrade in version is a no-brainer. Just be prepared for the stock-standard microtransactions, a City that’s too big for its own good, and an uninspiring My Career. For the first time in years, MyLeague — or MyNBA as it’s now called — may well be the most important mode in the game.

What are your thoughts on the next-gen version of NBA 2K21? Sound off in the comments below!

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