Published on September 5th, 2020 | by Landon Buford0
The Hype Magazine’s NBA 2K21 Review
NBA 2K21 is officially out today, but I simply got my full review copy yesterday morning, so this review in progress will spill over into next week (after the Labor Day weekend). But I was able to put in a decent number of hours yesterday, and at that time NBA 2K21 has made it clear that it has kept up the franchise’s record of stellar on-court gameplay. Most of the upgrades are relatively minor, like loose rebounds looking and feeling a lot more realistic, but they helped add to an already solid foundation. The best portion of NBA 2K21 so far is that the control tweaks, such as the new aim meter, make for an all-new learning curve. Unfortunately, upgrades to the surrounding game modes seem pretty basic.
The aim-meter mechanic is really difficult to master, but has already headed to some really satisfying one-on-one isolation victories. It’s nice being able to employ the right stick exclusively as a dribbling tool until I’m ready to pull back for a shot. The ability to size-up, which is tied to unique dribbling animations for many of the best instrumentalists in the league, and isolate is better than ever. I expended a couple of hours experimenting with different play styles, like facilitating the pick-and-roll with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. It’s tremendously rewarding to use Doncic’s size and footwork to create place – something I couldn’t replicate with other guards on the team, like Seth Curry. While it’s not wholly new, NBA 2K21’s ability to emulate players’ playstyles is outstanding this year.
That said, there are already a few frustrating gameplay issues I’ve come across, excessively. Fastbreaks seem slightly improved, but player spacing continues to be noticeably off. For instance, even my best three-point shooters will track inside the three-point line on fast breaks when they’d be better off finding space in the nook. In general, it seems like NBA 2K21 hasn’t fully adapted to the emphasis modern NBA basketball has put on the three-dot line. Quick catch-and-shoots aren’t as common as they should be, and closing out is still far too comfortable on defense.
Similarly frustrating is the CPU’s ability to make problems for itself. In my little time with NBA 2K21, I’ve already seen two backcourt violations on wide-open inbounds passes. It did as a jarring reminder that I was not, in fact, experiencing a real game of NBA basketball.
From a cursory glance, MyLeague seems to have taken in almost zero updates. The modality has a decent set of features built into it already, but this is the second year in a row without noteworthy improvements. As somebody who loves to deep-dive into franchise building, it’s really disappointing that there is so little effort being put into the model.
Thankfully, MyTeam has at least ditched its horrible casino aesthetic from last year. Create no mistake, though — even though it looks different, it still seems heavily dependent on microtransactions and purchasing packs. As I read in last year’s review, it’s clear that My Team’s central goal is to extract as much money as you’re willing to give up in order to avoid having to grind out mundane challenges to progress, and it doesn’t appear anything has changed in that department. There does look to be an emphasis on customization for MyTeam this year: you can now choose different skill paths for your evolution cards, such as focusing on athleticism or playmaking, which should help guide players to better fit under my individual playing style.
The shot-stick mechanic also feels like a direct response to issues with latency online. Even though the demo doesn’t feature the ability to play online matches, it’s easy to envision a future where most online players will be using the aimed shot meter rather than the older timed meter (which is still available via the square or X button). Instead of proving to guess how much latency there will be with each jump shot, it should be a lot more efficient to pull back on the analog stick and aim the shot instead. All the same, aiming shots is certainly the more difficult of the two options as things currently stand. I’m excited to own a brand-new skill to master, but it’s good to have both options available.
Other than that, however, I could only spot minor changes to the on-court gameplay. Spacing is slightly better in the halfcourt, but it’s still too easy to close out on three-level shots. Blocking shots, and the animations that come with them, seems to be improved and the ball just generally runs in a more believable way. One of my favorite improvements has been visualizing the ball get knocked around realistically on rebounds and steals. Nonetheless, it’s incredibly jarring to see the ball lifelessly drop to the floor after a shot-clock violation or the end of a quarter, and to watch players start moving around like robots until a cutscene eventually kicks in. I know nothing about game development, but it’s hard to believe these are issues so difficult to fix that they should’ve endured all the way into 2K21.
In just five games (the maximum the demo allows), it’s hard to get a feel for exactly how much things have changed. It does seem clear to me that the new aim-meter mechanic is getting to be divisive and could potentially alter the online experience in major ways. A few smaller issues have seen some improvement, but most of the legacy gameplay issues remain present. It’s light that this is far from the franchise’s biggest step forward, but the shot-stick alone is enough to open the door for tons of possibilities.