When I sit down with 2K’s new basketball game every year, I normally only take the time to review its MyCareer mode, since that’s the part I’m most interested in. But this year I blew through it so quickly that I was able to play the rest of the game as well, so surprise, we’re getting a review of all of NBA 2K21. Which it turns out was pretty easy to do, since so little has changed since 2K20.
I don’t mean that in a “hurh durh sports games are just roster updates” way, I mean it in the most literal sense. In case you couldn’t already tell from Madden 21's lacklustre reviews or the fact PES 2021 isn’t even coming out as a standalone release, 2020 is going to be a very bad year for sports video games.
It was always going to be this way, because it’s the same story every time we make the jump to a new console generation. Developers like 2K and EA Sports, normally stretched trying to develop one game a year, have suddenly had to release two, a last-gen version where all the money is, and a next-gen edition where all the headlines are.
In order to get both games out the door corners tend to be cut, shortcuts taken and everywhere a 3D model or a menu or even a game mode can simply be recycled, instead of created or even refined, you bet your ass it’s going to be recycled.
That was going to be the case if 2020 turned out normal. And it’s far from normal! Imagine all that having to be accounted for, only now the developers have to also work from home in the middle of a global pandemic. So when I spend this review saying NBA 2K21 is full of rehashed content, I say so with a slightly heavier heart than usual, because the fact we’re getting new games released at all in 2020 is a blessing considering the developmental, economic and logistical hassles involved.
But also, this is a full-priced game with the beating heart of a mobile free-to-play scam, so my sympathies only extend so far.
NBA 2K21 is the contemporary 2K experience, as viewed through the eyes of an exhausted fanbase, taken to its logical conclusion. It’s a sports game thought exercise, an experiment in a publisher seeing just how little they can offer players while still maximising their profits. This game is the barest of upgrades, in some cases a downgrade from what’s come before, and yet at every step you’re still being hustled to spend real money on trinkets and upgrades, even in singleplayer game modes, despite this already being a full-price retail game.
It’s fitting then that the only real upgrades to be found in 2K21 outside of a redesigned Neighbourhood hub world is in MyTeam, 2K’s version of EA’s Ultimate Team, aka the game mode where you can spend real money on packs of cards that might contain good players, and more often than not...does not. It’s got a whole new coat of paint, swapping out the incredibly gross casino theme, and has had its progression system rebuilt, so if this is what you spend your time on—and a lot of people do, even when they know what they’re getting themselves into!—you might be more upbeat on 2K21 than I am. Especially when we get to the part of the review when I talk about how this actually plays.
MyLeague and MyGM, though, are almost unchanged. That particularly sucks for MyGM, which I’ve quietly held out hope for years was going to become the next best thing about the 2K series. The NBA, with its small rosters, big personalities and constant drama would be the perfect setting for a more comprehensive, theatrical management mode—basically bringing MyCareer’s cutscenes to the backroom—and it’s a pity that 2K keeps on neglecting it.
Speaking of neglect, let’s now turn our attention to MyCareer. Previously the game’s flagship mode and #1 selling point, and long my sole focus here at Kotaku (this will be the seventh year in a row I’ve covered it), MyCareer used to be one of the most innovative singleplayer campaigns in all of video games. Marrying sports game action to dramatic cutscenes and RPG-like character progression was like a dream come true for plenty of fans, and for a while there each new year promised to be the year that 2K finally ironed out MyCareer’s kinks and delivered the perfect singleplayer sports game experience.
Only they’ve never really managed it. It felt like the harder 2K tried, the more expensive the outside help they brought in, the further they got from achieving that. Whether it was Spike Lee or Lebron James’ production company behind the scenes, something would always be off about MyCareer, from “Poochie” supporting characters to pained dialogue to cliched storylines.
And that’s before we even get near the mode’s biggest problem, which was the gradual intrusion of microtransactions. In a singleplayer mode.
It’s so frustrating! Every year they’d get one thing right, then fuck up another. Two years later that part would be great, but something else would break. 2K could never tie it all together like EA Sports managed with FIFA’s The Journey, which has since surpassed MyCareer as the pinnacle of singleplayer sports storylines. Sure, there were some years where most stuff came together—2K17 was probably the sweetest spot—but then that’d be followed up by 2K18, which was a complete disaster.
I’m saying all this to lead into the fact that 2K21 manages to learn very little from all of this, and ends up one of the most forgettable chapters in an increasingly forgettable saga. It’s just a grab-bag of themes and beats already used in previous entries, and it’s beset by these weird irritants like background characters appearing to be dressed by a random wardrobe generator, and the game’s two leading women looking incredibly similar, to the point where I spent most of the story wondering if it was an extremely poorly-signposted twist that they’d be sisters.
This year you play as Junior, a kid whose father was a college hoops legend but who has recently died. You’re a good player yourself, a top high school recruit, who spends MyCareer somehow living in his dad’s shadow while also being clearly a better player. Along the way you’ll meet a shady agent trying to get one last score (Michael K. Williams), date a college girlfriend, play alongside a friend and find a rival on a competing team.
There is zero drama. Zero suspense. You play it, it ends, and the only thing breaking up the monotony are some bizarre moments where decisions you make in a split-second dialogue option (like draft interviews and who you choose as your agent) can have enormous ramifications for the rest of your career.
It ticks all the most basic boxes required of the mode, I guess? But I’m just tired of it. Not the idea itself, I still really want singleplayer sports narratives, just the way it continues to be implemented here. MyCareer is so reliant on sports movie tropes, and the outdated (and downright punitive) way it tracks your in-game performances that it quickly saps the joy out of simply playing basketball.
All of which is a damn shame, because as usual, the on-court product is maybe the best recreation of a professional sport in all of video games. There have been minimal upgrades, at least when it comes to 2K21's visuals, but the gameplay tweaks made have been good ones. An all-new shot meter for experienced players may initially seem harder but with a bit of work actually feels nice, firm and fair, and movement with the ball, especially at the perimeter, feels a lot freer and more expressive than usual.
The 2K series has always had such a great sense of being on the court. Every player has heft, a place, and they’re rare among sports games in that they let you really explore the physicality of the game—leaning into players, really pushing past them—instead of just its speed and tactics. What I’m saying is that when you’re just playing basketball, focused on nothing but yamming it down some other team’s throat and playing some D, this is the best I can ever remember it.
The problem with 2K, though, and it’s bigger this year than ever, is that you can rarely be so clear in your perspective. In 2K21, just like we’ve seen for the last few years, every moment of fun on the court is undermined by the racket being run off it.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This review covers the version of NBA 2K21 currently available in stores, developed for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC. The game is also coming to the PS5 and Xbox Series X later in the year, and if there are significant changes to the game I’ll try and write about them separately.