‘NBA 2K21’ review: Why should I buy this game (again)? Oct-15-2020
For years, playing the latest version of NBA 2K has felt like getting proposed to with a ring of cubic zirconia. Every year, your partner tells you the diamond is coming, but instead it’s just a bigger, shinier ring of cubic zirconia.
“NBA 2K21” epitomizes this. In lieu of correcting the issues that have riddled previous editions of the game — like routinely blowing open layups during online play — 2K attempts to distract gamers from the actual issues with silly fluff like adding more “realistic” sweat droplets to stream down Zion Williamson’s face, an expanded selection of tattoos and a spectacular new beachside neighborhood location.
What also stands out as egregious for a franchise that is already criticized for little year-over-year change is that, due to the COVID-19 delay in the 2019-20 season, even the rosters are the same as “NBA 2K20.” There’s not even the excitement of getting your hands on the incoming rookie class. Instead, you get a lot of the same experience you got a year ago, and you have to pay for the privilege. I’m not here to say that “NBA 2K21” isn’t worth your money, but “2K21’s” value is largely dependent on if you plan to upgrade to the newest PlayStation and/or Xbox console later this year. If you do, investing now in “NBA 2K21” makes no sense, even if you’re eyeing the Mamba Edition with Kobe Bryant on the cover.
If you’re like me and you don’t know when you plan to buy the next generation of consoles but you still need a way to get the buckets you’ve longed for since your high school career ended too soon — “NBA 2K21” is more than satisfactory. If not, waiting until the true next-gen release, rather than the mere “2K21″ upgrade, is likely the better move. While we all understand the difficulties associated with creating a fresh, new game amid a global pandemic, 2K hasn’t cut gamers any slack on the pricing this year ($60 for the basic version, $100 for the Mamba Edition, which includes an upgrade to the next-gen consoles when those land in November). Gamers shouldn’t have to spend that on what is basically a repackaged “NBA 2K20.”
With all that in mind, here are the things that caught my eye after playing the game: Per usual, “NBA 2K21” provides an enjoyable experience for the eyes and ears by capturing the cultural ambiance of the NBA. The way that the fans chant and react to in-game plays like Alex Caruso tickling the twine with a deep three perfectly replicates what it’s like to watch the Bald Mamba do his thing at the Staples Center. The crowd seems to understand the context of the situation and provide reactions beyond generic cheering and chanting “M-V-P!” However, the in-game commentary appears to be recycled from “2K20.” For instance, while playing with the Raptors, there are numerous cutaway interview scenes and comments made about the absence of Kawhi Leonard that comprised much of the in-game talk from the previous installment. Hopefully that is updated once the 2019-20 season is officially over.
2K gave The Neighborhood (one of its online MyCareer features) a major facelift this time around. Instead of the usual grimy inner city backdrop, this year’s neighborhood resides on a beachfront. The layout is a bit strange to navigate but the neighborhood’s aesthetics make it a delight for the eyes and a welcomed change from last year’s nauseating “casino in the city” theme.
The Portland Trailblazers’ Damian Lillard did an exceptional job with the soundtrack. The rap-heavy playlist taps into enough subgenres [pop rap, trap rap, etc.] that most gamers shouldn’t have to tap into their own Spotify playlists while hooping. One caveat: Dwyane Wade’s pandemic release, “Season Ticketholder” featuring Rick Ross, should be muted every time.
Despite still being unable to create a female MyPlayer — though this is rumored to change in the next generation edition — 2K has made a concerted effort to create a larger WNBA presence within the game. Like last year, gamers may run one full WNBA season, but unlike a year ago, players’ appearance and dimensions can be edited in this mode. The overall feel of the WNBA gameplay feels much smoother this year and the game does a nice job of introducing a new audience to the players, styles and teams that make up the W.
New shooting option
2K has introduced a new Pro Stick shooting option, which implores users to focus their energy on proper aim versus proper release when using the traditional X, Square or right stick options.
The new option initially wreaked havoc on players’ shooting percentages, which inspired 2K to release a game patch for lower playing levels, but as with gaining virtual coins (VC, the in-game currency) and badges, if you are willing to grind, you start to see the benefits. I still prefer the traditional shooting motion [X, Square and right stick], but if I continue to miss wide open threes, despite having a 3-pt rating of 86, due to a slightly early or late release, I may have to make a permanent switch.
The MyCareer mode is easily my favorite and most played portion of NBA 2K. As a result, it’s where the majority of my frustrations with this year’s game reside. For starters: After spending 30-plus minutes trying to get my player to replicate the masterpiece that greets me in the mirror each day (while also taking the liberty of giving myself an 11-inch growth spurt) the last thing I want to do is hop into another overly dramatic knockoff Spike Lee Joint story. But that’s exactly what awaits you.
In this year’s iteration, your MyPlayer is convinced by his high school basketball coach [Djimon Hounsou] to make a return to the hardwood following your father’s [Jesse Williams] death [we don’t know how or why he died]. From there you make your way from unknown high school player to the NBA. The added ability to play in high school and the additional college choices are an awesome touch. But the story lacks structure and contains too many unanswered questions to make playing it worthwhile.
For instance, why do you and your father look the same age? Why is there a strange basketball blogger that gets on your team bus and follows you around campus and no one seems to care? Why does said blogger admit to slandering you over the Internet, because she doesn’t want to risk her career writing positive stuff and you being a bust? Why is a guy that seems to be super friendly and is friendly to you, supposed to be your arch-nemesis? Why does your college girlfriend look like the blogger’s twin? Why do you have to sign the random dude from the neighborhood, who was barred from college basketball for engaging in illegal activity, as your agent? Why are you and your nemesis drafted No. 1 and No. 2 by the same team? The oddities continue even beyond that list.
To make matters worse, gamers have even less control than usual. Outside of choosing your college destination and playing 8-10 games as an amateur, you are basically just watching a movie built for BET. Luckily, after you’re drafted the story ends and it’s back to the traditional grind for badges and VC that has made 2K a joy to play over the years. But here’s the problem if you plan to upgrade to a next-gen version of the game: While your MyTeam will carry over to the PS5/Series X, all MyPlayer progress will be lost.
One last gripe: For whatever reason, all of the cut-scenes of your MyPlayer at news conferences or doing in-game interviews with David Aldridge have been nixed. That sucks, because those elements added an additional piece of realism to the game that is truly missed now that they are gone.
When Kobe Bryant was announced as the third NBA 2K cover athlete earlier this year following his tragic death, NBA fans around the world were elated about the possibilities. I was excited because I figured that a list of challenges would be included, similar to what Michael Jordan received when he graced the cover of “NBA 2K11.” Instead, the Mamba Edition gives users a few meaningless in-game tokens like 100,000 virtual coins, 10,000 MyTeam points, MyTeam packs and access to a few Bryant jerseys and shoes for your MyPlayer to sport. As noted earlier, the Mamba Edition does grant an upgrade to the next console generation, so you don’t have to buy another copy for PS5 or Series X … but you do have to shell out $40 more dollars when some game franchises are allowing free next-gen upgrades.
Perhaps it was too much to expect 2K to add an entire challenge mode to honor the former Lakers legend during a pandemic, but if you’re going to charge an additional $40 for the Mamba edition versus the standard one, you have to give users more. Aside from the next-gen upgrade, there’s no real savings or value. 2K doesn’t offer a 100,000 VC package, but if you were to manually buy a similar amount of the virtual currency based on the available options (75,000 VC for $19.99 plus 35,000 VC for $9.99) you could purchase most of the free content that comes included with the Mamba Edition.
All this makes the current “NBA 2K21: Mamba Edition” feel more like an attempt at capitalizing on NBA fans’ love for Kobe than a celebration of his life, especially when you factor in that Kobe was the cover athlete of the Legend edition in 2017.
The reality is that there isn’t a ton of value in buying what is essentially a carbon copy to “NBA 2K20.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason to do so, though. By getting “2K21” now and grinding to get reps in, you’ll be better equipped and better skilled for online play. Even if you want to make up for lost time and buy your way to a better rating, you still won’t have mastered the game mechanics to make you a competent player.
That really isn’t a good reason to drop $60 though. And the rest of the new offerings in “2K21” don’t provide much reason either. Most people are going to be better off waiting for the next-gen consoles to land and making the spend on (a hopefully updated) “2K21” then.
For a series where it’s always hard to find reasons to justify purchasing the latest version of franchise, right now, “NBA 2K MT” provides even fewer than usual.