Too often have we seen a sports game reign with such superiority that it ends up losing its way. Especially when the end of a console generation is nigh and resources are shared between two versions in parallel. The last victim of this is NBA 2K, which survives thanks to the gameplay quality achieved by Visual Concepts, but struggles surrounded by a lack of improvements and the use and abuse of an increasingly blatant monetisation system. With NBA 2K21 it's time to say "enough", at least in terms of how it presents itself ahead of making the jump to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.
The new entry enjoys the benefits of the great heritage of entries such as 2K16 and 2K17, which peaked at a technical level with 2K18. But that year, its creators realised that something as entertaining as Neighborhood, where you spend your time away from the court, was also interesting as a means of increasing player spending. From then on, we've seen fewer and fewer improvements, more ways to spend money, until last year we even got a casino.
Upon booting up the current version of NBA 2K21 (on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, or PC), you get the feeling that pretty much everything remains the same. It's almost identical graphically, with the exception of some retouches to bodies and to the collision animations, which seem enhanced. What was technically brilliant four years ago is not bad today, but it's lost its ability to catch your eye.
The gameplay has changed little as well, but here there's an important touch which hides some interesting potential: the Pro Stick. Visual Concepts have completely remapped the right stick actions so that they are more meaningful. Now, when the player initiates the jump-and-throw movement, you also have to aim at the basket, and not just time the moment of releasing the ball.
So the shooting technique in NBA 2K21 is a double-edged sword. It makes scoring trickier, more so for those of you who start playing without taking a look at tutorials (and think this is NBA 2K20 all over again, which we can understand), but also for those who are getting into the series for the first time. Now, some of you will be against this design choice, but I like it, and please allow me to tell you why. The trickiest are the long shots as even more accuracy is required, but you can always press Square, which is what I normally do on PS4, and then when I'm closer to the post I enjoy trying to nail the more analogue Pro Stick moves.
This format might as well become the foundation to revamp the whole system in the future, and I found that it's already useful to ease the mess found in Neighborhood. This mode, same as in previous entries, is by-the-book pay-to-win. However, the fact that the stick-based shot is trickier to pull off balances the matches ever so slightly. Before, when your naturally-grown, 75-average team faced an investment-backed 95-average squad, you were going to be wiped out no matter what. Now, you'll normally lose, but player skill comes into play more.
So, little has changed in terms of graphics and gameplay, and the same can be said about game modes, which can be hard to differentiate from NBA 2K20, and not always for the better, as shown by MyTeam. It's still based on cards, packs, auctions and rewards. You can progress just by playing, getting rewards (particularly online), and completing player and team challenges... or you can invest some real money to try your luck at getting better players, badges, contracts, etc. And here, well, the grind-driven progression is even slower because the Spotlight Challenges aren't available as of yet. Another way to get better is to get XP by smaller challenges such as scoring nine free throws with a specific player in a single match. By completing these you get rewards such as packs or players, whereas Exchange allows you to recycle trash cards for a better one (it could be 25 or even 45 cards for a single upgrade).
The Career Mode remains almost untouched, too, but at least it comes with a new, well-executed plot. That being said, decision making gives you a fake illusion of power, because after completing the mode twice and following different paths, there's little more than a couple of characters that change. Yet it's all to reach a very pathetic ending to the story, as NBA 2K21's Draft is totally rigged. No matter how you perform, if you deliver or not, you'll be chosen as you wish. It's the opposite of what I understand a draft experience would be for a player.
MyLeague and everything else is as usual, with Season, Playoffs, etc showing no evolution but working as intended. MyGM did get a few tweaks and an interesting twist, but it's a small new feature to keep the game entertaining.
Then Neighborhood also changed its setting to the beach. A different structure, some new shops and, but of course, a bunch of added skins, attires and cosmetic items on sale, but little more. The base idea remains brilliant, but it's still too few changes and new features to consider this a fully-priced release. What's more, I still find traditional flaws and errors with squads in courts, as half of the time you're not allowed to play, or if you don't show a superior rating (i.e., you've paid for it), you won't be as welcome. Again, this space is an infuriating pay-to-win addition.
And then you have microtransactions. The amount of items, perks, cards, power-ups, haircuts, tattoos and the like that you can buy with real money is just insane. NBA 2K21 is fun when you're playing in the court, but this monetisation model being such an important factor ruins the general experience. Despite user feedback and critical complaints after NBA 2K20, everything remains there, and then it adds some more.
So, all in all, the game itself looks and plays cool, but just like 18, 19, and 20 did before it, but this quality owes a lot to the franchise's solid foundations. However, the systems feel recycled and the monetisation is only getting more prominent. In fact, it would hold up a bit better were it not for the microtransactions, which have been shoehorned in everywhere. NBA 2K21 makes progress off the court, yet its otherwise enjoyable gameplay remains much as it was, and the only great new feature is the addition of the Pro Stick.
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