Amongst the first raft of super shiny titles to become even more super and shiny, NBA 2K21 has been upgraded for the brand-new generation of console. Visual Concept’s seminal basketball series has always pushed the boundaries for video-game sports: visually, dramatically and monetarily, and now they’ve got a huge amount of extra power at their fingertips to push ahead to even greater heights. Honestly, these players are going to be ten-feet high and glistening like a diamond by the time they’re finished.
It’s nice to see that Visual Concepts have put some effort into NBA 2K21’s update as well, moving beyond a simple buff to the graphics and frame rate, and bringing in new features like the huge online hub of The City, and gameplay enhancements to make this feel like a worthy addition to the launch line-up for the Xbox Series X|S and the PlayStation 5.
I’m sure that those tuning in for this coverage don’t need too much context as to what NBA 2K21 is about, but for those searching for something to play on their new consoles here’s a brief overview. NBA 2K21 is the premier – read: only – basketball experience you’ll find this year, and while NBA Live has definitely shown willing in the last couple of years, NBA 2K has proven time and again to present a better rendition of b-ball, even if the shadow of microtransactions is always looming large.
At the heart of the experience is MyCareer, a story-led mode where you take your created MyPlayer through from playing high-school basketball all the way up to the NBA. As is now expected, production values and performances rival those of a serious TV drama, with actors like Djimon Hounsou and Michael Kenneth Williams acting alongside cover star Damien Lillard to convincing effect.
The new-gen edition of NBA 2K21 brings a first for the series, as MyCareer – or more specifically The W – now allows you to create a female player to take on their own route to the WNBA. I’m not convinced that the power of the Series X or PS5 was needed to make this kind of equalising progress – it reminds me of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Unity claim that women are more complicated to animate – but it’s a welcome step on the path to inclusivity.
However, it’s one step forward and one step back here, as The City, that big new social space that forms a major component of the next gen 2K21 online experience, is closed to female MyPlayers.
In terms of things that make very little sense, the online hub that allows for players to indulge in some street-style basketball action would have been the perfect place for male and female MyPlayers to interact, and yet that’s not the case. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for NBA 2K22 for this particular ‘upgrade’ to bring it in line with, you know, normal life, but this year’s edition still makes great strides with The W, The W Online and MyWNBA.
It’s more of a shame when The City is a huge and important leap forward for the franchise, and one of the key additions that makes this feel like more than a new-gen spruce up. Building on The Park and The Neighbourhood spaces of previous games, this online metropolis is filled to bursting with things to do, starting with your introduction via Rookieville before you head off into the sprawling city. This is where NBA 2K21 starts to feel like a basketball MMO; you can jump into action with other players you meet in the street at any hoop you care to find, while quest givers pop up around the city issuing you challenges to take part in, pushing you to make your way around all of the new facilities. You could easily spend months in here, and I fully expect plenty of new console NBA 2K21 players to do so.
If you’re heading over from the PS4 or Xbox One editions, the first tangible improvement you’re going to see is the huge reduction in loading times. The speed that everything moves along on Xbox Series X is hugely impressive; your phone is going to be grossly neglected in the coming years as we lose all of that Twitter-checking time as you head into a game. Out of everything else, this is fast becoming my most-loved feature of the new generation.
Of course, the game looks better too. NBA 2K has always pushed the boundaries, not just for sports games, but for video games in general, and once again they’re at the forefront of what’s possible in this opening salvo of the new generation. Character models have been given a clear upgrade, but the most impact can be seen in the game’s improved ball handling and expanded animations.
More than ever, NBA 2K21 is pushing through the uncanny valley towards lifelike visuals. From the standard view, NBA 2K21 looks and sounds as though it could be a real-life broadcast, and it’s an absolute pleasure to play. It all feels incredibly snappy in your hand too, and there’s virtually no input lag. I’ve sometimes felt as though NBA 2K’s timing doesn’t match with what my brain is trying to do, and yet that sensation is entirely gone now.
2K21 saw Visual Concepts re-design the Pro-stick, though dedicated users will be glad to know you can choose whether to stick with the older style or the newer enhanced one. You can now influence aim with the Pro-stick, making it by far the most accurate way of playing, if you have the skill to make the most of it.
Amusingly, the latest 2KTV broadcast survey shows that over 75% of players still pick the good old shot button, so it’s absolutely the top-end of the NBA 2K community that this is for. Still, if that’s your bag it’s there for you to use, and more control options are only to be welcomed, but it’s going to take a lot of work before it’s as consistent as a well-timed button press.
Besides all of the key additions you’ve still got all of the core modes that form the basis of NBA 2K, drawing in MyCareer, MyTeam and MyNBA to provide you with monstrous amounts of basketball action to take part in. Of course, VC – or Virtual Currency – is still hanging around here, but much like last year I didn’t feel remotely compelled to drop any extra money into 2K’s sizeable accounts. It’s there if you want to speed things up, but I found the freely available ways to earn it did enough, whether that’s playing the game well, or watching 2KTV broadcasts. There’s no egregious in-game adverts at launch, but if you’re wondering where 2K can insert ads in a few months time without loading screens to hang them off, it might be with the dangled carrot of some VC for sitting through an ad.