The best documentary series I’ve seen through 2020, and my saving grace during the first lockdown, was the excellent The Last Dance. Charting the heroics of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls from the ’80s to the last season in 1997, it was brilliant, exciting, and seeing that I never knew anything about basketball until that moment – apart from playing NBA Jam years back – it did the job by making it my new favourite sport. So the timing of NBA 2K21 could not have been better and I was intrigued to play, if only so I could maybe recapture the glory of that documentary and delve more deeply into a sport that I am a relative beginner in. So, does the next-gen version of NBA 2K21 allow gamers to become better offenders and defenders, and does it allow us the chance to dunk to glory or will we be tripping over our expensive shoelaces?
NBA 2K21 Next Generation on Xbox Series X is, as the name suggests, the next-gen version of the original game that released in September 2020, of which we reviewed on Xbox One rather favourably. Here the team of developers have built a new version of the game for the new console, working from the ground up. But honestly, from the get-go it’ll be the visuals that stand out.
There’s no getting away from it, NBA 2K21 looks superb, from the way the individual players move across the court to the shine of wood from the spotlights. The player models look fantastic and are highly detailed in everything they do; whether that be skirting around the court, getting involved in celebrations, or listening to the coach in a timeout. There is also a great sense of realness, energy and everything feeling alive, with the arenas you play in vibrant. Crowds seem real and the atmosphere seeps out from the sidelines so much that you can almost smell it. It most certainly feels a step up from what I saw of the previous version on the Xbox One. Movement feels easy and smooth as well, with the developers having worked on ironing out delays in steps, and it just feels more dynamic to play. The odd glitch and strange bit of movement from the players kicks in occasionally, but that seems to be off the court in timeouts rather than in play.
The next positive thing for the next-gen version is found in the loading times. In the last generation, it felt like a lifetime waiting for those loading screens. Now, whilst it’s not instant, it’s very fast indeed and you’ll soon be getting down and involved in the playing of a game before you know it.
The modes on offer have had some minor tweaks to them. I really like the story-based career – The Long Shadow. You start off with a character nicknamed ‘Junior’ who you can fully customise from the beginning; if you want to take change of a huge lanky guy who likes trash talking, you can do so. Whoever you choose, you will take them through high school all the way to the Draft and the NBA. It’s a good story full of romance, rivalry, heartbreak, and endorsement negotiations.
It’s a huge campaign and allows you to see your character build their stats, going through the wringer of what it’s like to be an NBA star. In this version, you can now choose instead of going to play college basketball to instead learn your trade in the G League (the minor league) before going to the Draft for the NBA. The whole journey is something I brought into completely and it’s easy to get fully immersed in the entirety of NBA 2K21.
Another new edition to the Xbox Series X|S edition is one that is intriguing, but I’m not sure it completely works. This is The City – a step up from The Park and Neighbourhoods modes of previous incarnations. It basically attempts to turn NBA 2K21 into a basketball MMO and at times reminds me of Second Life or Playstation Home. The problem is, when you start the game in a place called Rookieville, there are a few courts that you can pop on to, play some games and try to get access to the city and get ranked up. However, it very much feels like you are at school again, waiting to be picked for a team; I waited on the sidelines for someone to drop out so I could play, and this can be a tiresome experience, with many minutes passing before you get the chance to head on in and show your skills.
But when you do get a game there is something great about playing three on three matches, especially if you discover you are all as bad as each other. The other problem though is that you have to play quite a few games to get out of the Rookieville area – it took me into double figure games to progress into the actual City itself, before being offered an affiliation with one of the four major groups.
Once you’re in the City another 100 players are found on the server and you are able to walk around this huge metropolis – which is great, but strangely it can feel a little empty for its size. Here you can shop and get access to special apparel if you have the cash. There are quests and objectives to hit, letting you gain experience – stuff like playing with a famous star in a two on two game. It’s a fun idea and I both feel and hope it will have lots of life going forward. Yes, it is here where microtransactions come in to tempt you into gaining experience and gear, but don’t get fooled and just grind it out in your own time. It’s a great system that feels like it’s right at the beginning of its true potential.
In the audio department, NBA 2K21 Next Generation on Xbox Series X has added a whole bunch of new music to the excellent playlist on offer. 150 new tracks with artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Stormzy, and Lil Wayne are all included and some of these tracks will fill you full of energy for the matches ahead. The commentary team helps with this too, running a new lineup with multiple teams doing a sparkling job of making you feel like you are in an actual TV event. A couple of times my partner has walked in whilst I’ve been spending time with NBA and asked why I’m watching basketball – it’s that real. This is testimony to how authentic 2K have managed to make the experience. Add in the overall effects on the court, from the squeak of trainers, to the bounce of the ball, to scoring through the basket, which are all top notch and you’ve got one hell of a basketball experience.
NBA 2K21 Next Generation on Xbox Series X is a great addition to an already packed amount of content. It’s visually more stunning than anything that has come before it, with a complete sheen to the gameplay and stunning work in how the players move and react. Everything is just topped off by some amazing work in the audio department. The City is something that perhaps needs a little more time to really get going, but even now it’s worth investing some hours into. If you held off on a purchase of NBA 2K21 whilst you waited for an Xbox Series X|S version, then now is the time to hit the courts – it’s well worth the purchase.