I’d never watched basketball until I was in New York in 2011 and I managed to snag a cheap ticket to see the Knicks V Nets. The fans were lovely, supportive and friendly. The atmosphere was electric but there was none of the hostility of a “derby” game in UK football. After the Knicks won a narrow victory, I went for drinks in a sports bar with some Knicks fans and we even chatted with the Nets fans and shared a bit of banter about the game. That was it: I was a basketball fan and, for my sins, a Knicks fan too.
Naturally, on my return to the UK, I found that there wasn’t much access to basketball. But one thing that I picked up easily was my first NBA 2K game. I was shocked by the deep modes, the slick presentation and the complexity of the controls. I was still learning what basketball was and how it was played, so I found the game very challenging but fun.
Years later, I’m back in the NBA. I still keep up with the Knicks – its own quixotic quest I won’t need to go into any further – but NBA 2K is a juggernaut of a franchise, famous for its presentation, production values and buy-in from the NBA itself. This game – NBA 2K21 – is packed with modes, with flash and with customization, and it was an epic quest to play enough of it to give me enough insight to offer a proper review.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get started: NBA 2K21 has a huge suite of game modes to play and ways to customize your experience. If, like me, it’s been a long time since you’ve played a game of NBA 2K then you should start with 2KU which will teach you the basics of control, though it doesn’t tell you the why of it. So, it’ll explain that there are several ways to take a jump shot, to post up and to offer a low-post block. It won’t explain to the neonate why you would run the Pick and Roll, though it’s really intuitive to do so!
Once you’ve learned how to play like Damo, it’s time to try and do it for real. There’s a wide array of quick matches, ranging from regular NBA match ups, all-time great line ups, WNBA line ups or even an option to play that day’s actual NBA match, though that mode did not appear active when I was playing – I guess as the play-offs are on and the matches are intermittent.
A match of basketball has slick presentation, with all the cutaways, interviews and half-time shows you’d expect from American sports, though thankfully with fewer adverts. The graphics are outstanding, with largely excellent representations of the major players. The lifelike renders are less impressive on some of the WNBA players, but there’s still a lot to be impressed with here.
NBA 2K21 plays at a high speed and the controls are fairly intuitive, though I still can’t sink a good jump shot for some reason. You can make use of the right stick to take shots too, but it’s also used for skills in-game. The controls are dizzying and there’s a lot to learn, and even with nearly twenty hours on the clock, there are things I rarely remember how to do. That’s the depth and the challenge of such a deep game.
Crucially, NBA 2K21 feels like basketball. Players get hot streaks and cold streaks, there’s an artistry to getting a good dunk; you’ll be tempted to go for the simple lay up but you can also quickly dish the ball to a waiting forward for a 3 pointer from beyond the arc. Defensive rebounds save your team from defeat and there’s a nice physicality to things. I didn’t witness any obvious clipping errors and the players feel physical and solid on the court. There’s also a very clear difference between the best players, LeBron, Damo and Chris Paul are clearly elite and it shows: they move faster, they perform skills more quickly and they shoot better.
Of course, to get a real feel for NBA 2K21 you need to dive in to one of its many longer modes, giving you multiple options to play across a whole season. You can take control of your chosen NBA team and play multiple seasons, guiding them through the play-offs, resigning players and taking part in the draft. There’s also the MyGM mode if you want to play things from a higher level, though I’ll admit that I tired of the endless meetings with the short cutscenes and conversations with players and staff to bump up their morale. However, there’s a deep levelling up system and a skills tree to unlock, so there’s a lot of options here for you.
MyTeam is the card drafting mode for NBA 2K21. You start with packs of randomly selected players to draft a team to play online against other players, as well grinding to trade cards to get better ones and therefore improve your team. Apparently, the grind and the push to spend real world currency has been greatly improved over 2K20 here, though I’ve no personal frame of reference.
MyCareer mode sees you able to play out your own career as an NBA player. This can start with “The Long Shadow” – a story in which you play as Junior, the son of a former College star who never made it to the NBA. The voice acting is excellent throughout this fairly simple story as you play at high school, go to college and then get drafted. At the point you make it to the NBA, The Long Shadow ends and your normal career begins.
The Long Shadow has a strong cast; Djimon Hounsou is earnest and likable as your high school coach. Jesse Williams brings a tough, earnestness to “Duke”, your character’s father. Michael K Williams, Omar from The Wire, is shady but so very easy to root for as your dad’s friend from his playing days and a potential choice to be your agent.
Your choices in The Long Shadow are deep: you get to construct your player not just down to what position they play or what they look like but with a breakdown of their attributes, their potential and their physical strength, agility and stamina. In the actual game you can pick which college you play for, whether to try and patch things up with your college girlfriend and, in the most emotionally affecting moment of the story, whether to stick with Michael William’s Archie as your agent or go with a big agency who promise you shoe-deals and riches. That moment is actually far more moving than expected.
There’s a nice, low-fi feel to the story. Things are set up that Hendrixx Cobb, the impossibly talented rival for your player from high school, will be infuriating, and the rivalry to turn personal. But this never happens: Junior and Hendrixx stay friends and the friendship always feels quite genuine. There’s also the relationship with your best friend at college, Red Thompson, which could turn dramatic but never does – he just remains your mate the whole time!
There are some quibbles: sometimes the commentary does not match what has been going on. There were more than a few matches where I scored an A grade from the game’s grading system for assists, rebounds and points and the commentators talked about “what a disappointing performance from Junior” here. There were also a few choices that felt a bit illusory. I’m not sure if it was a glitch but I lost a critical game and then after the game my team celebrated with the trophy. That broke the illusion a little bit.
Once you make it to the NBA and join your favourite team, you can start playing games and earning virtual currency. This VC can then be spent in MyNeighbourhood, a sort of virtual hub where you can play pick up games with other real players, who run the gamut from no better than me to scary good, and visit virtual shops. There you can spend your hard-earned VC buying outfits to wear in the cutscenes and in MyNeighbourhood, and accessories for your player to wear in-game.
You also spend VC to improve your player’s base-stats, though you improve your player’s badges (buffs to your player’s performance) with your on-field achievements. As stated above, you earn VC by playing games and with certain achievements; you can also purchase VC yourself in micro-transactions that won’t break the bank if you’re short on time and want to level your character or just pick up a nicer pair of shoes.
Once you’ve played The Long Shadow, there’s nothing to stop you skipping it next time and just launching straight into another MyCareer mode already signed by your NBA franchise, but it’d be a real shame to miss out on the quality storytelling of The Long Shadow initially.
It’s not really a game mode as such but there’s also 2KTV which jumps in during the loading screens, which aren’t too long, with interesting clips about the game, about the NBA and with some short clips from Damian Lillard himself. These are fine and I’m told that these will be added to as the game comes along.
There’s a real sense that NBA 2K21 is evolving all the time, with updates and new content added, especially to the MyTeam mode where there are free-seasons to play which last about six weeks or so, with goodies to be won for participation in big events.
There are, of course, a few gripes here and there that need addressing. The game dropped a major hotfix early on to fix shooting and there are still lots of errors with connecting to MyNeighbourhood, as I had several lockouts due to a known issue which meant that I couldn’t continue my game for a long time. Luckily these were fixed by a hard-reset of my Xbox but it’d be great if they fixed these things. Otherwise, there were very few clipping errors, sound bugs or hang-ups. Occasionally loading screens would take a very long time to carry out, but often you’ll have 2KTV to keep you busy here.
Other concerns are the repetitive chit-chats in the MyGM mode which make what is a deep and interesting look at a managerial mode to the game a bit boring at times: I often found myself quickly clicking through them to get to the end and occasionally skipped over a real decision instead. There’s also not as many full modes for the WNBA – but this is progress rather than perfection.
I’m also told, though this didn’t affect me personally, that this game isn’t much of a major change from NBA 2K20. I often found that it was worth skipping a FIFA or two so perhaps it may be worth leaving it a year or two until you come back to NBA 2K. The issues around how hard the game can be: that’s more down to your own personal willingness to learn and challenge levels. The casual gamer can still find plenty to do here.
Another thing I can’t really comment on is the ratings for all the players. Beyond my beloved but terrible New York Knicks, I only really know the big-name players so couldn’t tell you if the Shooting Guard at Charlotte Hornets is a 72 or a 73 in real life.
In closing, NBA 2K21 on Xbox One is a brash, flashy and powerful game that has a huge array of toys to play with, as well as a powerful toy-kit to make it more your own too. Whilst there are micro-transactions within, the patient player can just grind their way to the top. Of course, the Knicks still suck – but this game can’t do anything about that…..