Review: NBA 2K21 (PlayStation 5)

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With the statement “… Built from the ground up to utilize the power, speed and technology of the PS5…” 2K gives the impression that NBA 2K21 for the next-gen consoles shows significant differences from the previously released version of NBA 2K21, the version who managed to score a meager six on Gamersnet. Just like our own Michiel, the love for the NBA 2K series is starting to water down a bit due to the choices of his coach, who is apparently more interested in VC than in change.

Anyway, with a game that has been ‘rebuilt from the ground up’, 2K sees the perfect opportunity to learn from all the criticism and make major changes to the Dream Team that has just been unrivaled. And to be fair, NBA 2K21 for next-gen consoles feels like that team you’ve been familiar with for years, albeit with new jerseys, maybe a new star and a renovated stadium… but still with that same coach.

“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”

Although the American author John Maxwell has probably never encountered the PlayStation 5 version of NBA 2K21, he strikes with his statement “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” the nail pretty on the head. A next-gen version of NBA 2K21 cannot go without change and there is one. 2K didn’t even lie when it was claimed that NBA would change 2K21 in such a way that it would no longer be comparable to the last-gen edition (allowing for a free upgrade or progress transfer of MyCAREER is not included). The changes are more than ‘skin deep’.

Still, it will be the cosmetic procedures that will draw most people towards this edition of NBA 2K21. Players look even more realistic – except for what I always call ‘dead eyes’ – and the stands finally feature people who don’t seem to be made of cardboard. Cheerleaders have now also agreed to peek and the permanent panel of commentators has also received the much needed expansion (luckily no Mart Smeets, because that guy is terrible at Ziggo Sport). The known The Neighborhood has also received a major (read too ambitious) upgrade and may now The City even though you only get in there after countless hours Rookieville. Finally, the WNBA – aka women’s basketball – got a little more love from 2K too.

The “growth” is limited

Overall, NBA 2K21 looks more than fine, but I didn’t expect anything else. Since developer Visual Concepts has always tried to raise the bar visually, I’m not surprised that NBA 2K21 on the PlayStation 5 looks stunningly sleek from time to time. Not always by the way, but more on that later. The absence of loading times is also a real pleasure. For example, 2K cannot oblige us to watch Oculus Quest commercial breaks while we just want a game of b-balls. But somehow I had hoped – not expected… hoped – that 2K would do more with this fresh start.

For example, they have chosen to follow the MyCAREER story – The Long Shadow – just take over, with which the left Achilles heel has already been determined. MyCAREER has always been a bit of a cringefest anyway, even when they included Spike Lee, and it’s not Oscar-worthy material this year either. Well, as long as the development team has fun with it – and they clearly have – I tolerate it. The right Achilles heel is also a 2K chronic injury and it bears the name VC. Once again, everything revolves around in-game currency in NBA 2K21 and the way 2K deals with this is almost scandalous. Long story short: you can grind until NBA 2K22 comes out before your player is NBA worthy, or you can put down a few bucks in VC for it.

The next-gen ankle brace

Fortunately, ‘Achilles heel injuries’ are largely contained by the next-gen ankle braces that 2K has used to the full. The irritations generated by the entire VC debacle are mostly mitigated by the graphic splendor, as well as by the quality and quantity of the gameplay. As I mentioned earlier, players often see next-gen. In most cases, Visual Concepts also makes progress in terms of control and animation, although AI sometimes gets stuck in its old pattern. Players who leave the couch after a timeout with exactly the same animations and halftime cutscenes in which a player runs full throttle against a camera quickly get you out of the ‘it is almost indistinguishable from the real thing’ dream.

In addition, the central hub The City – which previously carried the name The Neighborhood – also shows that people want to be progressive. Anyone who has earned enough Rep to play out of Rookieville can go to the absurdly big The City. The City is grand, perhaps a little too big for what it wants to do, but it again offers players a range of activities to spend a lot of time in. I cannot accuse 2K of not delivering ‘value for money’ in that area.

One still has to learn DualSense functionality

Finally, Visual Concepts also makes eager use of the DualSense controller and its haptic feedback, although it is okay to take a step back here. Regularly I could hear the mechanism in the triggers spinning over speed and loud clicking under the fingers, which may not be very good for the battery life of the controller. Now I can still let the developers get away with it as it is relatively new to them too, so as soon as they can patch this I am a happy baller.

The additions make it worthwhile. A sprint button that becomes stiffer as your player threatens to run out of breath, still gives that extra dimension to immersive gameplay. Those are the things that I never really missed in previous editions of NBA 2K, but aspects of the game that I have come to appreciate now that I do have them. Anywho… a little fine-tuning is going to make this feature a keeper in my opinion.

Conclusion

At the end of the story, the ball stays round. Visual Concepts has shown for years that the NBA 2K series belongs at the top of its ‘conference’, although this is not difficult without opposition from EA. Graphically NBA 2K21 makes the predictable – yet impressive – step forward and gameplay technically Visual Concepts implements enough change to provide NBA 2K21 with a breath of fresh air. It is especially the small carelessness that is even more noticeable as a result, if it is mainly 2K’s motive – the widely hated VC – that manifests itself like a corn on the athletic foot. Even the extra attention to the WNBA cannot change much about that.

Ultimately, this next-gen version of NBA 2K21 offers exactly what could have been counted on, being a better looking and better handling basketball sim with more to do than just a game of basketball. On the other hand, it also offers a basketball sim that again targets players who prefer to pay for progression rather than grinding excruciatingly long.

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