Most annually released sports games leave much to be desired. As a result of their short development cycles and limited resources, they very rarely contribute much of note to the industry. Perhaps the biggest offender of all is 2K’s long-running basketball series, NBA 2K. And if my time with NBA 2K21 is anything to go by, don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
Back in NBA 2K17, 2K attempted to rework the shooting in order to raise the franchises’ skill ceiling. Instead of just having players hold X to time their jump shots, Visual Concepts introduced analog stick shooting. However, it was a relative failure. At launch, it was completely overpowered and when it was later nerfed, everyone stopped using it.
For the first time since NBA 2K17, Visual Concepts has once again tried to rework shooting. And this time around, I’m happy to say it has gotten things mostly right. NBA 2K21 provides players four different shooting methods to pick from. The first two return from its predecessor: those being timed shooting and timed shooting without a visible shot meter for a small boost.
It’s all in the wrist
The new methods are the reworked stick shooting and the stick shooting combined with shot timing. Most players looking to try out the new shooting will likely opt for the former. This involves pulling down on the stick to shoot and then having to aim your shot by adjusting the right analog stick.
The other new method is Visual Concept’s way of trying to make shooting genuinely skillful. This involves aiming your shot with the stick once again but also tapping one of your triggers to time your jump shot. This is effectively the old and new methods combined.
I think these shooting options work well since casual players can stick with the old methods while core players experiment with the higher skill options. While this does make NBA 2K less newcomer friendly, these changes were arguably needed if 2K wants people to take its eSports division, the 2K League, seriously.
NBA 2K21‘s story sees you play as Junior, an upcoming draft prospect that has to claw his way from being a low second-round pick up to a lottery option. You’ve probably heard that cliché before because it’s a narrative 2K has milked in its NBA 2K franchise.
Also much like many of its predecessors, NBA 2K21‘s story abruptly ends as soon as you enter the NBA. There is a running theme in these games of detailing the story of how you made it but not what you achieved afterward. This limited effort results in NBA 2K21 falling well short of other sports game narratives such as FIFA‘s The Journey and Madden‘s Face of the Franchise.
The Park and Rec
Unsurprisingly, there haven’t been many major changes to the multiplayer outside of the new neighborhood. I will give Visual Concepts credit as The Beach is a far nicer place to both play basketball and explore in general. After being stuck with the same bland neighborhood in both 2K19 and 2K20, this change is much appreciated.
Both Park and Rec play out much the same as what they were in 2K20. In fact, many of the bugs present such as the Rec loading screen getting stuck have still not been patched. Visual Concepts has also ignored the player base’s request to have Rec reverted so that both teams having five non-AI is not a necessity. Ever since five versus five became a requirement it has become far harder to find games and it encourages PRO-AM teams to party up and blowout everyone they face.
These uncompetitive games are so frustrating that is has created a culture on NBA 2K PC where it is considered dumb to queue into Rec without a full team. This results in what should be a casual pick-up game mode being more akin to competitive 5v5 than PRO-AM itself. Because I assure you, finding a game on PC PRO-AM without resorting to third-party Discord channels can literally take hours.
Perhaps an even more disappointing aspect is that this year’s game has suffered from some serious server issues. The only unique selling point of PC is that, due to the small player base, most multiplayer games are usually lag-free. On console, playing online, especially in Europe, will result in an unplayable 200 to 300ms of latency.
However, the server issues have resulted in a bizarre input latency plaguing Rec. It’s not uncommon to have lag spikes exceeding 1000ms even when your internet is perfectly fine. I’ve only had this affect me in Park once, but others seem to have been less fortunate.
The fan-favorite Domination game mode has been reworked so that you need to win games on Hall of Fame difficulty to get full stars. This is a great change as it rewards high skill players and removes the need to unnaturally force shots up to meet the previous score quotas.
Equally, both the new Exchange mechanic and reworked Triple Threat rewards are great to see. You can now exchange cards for signature rewards that range from high overall players to diamond shoes and contracts. These are similar to FIFA‘s equally wonderful Squad Builders in terms of the role they play in the game’s economy.
Triple Threat’s biggest problem, its lack of rewards, has been reworked as part of the new seasonal format present in NBA 2K21. Much like FIFA‘s Ultimate Team, MyTeam now adopts a seasonal progression format where players can unlock new rewards by leveling up their season pass. The top-end rewards are grindy, but should be a good goal for those willing to dedicate the time. This season’s final reward is a 96 overall prime Steph Curry, but I’d expect future seasons to eventually feature even greater rewards.
You’ll be glad to hear that there is no need to pay money in order to get access to each season pass. In fact, MyTeam as a whole does a fantastic job of never forcing your hand to reach for your wallet. By just playing the game and gradually building up MyTeam currency, it’s easy enough to avoid buying packs altogether.
Unfortunately, not everything is sunshine and rainbows. Many players have been struggling to shoot on MyCareer with NBA 2K21‘s new difficulty sliders, but that’s been a cakewalk for me compared to MyTeam.
The shooting is so difficult right now that the Hall of Fame meta for players looking to finish Domination is to build a full team of defenders and slashers. Even worse, you can reliably win against the CPU by playing a 2-3 zone and letting the CPU miss open jumpers. That’s right, even the CPU can’t shoot properly on MyTeam’s hall of fame sliders. Some truly elite shooters like the diamond Larry Bird can hit shots regularly enough, but it’s still probably just easier to make a layup or get a foul.
I’m all for NBA 2K21‘s bigger focus on rewarding skilled players, but MyTeam definitely needs some adjustments. On the Park, I shoot 62% from the three while in Rec I shoot just short of 60%. And yet in an average MyTeam game, I’d be lucky to hit above 20% of my deep shots.
This is particularly troublesome when you consider that many Evolution cards require you to score threes. Case in point, the 85 Kobe Bryant that came as a pre-order bonus requires 50 career threes to evolve into an 89 overall. To get this took me a lot of Triple Threat grinding. If I had tried to do this whilst playing Domination I’d have likely acquired all 297 stars before doing so. I promise that’s no exaggeration.
Raging cheaters everywhere
Anyone familiar with NBA 2K will know that the PC version has become a running joke for many years now. Despite our beloved platform offering the highest potential for game development, not one NBA 2K game has even tried to fulfill that potential.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Much like every other version of NBA 2K that has come to PC, NBA 2K21 has zero anti-cheat. This has resulted in extraordinary levels of cheating as early as day three. Just yesterday I hopped onto the park and saw several 60 overalls with Legendary reputation, Twitch logos, and demi-god builds.
The reason the player base has been able to set up these cheats so quickly is that so little has changed from last year they can effectively just recycle the same methods. Many players even cheat in MyTeam’s Limited mode, which is supposed to be a competitive game mode.
Just to put into perspective how poor NBA 2K21‘s anti-cheat is, you can literally just change values in-game with Cheat Engine of all things. That very tactic that used to work on 2009 Miniclip flash games is ruining a modern $60 USD AAA sports game. And in my four years of playing NBA 2K PC, I have never seen a single player get banned for cheating. It’s truly pathetic.
Microtransactions for everyone!
The biggest criticism many have had of the NBA 2K games is their insulting business models. Not only do they force players to cough up to have competitive multiplayer builds, but RNG focused loot boxes are also present in MyTeam. MyTeam may be balanced in such a way that you aren’t forced to use them, but let’s not pretend they’re not predatory. Certain vulnerable individuals will fall prey to this.
There have been zero deliberate changes from previous titles to improve monetization. I say deliberate because a technical oversight on 2K’s behalf actually made NBA 2K21 far more pro-consumer than intended. There were some mix-ups with the distribution of pre-order in-game currency on release where many players who only ordered the standard edition got the virtual currency equal to the Mamba Edition.
Considering the price of a new 85 overall build is roughly 190,000 virtual currency, that’s just short of $50 USD, this ended up being a great convenience. It’s a shame that without this breakdown on 2K’s behalf we still would have seen no improvements to the franchise’s frankly embarrassing business model.
I understand that games are getting more costly to make but charging the full retail price for a buggy product and then expecting players to pay another $50 USD to compete online isn’t good enough. If that money was at least going toward making innovations or fixing the server issues, I’d be less irritated. However, the complete lack of meaningful changes every year just makes NBA 2K21‘s financial practices insulting.
Let’s cut to the chase. NBA 2K21 is not a good video game. Once again, both Visual Concepts and 2K Games have proven they don’t care about the PC platform and are only doing business here to make a quick buck. There are some positive changes and MyTeam is better than ever, but the negatives bury the positives twenty times over.
We’re dealing with an awful business model, a shameful neglection of anti-cheat, bugs still present that have been in the game for years, and now even server problems are plaguing PC. I’ve tried being nice and waiting for change. But it’s more apparent than ever that it isn’t going to happen without someone offering at least a little competition. Until that happens, PC players are stuck with something that’s a serious candidate for the laziest AAA game ever made.