2020 is a transition year in more ways than one for the NBA 2K franchise, with the delayed NBA schedule forcing a huge mid-year update as the eventual draft has yet to occur, and a next-generation version of the game coming later this year on new consoles. The current-gen version of 2K21 released last week, but is it worth picking up with next-gen a few months away? If you’re primarily interested in the single-player MyCareer mode, the answer is…. probably not.
Warning: The following review contains spoilers for MyCareer mode in NBA 2K21.
NBA 2K21’s MyCareer story stars “Junior,” the son of a former college legend from New Jersey who grew up shying away from his dad’s legacy and only transitioned to basketball once his father passed away. You start in high school, where you play a few games to attract the attention of major college programs. There are 10 total colleges in the game (UCLA, West Virginia, Syracuse, Oklahoma, Florida, Gonzaga, Texas Tech, UConn, Michigan State and Villanova) you can select from, where you’ll eventually lead your team to a national championship.
Along the way, you enter a relationship with an old family friend named Archie, played by Michael K. Williams, who is angling to become your agent. Upon finishing your college career, you’re presented with the option to either stick with Archie or opt to sign with a major agency with a deep roster of NBA talent. This is one of the only meaningful choices in the story (along with the absurd option to leave college after… having a fight with your girlfriend?), but the end result is fairly similar. Aligning with Archie will boost your teammate chemistry and net you slightly more VC for endorsements, while going with the agency will make it easier to land endorsements.
It’s at this point that we need to talk about NBA 2K21’s polarizing new shooting meter. The usual timing-based shooting meter from previous titles is gone. Instead of trying to release the stick at the height of your jumper and gunning for the elusive green as the meter fills up vertically, the new shot meter moves horizontally. Whenever you take a shot, depending on the difficulty of the shot and the movement of your body, a target area will appear somewhere on the meter, and you’ll need to move your stick left or right to find the middle of the target zone. The exact release timing is less important now, but your aim is key.
In theory this will make online play better for everyone, as exact timing and latency won’t be as big of an issue – but the new meter has forced a learning curve on the community, and many players are against the change. There is currently no way to change the meter back to the old version, so your only other option is to turn off the shot meter entirely if you don’t like it. It’s likely that with time, the meter won’t be that big of an issue as everyone gains more experience, but it’s difficult to overwrite years of training with the old shooting mechanic. It just feels weird, and you’re going to miss a lot of open shots you probably would have hit in older games as you’re coming to grips with the system. This is especially true during your college years, when your attributes are at their lowest points. Even the cover star is having issues.
Free throws are especially difficult, as both your aim on the meter and your release timing are crucially important. I also can’t count the amount of driving layups and shots under the bucket I’ve missed. The difficulty means that when you do drain a green-release three, it feels great, but it still probably shouldn’t be this difficult. 2K have already hotfixed the game to tweak the shooting meter, but this will probably be an ongoing balancing issue. There is an NBA 2K21 demo available, so you can try out the shooting meter for yourself before picking up the game.
Prior to the draft, you’re given the opportunity to take part in a private workout with any team that you want – but the game doesn’t make it clear that by taking part in the workout, you’re choosing which team will draft you. I selected the Miami Heat and figured I would merely increase my draft stock, only for the game to have the Heat select me second overall, after taking a fictional player, your childhood pal Hendrixx Cobb, No. 1 overall. How the Heat landed the top two overall picks in the draft is beyond me. From there, you’re dropped into the new NBA season, and you begin the slow grind for VC to slowly increase your abilities. NBA 2K devs said that it is easier to unlock badges in 2K21, but as expected, you’re going to need to play quite a few games to get your overall rating to a respectable level.
The NBA 2K series started the trend of narrative-driven single-player story modes in sports games with NBA 2K14, and 2K20’s take on MyCareer doesn’t raise the bar in any meaningful way. The story is the standard “star athlete finding his way” trek, and the drama surrounding your connection with your father is mostly half-hearted and forgettable. The 2K series has taken far bigger swings at riskier storylines in the past, and while some of those swings missed, 2K21’s MyCareer just feels too familiar.
That doesn’t mean MyCareer isn’t enjoyable – and compared to Madden NFL 21’s absurdly over-the-top drama, NBA 2K21 looks great. But by its own standards, 2K21 doesn’t offer anything you haven’t already done multiple times over in this series.
Note: MyCareer progress will not carry over to next-gen consoles, so you might want to wait until the next-gen version drops to kick off your MyCareer. Progress in all other modes, including MyTeam, will transfer to next-gen consoles.
FTW’s review covers the current-gen version of NBA 2K21 on PS4.