There's a gag in The Simpsons
Season 17 (long past the good years, but still containing a few laughs) where Italian police officers flip through a book of American
criminals and a picture of Peter Griffin
is shown. His crime: Plagiarismo.
The joke is that Family Guy copied The Simpsons
, which lays bare the insecurity at the heart of later seasons of The Simpsons, but is really just a setup for the real punchline; another page is flipped, and a picture of Stan Smith
from American Dad
is shown. His crime: Plagiarismo di plagiarismo. Now, that's actually funny.
"Instead of a snooty dog, it's a weird alien. Instead of menus, you head to the Neighbourhood for online stuff..."
I bring it up because it feels like the NBA 2K
series has been doing this for years. They have a formula. They take best-in-class basketball, they update all the player stats and rosters and uniforms, they add in an overwritten story mode, they keep the GM mode pretty-much-the-same and then they fill it to the brim with ways to make extra money off Virtual Currency (VC).
And every year they break out of the formula and they tweak it a bit. Instead of a snooty dog, it's a weird alien. Instead of menus, you head to the Neighbourhood for online stuff. That sort of thing.
The thing of it is, it works. It does. If you want more of Family Guy's brand of dumb humour, you'll watch American Dad. Eventually, you'll find out that all the good jokes are actually on American Dad. And if you want a basketball game with updated rosters and jerseys and player stats, you'll buy the latest copy of NBA 2K.
For me, it's usually a question of whether the changes are something I enjoy or not. I found NBA 2K20 to be largely skippable. The story in MyCareer was probably the best it has ever been, but 2K20 was so upfront in asking you for more money that it didn't feel like a basketball game so much as a gamified collection plate.
NBA 2K21 is like the opposite of that. The storytelling took a step back again — although it's not as bad as the Frequency Vibrations era of the franchise — but so too did the reliance on VC. You can do a lot without spending a single dollar in NBA 2K21, which means the game's focus on basketball is trending in the right direction.
It's still there, and I'm still not a fan of it. But if you choose to never engage with any of the micro-transactional systems, you'll find NBA 2K21 is a fantastic representation of hoops.
The change to the formula this year sees NBA 2K21 complicate its shooting mechanics. It's the sports game equivalent of moving the YouTube comments — it's basically the same, but it's different enough to throw everyone off their game for a little while, or like the difference between when you’d mastered Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater
and then EA
’ it. I mean, Damian Lillard
is the cover athlete for NBA 2K21 and even he had concerns.
The change started simple enough — they tightened the window for a 'green' release, which means you need to have better timing on your shots. I'm mostly okay with that, to be honest, and while it might not reflect the modern NBA — which is a catch-and-shoot fest of high scoring games — it results in more complex basketball.
But they also added the 'aiming' style mechanic (at least I think that's what it simulates), complicating things further. Suddenly right stick shooting requires players to flick the stick upwards in the direction required for the shot meter. What you'll see is the shot start left of centre when you pull down on the right thumbstick — to hit your shot, nudge it right when you finish your shot. The direction you nudge changes each time you take a new shot, depending on a wide array of factors — your position on the court, the proximity of defenders, your stats.
"Still, I understand what they were going for. Shooting in basketball is more than just timing. As Paul George demonstrated — not every ball will fly directly at the hoop each time you throw it up..."
A lot of people disliked this. Enough that they inevitably patched the game so that anyone under All-Star difficulty could just opt out of playing while using it altogether. I certainly did. Still, I understand what they were going for. Shooting in basketball is more than just timing. As Paul George
demonstrated — not every ball will fly directly at the hoop each time you throw it up.
But NBA 2K players aren't trying to make it into the actual NBA. Nobody is getting into the PS4 gym at 4AM to put up 400 shots on the new meter before practice even begins. And that's sort of what you need to do to utilise this shot meter — to make anything but a wide-open shot, you need your release to be instinctual, but without hours of practise you'll need to look directly at the shot meter to make sure you don't brick it.
For me, it was enough to warrant simply turning the new system off. I play on All-Star difficulty anyway, and eventually, 2K patched the game to make it so it wasn't a problem for me. But that's an issue, because the new shot meter is the key differentiator between day-to-day play of 2K20 and 2K21.
My other system of eluding the problem was to just play a Small Forward who lived among the trees, a guy with enough length to just wade into the paint and bank in guaranteed lay-ups all day. The shot meter doesn't come into play when you're underneath the basket, which was Shaquille O'Neal
's career. Well, his basketball career anyway.
MyCareer is a step back from 2K20, and it lands itself in a pretty bad place. The acting talent on deck is great — Michael K Williams
, Lovecraft Country
), Jesse Williams
(Cabin in the Woods
, Detroit: Become Human
) and Djimon Hounsou
) — and filled me with hope going in. But the writing is pretty awkward — a more classic game plot there isn't. A son who does not want to follow in his father's business, and that business is being the greatest basketball player of all time no less. The son, as it happens, is 30-centimeters taller than his father
And the way it plays out is… inconsistent. Playing through High School and into College is cool, and the DeGrassi
-style drama that ensues is… interesting, at least. But getting drafted onto the same team as your best mate Hendrixx Cobb
at first and second in the draft, and onto a team that is currently playing in the NBA Finals — that… it might be the most nonsense thing to ever happen in a sports game. And if you recall, a few paragraphs ago I mentioned Frequency Vibrations.
And once you're drafted to your chosen team, playing alongside your best friend (who plays the same position as you — in my case Small Forward, which meant the Miami Heat
had Jimmy Butler
, Jae Crowder
, Hendrixx Cobb and Joab Gilroy all sharing the same position) the story essentially dries up.
Which would be a bad thing if it wasn't, as I mentioned, a terrible story. Instead you're just glad to be rid of it, left to your own devices as you play through the career mode.
And yes, you can get ahead if you spend real money in MyPlayer. But unlike 2K20, where you essentially had to spend that money — and you were asked to do so at every opportunity — in 2K21 it doesn't feel all that important. You'll languish in the 60s, stat-wise, in your rookie year, but you're not Zion Williamson
. You're not Jimmy Butler or Hendrixx Cobb. You’re no Herro
You've got that Mamba Mentality, right? Kobe
wasn't Kobe until his third year, and that's how the NBA 2K franchise has usually played out if you're not spending money to shortcut your stats. I mean, Kobe was never a 60 statter, but you get my drift. By the third year in the game, you too will be a starter, putting up 20 points a game and locking down on defence.
And if you do decide to use VC to boost your stats, you'll notice the progression curve has been altered to make it far easier to get into the 85 range — and harder to get beyond it. This makes sense to me. The message is that you can shortcut into Rookie of the Year, but you have to earn (or whale) your way into the Hall of Fame.
"More of a traditional Management Sim, MyLeague is as robust as it has ever been. You can manage every aspect all the way down to actively playing each game..."
I think this is because the area they want you to actually spend money on continues to be MyTeam. Part collectible card game, part team-based basketball, MyTeam is the "FIFA Ultimate Team" of the NBA 2K franchise — that is to say, a cash cow of immense proportions.
If you really want to take charge of a team, you're better off sticking with MyGM or — better still — MyLeague. More of a traditional Management Sim, MyLeague is as robust as it has ever been. You can manage every aspect all the way down to actively playing each game and the roster changes that entails, or you can simulate it as much as you like. 2K21, like the rest of the world before the 19-20 season play-offs, has a bad habit of over-estimating the ability of the Clippers
, but it's otherwise a solid way to deep dive into robust basketball seasons.
It's pretty much unchanged from last year, however. That's the deal with NBA 2K21. If you can find a way to deal with the new shooting mechanism and you don't mind some pretty bad storytelling, NBA 2K21 is great… because it's largely unchanged from last year. Or the year before. Or the year before that.
But the thing is, if you're interested in NBA 2K you're probably going to buy it anyway. That's the perspective from which I've reviewed it — as someone who plays every new FIFA and NBA game each year. If you're the sort who cycles on and off, who dips in depending on how they've evolved your favourite feature on any given year, hopefully I've given you enough information to make an informed decision.
But if you're like me, playing every year, then know this: NBA 2K21 is the best basketball game around, but it's also the only one. And as any high-level competitor will tell you, that's never a good thing for long.