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HIGH  The on-court mechanics are more player-controlled than ever

LOW  Microtransactions are necessary to succeed, even on Rookie.

WTF The finale of “Dawson’s Creek” had more emotional depth

Sports gaming needs a shot in the arm. No, not performance-enhancing substances… just creativity, because year after year, regardless of the sport, Each new installment is a carbon copy of the previous one.

The latest $60 example is NBA 2K21 — a complete, thoroughly enjoyable basketball sim that fans will likely buy and support in spite of its shortcomings, yet even the most ardent digital hoop rats must be wondering when this series is going to take a step toward new experiences.

While the on-court action is arguably the strongest it has ever been, other elements of the experience — storyline, avatar customizations, online play and more — are spiraling into redundancy.

MyCareer was a tremendous, industry-changing advancement when it first appeared in the 2K series — one that most other titles have tried to replicate. Unfortunately, the creative well has apparently dried up, with yet another ‘overcoming the odds’ journey that sees players advance to their dream NBA scenario, regardless of what they do during gameplay.

For example, at one point the player’s character (“Junior”) is trying to stand out in high school hoops after choosing to switch from football. Yet, after a sloppy 4 point, 1 rebound performance, the announcers to laud the kid as the next big thing in basketball. The following game, the character posted 41 points, and the announcers derided the performance as “forgettable.”

Because of this, the player is completely removed from any real story development, and is relegated to simply watching the plot play out, regardless of how well they perform.

Beyond MyCareer, NBA 2K21 remains a deep, polished, realistic basketball sim that rewards smart ball distribution and defensive tactics. While past titles reluctantly allowed ‘run and gun’ tactics to win games, 2K21 seems to favor a more methodical approach, with selfish gameplay quickly turning into poor stat lines.

In a nice development, analog stick dribbling controls are much improved this year, giving the user more control over ball handling and fewer canned animations when making a move to the basket. Not only does this give the player more genuine control over outcomes, but also prevents a lot of the spam movements that plagued previous iterations.

Likewise, collision detection is improved in 2K21, resulting in fewer inexplicable foul calls and other on-court mysteries. Controlling a 7-foot center feels weighty when compared to a fleet-footed point guard, and fatigued players lose the explosive quickness they had minutes earlier. Overall, it’s this realistic feel that remains a hallmark of the NBA 2K series.

On the other hand, a questionable inclusion is the new shot meter which requires extra levels of control to aim and release the ball. While 2K gamers seem to thrive on challenge, this mechanic does little to enhance the game, and before long, most purists will turn it off before returning to the tried-and-true classic controls.

Other modes, like the card-based MyTeam, or the deep Franchise offerings haven’t changed much in recent years, and 2K’s insistence on microtransactions is as invasive as ever.

2K was nice enough to send Gamecritics the Kobe Bryant-themed “Mamba Forever” edition, complete with 100,000 units of Virtual Currency. Without it, getting through the initial stages of the game would have been much more of a slog, with games feeling like a grind instead of a demonstration of skill. This trend might be lucrative, but the real-cash costs of virtual currency can be prohibitive, meaning advancement might be a lot tougher for those with limited budgets. 

Online, 2K21 performs well, despite a rough launch week. Now, the player matching is accurate, lobbies are active, and the connections are reliable. In playing several online full- and half-court games, there was rarely lag or unresponsive button presses. In a game so dependent on reaction time, this was a pleasant surprise.

In short, NBA 2K21 is a solid entry for the franchise, and is arguably the smoothest on-court performer of this console generation. However, its value will largely depend on how tolerant users are of a corny, repetitive story mode and mostly the same options as in previous editions.

According to most of the web, 2K Games is building the next-gen versions of NBA 2K21 from the ground up to match the improved technology. Here’s to hoping they upgrade more than the graphics, while keeping the on-court play intact.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is published by 2K Games and developed by Visual Concepts. It is currently available on XBO, PS4, Stadia and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox One. Approximately 22 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. Approximately 5 hours of play were devoted to online multiplayer.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains Mild Lyrics in the in-game music selections. Additionally, the single player MyCareer mode contains a narrative that includes some adult themes to which parents of younger children may object.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: NBA 2K21 features subtitles and numerous tactile feedback features within the controller, in all modes. The game is fully playable without sound.  This is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, the game’s controls are not remappable.

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