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Game review: NBA 2K21 (Xbox One)
Thu, 1st Oct 2020
FYI, this story is more than a year old

NBA 2K21 presents a basketball game with courts packed with fans and even a bustling neighbourhood, all with not a facemask in sight. The developers really know how to rub it in.

As twilight falls on this current generation of consoles and the effects of COVID-19 on real-life sports seasons throws things into turmoil, 2020 is a funny year for sports games. From Formula One to NFL the only way to experience most sports as they were originally intended, in 2020, has been via video games.

Whilst the NBA season is still to start, the USA's elite basketball athletes are currently playing to empty courts. Right now, NBA 2K21 represents the closest thing to a normal bit of basketball, complete with cheering crowds, that you are likely to see for the immediate future.

Like most of 2020's batch of sports sims, NBA 2K21 doesn't really push the boat out any further than last year's game. For NBA 2K21 it is a formulaic update with new rosters and a new My Career story campaign.

Compared to its former competitor, EA's NBA Live, I've always found 2K's NBA games a lot less immediately accessible. It can be off-putting to begin with. But there is some real skill to be gained when you preserver and get over the initial learning curve. Rather than hold your hand via shallow game mechanics, NBA 2K21 allows you to discover the intricacies of the game by yourself and reap the rewards when you do.

There is a very comprehensive and rather dry tutorial mode that demonstrates the various moves. It could be a lot better, but it's there and I suggest you give the drills a go if you've not played a 2K NBA game before.

Basketball is a fast game and NBA 2K21isn't any different. But the animations are so clear and the visuals so crisp that you should easily be able to follow what's going on. Similarly, the controls, of which there are many, as quite intuitive, once to get to grips with them. Fortunately, you only need a few to get going, but you are going to need to learn the rest if you really want to succeed. This year's improvement to dribbling is noticeable, but not exactly a game-changer. There are a few other tweaks, but to be honest, unless you are a dedicated fan, you are unlikely to spot them.

NBA 2K21 has all the modes that will be familiar to sports sim fans. You can jump into a quick NBA or WNBA game, play the day's real-world games, play a game online, tune your skills in NBAU, or have a game with the more casual Blacktop rules.

MyTeam, the fantasy team builder/collectable card game returns, offering depth (and micro-transactions). It's a very enjoyable and morish way to play the game and make it your own. 
MyCareer is the most personal mode in the game and is really the heart of NBA 2K21. It's a single-player narrative campaign that features Guardians of the Galaxy actor Djimon Hounsou.

The plot of The Long Shadow will be familiar to players that have come across any number of similar sports campaign modes over the past few years. It's not that it is bad, it's there's only so many ways to tell a story about a youngster coming from college sports into the big leagues. As is usually the way, I meticulously created a character that looked like an extremely athletic version of me, but a good four feet taller. Upon giving him my name, in the game he was forever called “Junior”, referencing the famous father whose titular shadow is so long.

MyCareer is also the way into NBA 2K21's Neighbourhood community area. Set in a beachside area modelled on Santa Monica, the Neighbourhood is where you can go for some casual multiplayer basketball, do some training, buy some gear and get a tattoo. It's a welcome addition when real-life socialising may be a thing of the past.

MyLeague allows players to get right into playing as their favourite NBA or WNBA team either thought an 80-year career, a single season, online, as the GM or just the playoffs. This is the mode that you want to dive into for a decent season of basketball.

The game is visually stunning. Granted it isn't much of an improvement over NBA 2K20, but it still looks the business. Players look pretty realistic and the courts look photo-real. I'm expecting big things from the next-gen version with all those raytraced reflections.

The standard version of NBA 2K21 doesn't offer a free upgrade to the Xbox Series X version. If you are thinking about upgrading to an Xbox Series X/S and have NBA 2K20, you may want to wait for either the next-gen version or make sure that you buy the premium Mambo edition. The Mambo edition includes NBA 2K21 for Xbox One and a digital pre-order of the next-gen version. The same goes for PS4 owners that are potential purchasers of the PS5.

NBA 2K21 is little more than a stats update of NBA 2K20. It's still a very good game and looks the business, but I'd say that 2K is saving the real improvements for the next-gen version of the game. Whilst this is still the basketball game to buy, if you are getting an Xbox Series X/S or PS5 you may want to ensure that you get the upgrade with Mambo edition or wait until November.

Verdict: 8/10