I’ll admit it: I’m a hockey player. I know hockey… and only hockey. Basketball was invented in Canada — look it up — but I’m awful at it. I’m short, I can’t dribble… and frankly, I don’t know the names of any other shots beyond a dunk, a jump shot or a fade.
That said, I admire a lot of what NBA 2K has done for the sport and sports games in general, always hoping things like a properly curated career mode would make it to EA’s NHL franchise. Now that EA’s thrown a(nother) minimal budget to NHL 21 and dashed any hopes of a next-gen iteration this year — apologising at the same time by confirming it would get an expanded career mode in Be a Pro — I figured I’d use my (late) review copy of NBA 2K21 to get a sense of what I could expect.
When I fired up the game for the first time, I was hoping for a tutorial that explained the basics of offense and defense at the very least. Instead, I was offloaded straight to the menus and decided to plod on (protip: tutorials are available through 2KU, found under Play Now). Undaunted, I chose to enter MyCareer from high school to get the full dosage of Visual Concepts’ narrative experience.
Though hindsight is 20/20, I should have hunted for the tutorials for a little longer. What was already an overwhelming situation to someone unaccustomed to a basketball title became even moreso while I struggled to grasp the game’s basics while also wondering if I was truly, truly horrendous. In one game, I couldn’t score for the life of me, feeling helpless as my team was steamrolled. As I grew more confidant in my skills, a late-game injury put the kibosh on any positive feelings. A quick cutscene that followed — one forcing me to choose whether or not to dismiss my injury and insert myself into the game — soon made me realise that I wasn’t just playing basketball, but playing to that aforementioned narrative. Some things were truly out of my hands.
NBA 2K21 on next-gen provides some big changes to this best-selling franchise. The visuals have been enhanced to deliver a more immersive basketball experience while taking full advantage of quick load times thanks to the solid-state drives.
The franchise modes have been revamped with new features to give you even deeper control of your own leagues. The extremely popular MyCareer will now allow players to finetune their athletes stats in a new player builder system, as well as being given the opportunity to experience a career in the WNBA for the very first time. During your downtime instead of getting to know your way around the Neighbourhood you’ll now be roaming around the City: a massive new play area filled with all sorts of basketball activities and competitions.
On the PlayStation 5 with the new DualSense controller you’ll feel players bumping your body as you post them up under the basket, and resistance from the adaptive triggers while sprinting your way down the court. Surprisingly, there are a lot of new features packed in this version, and overall the game itself feels fantastic. Next-gen is without a doubt the best way to play NBA 2K21 this year.
I chose not to play that game, by the way. Despite my team questioning my loyalty, I feel like I did them a favour; they were acting like my return would save the team while I’m pretty sure I instantly improved their chances. I began to lose games in college with regular consistency — only a couple points each time, and that’s something I’m honestly proud of — to then literally stomp the next team to the point where they didn’t get a single point in the first quarter. Surely that’s the narrative again, right? A random dunk — that I legitimately wouldn’t know how to pull off — surely was, so my assumption about the discrepancy in the score was likely correct.
With a better idea of how thinks worked, I played my best, stopped worrying about the short-term and simply went along for the ride, learning more about Junior: his past in football, his basketball superstar father and the girl he was chasing down in college. I was finding a groove, even when the commentators couldn’t help but remind me I was more of a football player than a basketball star.
Then I got to the Draft Combine and I wanted to stop play. Mini-games aplenty, each without a real explanation, I couldn’t do the bench press to save my life. I eventually just quit out, frustrated by pages of random controls that I’d surely never use again, only to fire up a new career that skipped high school and college — cause surely I’d experienced that narrative, eh? Boom. I had to pay 500 Virtual Currency for the favour. At least I got a 15 Gamerscore Achievement for the privilege, I guess?
My first real foray into MyCareer’s Neighbourhood hub was equally as confusing. Was it just a nice scenic break from basketball? After putting in a real 8km run earlier in the morning, was I just supposed to strap on a pair of virtual headphones and go for an in-game jog next? I soon stumbled onto the games of pick up and enjoyed how the integration worked, in the end. I could see NHL taking World of Chel and infusing it into a similar hub as part of Be a Pro, offering up games of Ones and Threes using your Be a Pro character rather than another one. Rather, I’d like for that to happen.
MyCareer is a decidedly different experience than what NHL has ever offered in Be a Pro, and I’m excited and terrified about what to ultimately expect. I’m happy for Be a Pro to take on a narrative aspect, sending your player to press conferences and hanging out with mentors, ultimately placing that player’s career path in your hands. I’d rather game difficulty be left the way it is though, with wins or losses coming down to skill rather than any trickery behind the scenes.
The more glaring criticism I have with MyCareer is that it is full of obvious attempts by 2K and Visual Concepts to get you to part with your hard-earned. This behaviour is certainly not exclusive to 2K; EA Sports’ Ultimate Team modes are notorious for it as well. If EA can resist the urge to try to get you to pull out your credit card while at the same time giving you more purpose than to simply just play through 82 regular season games in semi-real-time, I’m all for it. I think we’re all sick of penalities for simming through some games, eh?
NBA 2K21 is available now on Windows PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch; a next-gen version follows in November, but it’ll cost you. NHL 21 heads to Xbox One and PS4 on 16 October; a next-gen release on Xbox Series X and PS5 is not planned. We’ll let you know exactly what to expect from Be a Pro when the information comes through.