After more than two decades of yearly releases, minor tweaks and an expanding fanbase, the developers of the recently released NBA 2K21 are ploughing on as if this is just another addition to the long-running franchise.
But it’s not.
By this time of year, when the yearly release of the basketball video game rolls around, fans are usually hungry for something to scratch their NBA itch, maybe taking advantage of new rosters to get an idea how their team might fare next year.
This year, the NBA season isn’t even over, in fact we’re not even in the finals yet.
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Free agency also hasn’t happened, and the rosters for next year’s NBA season (if it even ends up happening) are yet to be determined.
There’s also a new generation of consoles in the pipeline, heading for a November release if you can manage to get one.
When we saw our first glimpse of NBA 2K21 running on next-gen consoles earlier this year there wasn’t much to write home (or on the internet) about.
The footage was restricted to a very sweaty digital rendering of Zion Williams dunking a basketball in an empty gym.
While the NBA is currently being played in empty gyms, it doesn’t make for an overly exciting time in a video game.
You could forgive NBA 2K21 not wanting to dwell on the coronavirus pandemic’s impacts on the NBA season and the world at large, it is after all a video game, designed to provide an outlet to distract us from our newly stressful lives.
The problem is, the developers didn’t use that free time from choosing to overlook COVID-19 and everything about it, and compared to last year’s NBA 2K20, the game is more or less identical.
Sure the development likely faced a little obstruction due to remote working, but that could have been mitigated by not racing out the game before the current NBA season is even finished.
While it’s nothing new that a video game for a sporting league would be very similar to its proceeding iteration, there’s quite simply no reason to buy the new game if you have the old one.
The career mode is practically identical, the story as irrelevant as ever.
Many of the animations are also eerily similar, such as the time-out cheer squads (though a fun Easter egg for this is that they will dance to the beat of whatever music you happen to be listening to, I have no idea how this was achieved and it may just be an optical illusion).
Even the annoyances have stuck around, like the pre-game coverage that will have you breaking buttons on your controller in a race to skip.
Having to wait five seconds into a time-out before you can skip it has for some reason been retained and is annoying as ever.
You could argue these add to the immersion and make it seem like you’re watching real basketball, but it’s annoying in real life too.
The one big change that has actually been made was not welcomed by fans.
The shooting mechanics (i.e.: how you score points in the game, an important feature) have been completely changed, and people have struggled to adjust, even the game’s own cover star.
You can revert these settings and they’ve been adjusted on lower difficulty levels, but essentially the game is now asking for you to aim your shots as well as time them perfectly.
The dopamine-inducing green flash that accompanies a perfectly made shot is rarer than ever in the latest addition.
You can adjust sliders and other variables to find settings that are right for you, but this is a hassle out of the box, and will put you at a disadvantage on the equal playing field of multiplayer in the Neighbourhood mode.
The developers have promised this is a new challenge that will be welcomed by seasoned players once they get the hang of it.
This reporter is one of those seasoned players and is still waiting to get the hang of it after several hours of playtime in NBA 2K21 (having already sunk several hundred hours into the franchise over the years).
The changes have made the game much harder, but not necessarily in a fun or challenging way.
The new shooting mechanic appears to only get easier if you grind away enough time to boost your player’s attributes.
There’s an obvious reason why 2K would want to make the game harder as well: so it can charge gamers who are frustrated into purchasing some of its fake currency (which it calls “virtual currency” or VC) to upgrade faster than earning the upgrades in game.
As someone who has played the franchise nearly exclusively for a long time I wouldn’t recommend buying NBA 2K21 right now — especially if you have NBA 2K20 already — but having that insight I’m also fairly confident in saying if you’re a long-running fan of the franchise who’s played several hundred hours of it your brain has been as atrophied as mine by the hunt for the colour green that you’re probably going to just buy it anyway.
NBA 2K21 costs $79 via JB Hi-Fi on PS4 and Xbox One.
The game is $89 via Steam on PC, where it’s attracted close to 4000, mostly negative reviews.
You can pre-order it for PS5 and Xbox for $109 but you really shouldn’t given the consoles aren’t even out yet, and are both selling digital-only consoles that you don’t need to worry about being able to get a disc at the shop for.