A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this game.
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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that NBA 2K21 is the latest installment in the long-running basketball sports simulation franchise on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia, and Windows PCs. The game doesn't include any inappropriate content, but players can be exposed to offensive comments in online play. There's a significant amount of branding throughout MyCareer games, as announcers promote Gatorade, blocked shots are promoted by Mobil 1, and Player of the Game is presented by New Balance. Players can negotiate contracts to be ambassadors of these brands, gaining virtual fans as a side effect of these promotions. In MyTeam, branded shoes can be applied to athletes to give them stat boosts. Players will earn in-game credits by playing games throughout each mode. These can be used to upgrade a created athlete's stats, buy new clothing or gear, or earn new players for their created teams by purchasing card packs. It's also sold in two versions, which offer different amounts of content. Gamers are pushed to purchase money to accelerate their progress through the game, which is particularly true when it comes to offsetting this year's newly redesigned shooting mechanic. Even veterans of the franchise who are comfortable with the shooting sticks or timing will need to sink in hours of practice with the shooting mechanic, which now also features an aiming element to make shots. But this, coupled with a small, narrow accuracy meter, can make even all-time athletes miss wide open shots. Badges and player boosts help decrease the number of blown shots, but it will lead to frustration for many gamers regardless of the difficulty level they play on.
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What's it about?
NBA 2K21 steps back on to the court for another season in the popular basketball franchise, and packs a lot of new adjustments into its gameplay. One of the most significant involves what's known as the Pro Stick, turning the right stick of your controller into a mechanic for both dribble moves and shooting. Apart from size-up steps and momentum moves, you'll now have the option to target your shot based on the best aim position on the shot meter. That means releasing your shot while also aiming toward the basket and taking into consideration how tightly covered you are, as well as your player's skill and range to the basket. All of this will factor into whether you make or air-ball a shot. MyTeam has had a large upgrade, with some of the biggest changes being the inclusion of seasonal content. Each day, week, and season provides new goals for players to complete to gain experience, which provides new cards, bonus items, and tokens. Cards can also be upgraded with new badges to enhance the stats for players, and for people you have sitting on the bench being unused, the new Exchange feature will let you trade in cards for better athletes that you will want in your starting lineup. Players also have the option to determine how they want their evolution cards to grow once they meet the guidelines for that player, enhancing either their offensive or defensive game stats. Even better, all of the progress in this version of MyTeam will carry over to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X versions of the game. Finally, MyCareer moves the Neighborhood from the city to the shore, with a new beachfront locale that feels ripped from Southern California. The story for MyCareer, The Long Shadow, casts player-created athletes as Junior, a young player trying to make his way into the NBA while also trying to stand out from the memory of his father, a basketball star in his own right. Players will make their way through high school and college games, even playing against a childhood friend (turned potential rival), before entering the draft and eventually joining a pro team.
Is it any good?
There's a new coat of paint on this year's installment of basketball, but it misses more shots than it makes. By far, the largest change to NBA 2K21 is to the MyTeam mode, where players pit their fantasy team against a wide variety of challenges. Including seasonal goals adds a larger incentive to return every single day and gain experience with your squads, and adding Limited events on weekends gives you a payoff for the weekly grind that you'll put into enhancing your players, outfitting them with badges, shoes, and better teammates. The same can be said for the Exchange, which lets you trade away the low-ranking players riding the bench for quality athletes you want or need in your starting lineup. It's also great that you have the option to choose the evolution of your players, tailoring their stats to fit your play style. There's still a push for buying players -- in fact, unless you're incredibly lucky when opening packs, or you got the more expensive version of the game with bonus VC (credits), or you sink dozens of hours on the court, you'll have to pay cash to get the players for certain challenges or even to enter the Limited events. The amount of depth here, and the fact that your progress will carry over to next-gen systems, is a huge selling point.
By contrast, the MyCareer mode is a shadow of itself in former years. The few choices that pop up during the prologue never feel like they have weight or a major impact in the tale. Virtually all cutscenes are eliminated as soon as the prologue is over. What's worse, your athlete is wildly outmatched compared to his rival, who's clearly a better athlete and overshadows you much more than your dad ever did. But even that rivalry is tossed aside, making any drama here disappointing. A lot of technical glitches and network disconnect issues have carried over from last year's title. But perhaps the biggest (and most controversial) issue with NBA 2K21, which affects all game modes, is the redesign of the shot meter, which takes aim at the basket, player skill, shot coverage, and other factors into consideration to determine the success of your shot. There's a positive element here, because it forces you to learn the hot and cold zones for a shooter, and makes you spend a lot of time on the court to get comfortable with this meter. But even with practice, there are still way too many air balls or misses that happen, regardless of difficulty level, and the aiming mechanic is so wildly insensitive that it's better turned off than left on -- the slightest stick adjustment will send the ball veering from the rim, even if you're wide open with an accurate shooter. Plus, the shot meter is so small that it can be hard to tell what the difference is between a release that's slightly early or slightly late. The end result is that scoring becomes a bit more dependent on luck rather than skill. There's already been a fix released for shooting, but hopefully it can be further patched and fixed, because right now, NBA 2K21 could use more time in the gym.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about consumerism in sports games like NBA 2K21. Does including logos add to the realism, or are they only being used to push products? Is there a reason for a logo to be on every street corner in the game? Do you feel uncomfortable with an athlete that you create being a spokesperson for different products? Does it seem like the announcers should call out brands during their commentary of games?
How well does NBA 2K21 mirror the sport? Are there some elements in the game or in its various modes that you won't find on a real court? Should the game be closer to a true simulation, or is there space for arcade-like play and lighter elements in its many modes?
- Platforms: Google Stadia, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One
- Price: $59.99
- Pricing structure: Paid
- Available online? Available online
- Developer: 2K Sports
- Release date: September 4, 2020
- Genre: Sports
- Topics: Sports and Martial Arts
- ESRB rating: E for No Descriptors
- Last updated: September 21, 2020
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.