NBA 2K21 captures the see-saw flow of real-world basketball so well that you’ll feel at one with thousands of virtual fans when you nail a clutch corner three with seconds left on the clock. Visual Concepts’ simulation has, along with the MLB The Show series, always been a cut above the competition when it comes to broadcast-style presentation, and while this year’s edition looks alarmingly similar to its predecessor, it’s still very much in a league of its own.

Coronavirus means that this year’s game finds itself in an extraordinary spot. While the oft-discussed Bubble has allowed the NBA to continue the 2019-2020 season safely, it means that you won’t find the usual roster changes that typically accompany a new basketball game. In fact, 2K Sports has even kept player ratings the same as NBA 2K20; the title will be updated for free once the current season concludes later in the year.

The release also finds itself arriving just two months prior to the PlayStation 5, with the publisher touting a next-gen version that’s been built from the ground-up for Sony’s new system. Whether or not that turns out to be true, the reality is that the current-gen release could be superseded by a successor in little over eight weeks, and while purchasing the Mamba Forever edition will grant you a copy of the PS5 game when it arrives, it puts this version in a strange spot.

When taken in isolation, though, this is still a superb simulation that’s somewhat undone by corporate greed and an emphasis on pro players – much like last year’s game. The biggest change to the gameplay flow comes in the form of a new shot meter, which aims to increase the skill gap by making it more difficult to hit jumpers and threes. While you can still use the Square button, you’re encouraged to use the right analogue stick instead to align a tick in the centre of the gauge.

It’s tough. 2K Sports did make some adjustments post-release courtesy of a hotfix, but we’ve still found ourselves pulling wide open shots with all-stars like Steph Curry. This, ultimately, is what the publisher wants: it’s aiming to dramatically increase the skill gap in order to improve competitive play. Unfortunately, it seems to have forgotten that NBA 2K21 is a mainstream game, and it’s left casuals throwing bricks.

We’ve spent a lot of time practicing with the new shot meter in training modes, and while we can hit green jumpers pretty consistently there, the adrenaline of real-world matches makes it much harder to execute. The problem is that, in order to get better at shooting with your MyPlayer, you need to be able to consistently land jumpers and threes in order to unlock badges. But it almost feels like you need badges to bank shots consistently outside of the paint, thus creating a chicken-and-egg situation.

To make matters worse, there’s always been a huge disparity in Playground matches between casual players and pro players – but that gap is bigger than it’s ever been before. It’s not uncommon to get blown out by high-rated players with multiple shooting badges unlocked, but with the way the game’s structured, those players earn even more badges each time they obliterate more casual players – widening the gap further. The series desperately needs some kind of skill-based matchmaking.

All that said, there’s still a ton of fun to be had in MyCareer mode, which sees you create your own basketball build and work your way up from high school through college and finally to the NBA Draft. The story this year revolves around a character called Junior, who’s the son of a local basketball superstar. The plot is about stepping outside of your father’s shadow, and it has some genuinely likeable performances and fun cut-scenes.

Once you make it to the NBA, you’ll begin grinding for badges and VC, which you can use to increase your attributes. As has been the case for a few years now, this in-game currency is central to every aspect of the game, and the economy is delicately tilted towards you spending real-world money to get what you want. The problem is that everything is a compromise: buy some neat new sneakers for your player, and you’ll potentially be sacrificing a meaningful upgrade to your rebounding ability.

While the game does dish out VC for virtually everything you do, unlocks never feel truly fulfilling because they come at a cost to something else. For example, if you do decide to upgrade your MyPlayer, it means that you’re potentially sacrificing the purchase of a new MyTeam pack, and while there are alternative methods to unlock cards in NBA 2K21’s collectathon game, that recurring sense that you’re making trade-offs with your progress is frustrating.

Fortunately, this year’s MyTeam is the strongest that it’s ever been, and up there with Diamond Dynasty as one of the best-in-class Ultimate Team modes. New additions include weekend-themed Limited matches, which require you to delve deeper into your deck of cards and use ones that may not ordinarily make your primary rotation thanks to the implementation of unique rule-sets that rotate on a weekly basis.

The game also has a Battle Pass-type Seasons format, which rewards your progress with in-game currencies and packs, culminating in an uber-rare card. It’s all about player retention, but we’d be lying if we claimed we didn’t have the bug, and with evolvable card types and set exchanges, it’s genuinely addictive stuff. Popular modes like the three-versus-three Triple Threat have even been given a facelift, and have a little more atmosphere as a result.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the MyLeague mode, which has been largely left untouched. There is a new feature that allows you to share custom scenarios with friends and strangers, which the community may get some use out of. Meanwhile, the tycoon-themed MyGM mode also returns, allowing you to manage the finances of your chosen Franchise as well as the team; it’s also much the same, but still entertaining trying to transform the dreadful New York Knicks into a basketball dynasty.

As for online play, the aforementioned Neighborhood social hub has been given a complete facelift, now adopting a beach-themed backdrop. While many of the institutions from previous games remain – such as the Gatorade training facility and the various clothing stores – it breathes a bit of new life into the release to have a change of scenery to explore. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of themed events invade the space as the release matures.

Conclusion

In pursuing pro players, NBA 2K21 may be a little too intimidating for more casual players. Nevertheless, this is an obscenely detailed simulation that captures the ebb-and-flow of real-world basketball with unrivalled authenticity. It’s also enormous, and while some aspects have been left untouched, the likeable story and revamped MyTeam modes mean that it’s worth the upgrade. The in-game economy, which is heavily influenced by lucrative microtransactions, continues to be a sour spot – and it remains to be seen how much life this release will have with a next-gen successor right around the corner. Still, even with all of these drawbacks, it’s comfortably one of the best sports games available on the PS4.