Sports games go hand-in-hand with console launches like LeBron James and retweets. Except this hasn’t been an ordinary year at all: the basketball season only just concluded after being played in an empty gym in front of virtual crowds and NBA 2K21 is the only sports simulation available on the PlayStation 5 for now. That will change come 4th December, when FIFA 21 and Madden NFL 21 are slated to release, but credit to 2K Sports for getting ready in time.

In fact, we’ve got to doff our New York Knicks-branded baseball cap to the publisher, as this isn’t your average new generation up-res. The next-gen version of Visual Concepts’ uber-popular b-ball brand shares some similarities with its current-gen counterpart, but it’s by and large an all-new game. Considering how solid the PlayStation 4 version was when it released earlier in the year, that’s an impressive achievement.

So, what’s different? Well, where do we even start? Movement mechanics have been completely re-written, meaning players will now plant their feet exactly as you expect them to; there’s no sliding into position and awkward snapping into animations, as everyone on court will take the requisite steps to get them where they need to be. It may sound like a minor thing, but it gives you a greater connection between the DualSense and the star you’re controlling.

The game also feels more physical. Trying to bundle your way into the paint when you’re being boxed out by a 7’0” beast like Nikola Jokic is like attempting to run through a brick wall, while you now get much more realistic contact during dunk and layup opportunities when you’re at the rim. While the simulation was by no means weak on the PS4, it feels that little bit more polished on the PS5; the result of a seemingly limitless list of under-the-hood alterations and improvements.

The one thing we will say is that some of the game’s animations are beginning to show their age, and there’s still work 2K Sports can do to emulate real basketball here. Obviously, this is already a very fluid game, but the enhanced visuals do highlight some weird or unusual animation transitions which detract from the overall illusion. In fact, these problems are equally prevalent outside of gameplay, during timeouts and half-time, when players stare lifelessly into the ether through dead eyes.

The Oscar-worthy story of Junior, son of a former high school point guard played by Jesse Williams, returns – with an entirely new branch of narrative to explore. While you can still choose to go to college as in the PS4 game, you can now also choose to play 10 games in the G-League before making it to the NBA. You’ll earn more VC – the game’s virtual currency – if you elect to take this path, but the matches are obviously more difficult for your under-specced avatar.

While the story is silly – one of your teammates wears a suit with dollar signs stitched into it and calls himself ATM – you can tell that Visual Concepts is having a lot of fun. In fact, there’s an entire sequence where you’ll face off against the protagonists from past NBA 2K stories, which is the kind of fan-service we can get behind. There are moments when the plot does seem to drag on – like a random encounter with Zion Williamson – but it’s entertaining enough overall.

Of course, it all paves way to The City, which is the next-gen game’s evolution of the Neighbourhood. This is a sprawling, PlayStation Home-esque metropolis, where you can join factions, pick up quests, and shoot hoops. It’s impressive in scale, but it feels lifeless due to the limited number of people on each server, and unless you pod out VC for a skateboard or bicycle, navigation is painfully slow to the point where you’ll forget where you were going and why.

In fact, The City just serves to highlight some of the franchise’s weaker elements. Everything costs VC, so if you want to practice free throws on your own then you’ll need to buy a basketball or if you want to rent a court to play uninterrupted with your pals then you’ll need to pay. You can earn the virtual currency from doing practically anything in the game, but as it’s also required to level up your player, you’ll find yourself in this constant moral quandary about where you should invest the cash.

It doesn’t help that the gameplay itself feels loose when you’re playing online. We’ve felt this about NBA 2K for a while now, but there’s a definite difference between the online play and the offline experience; you lose a lot of the tightness that the gameplay is built upon, and it just ends up feeling a bit sloppy. We like the addition of an onboarding path for newcomers, but it still feels like unless you dedicate your life to the game then you’re going to get smoked.

Dedicate your life to this game you could, though – there’s simply so much to do. MyTeam, the franchise’s card collecting mode, returns virtually unchanged – but the WNBA has been given a massive overhaul, with the addition of its own campaign called The W. This is a streamlined version of the MyPlayer mode, but it has many of the staples of a traditional sports game career mode, as you attempt to improve your player and simultaneously raise the profile of the female game.

Meanwhile, franchise mode has been given a total overhaul, merging the MyLeague and MyGM modes of old to allow you to completely tailor the type of experience you want. You can turn on front office role-playing elements, shorten the season, import your own draft class – it’s entirely up to you how much or how little you want to do, and we really appreciate how all of the features and modes from the PS4 game have been streamlined.

Obviously, the experience is completely transformed by the speed of the PS5, as games take little more than three seconds to load now, meaning you’re into the thick of the action fast. The DualSense is also taken advantage of, although we feel it works the controller a little too hard as it’s the only title where we can actually hear the mechanics of the pad operating. You get a fluttering sensation when you post up against big opponents, while the sprint button tightens as you fatigue.

Conclusion

NBA 2K21 is an impressive overhaul of an already excellent basketball simulation. There are times where it over-extends; The City, for example, is an awesome idea in principle, but its sheer scale can leave it feeling deserted. Still, while we have legitimate gripes with the game’s implementation of VC, there’s no denying that next-gen hooping feels fantastic. And with so many modes and features, as well as industry-leading presentation, there’s no doubt that 2K Sports is starting this generation off strong.