As a general rule, I don’t care a whole lot about photorealism in videogames. For me, compelling art direction is always going to trump realism, and where a lot of people look to a new console generation to make games more lifelike than ever, but I’m far more interested in the creative possibilities that new technology brings. But there’s one exception to that rule: sports sims. The entire point of this genre is to simulate real-life sports as authentically as possible, so every advance in realism carries that aim forward. And as far as a simulation that looks and feels as lifelike as possible goes, NBA 2K21 on PlayStation 5 is up there with the best of them.
There are moments when, if not for the controller in my hands, I don’t think I’d be able to you whether I was watching footage from a videogame or a live recording. The level of detail, right down to the reflections in beads of sweat dripping down players’ faces and the fibres of their uniforms, is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Basketball videogames have had shiny hardwood floors for years, but never knees that so authentically respond to the lights she camera movements and capture all the fine details of a surface that’s seen plenty of use and just as much polishing. The way players move and the way their bodies react to every moment, every pivot, every charge is lifelike to the point of being almost unbelievable.
It’s that last bit that, I think, does most of the work in taking NBA 2K21‘s realism to another level. No matter how detailed your character models and lighting effects, when players start sliding around as a result of a physics engine that simply isn’t technically capable of keeping up with the sort of dynamic footwork that basketball involves, the illusion gets shattered. For the next-gen (current-gen?) release, NBA 2K21‘s footwork has been rebuilt, taking advantage of the new processing power to make every step behave the way real-life physics say it should, from the foot hitting the ground all the way through the rest of the player’s body. In its footwork, next-gen NBA 2K21 truly comes alive.
That’s not to say there aren’t still moments of uncanny valley, like in close-up shots of individuals’ faces, and player-created characters look less lifelike in general as a consequence of the range of different options that need to be able to be mixed and matched. Sometimes there’ll still be odd physics interactions or AI behaviour, like a ref trying to walk through a free throw rebound line-up and getting stuck on the players. But these moments are rare, in the scheme of things; for the most part, you’re seeing the court from the overhead view of a broadcast camera, watching something that looks remarkably like the real thing.
Beyond the obvious appeal of a more realistic-looking game, NBA 2K21 also finds a few other noteworthy ways to make the most of the PlayStation 5, like using the DualSense controller feedback to conveniently convey useful information. Most noticeably, the triggers start getting more resistant as the player you’re controlling gets more tired, making it a handy, shorthand way of keeping on top of players’ condition during a game. Alerts for things like an impending lane violation or shot clock running low come through haptic vibration (as well as other means), serving as a handy reminder and freeing up your eyes from needing to focus on visual cues. This isn’t a game that goes overboard with DualSense features, but rather just makes simple, practical use of them, to great effect.
One of the particular highlights of NBA 2K21 for me is MyCareer mode. Granted, this is the first NBA 2K I’ve played in a long time and my first taste of the more narrative-focused MyCareer that’s been kicking around since 2K16, but it’s a welcome inclusion all the same (and something that a lot of other sports sims should really be copying). In 2K21‘s story, “The Long Shadow”, follows the journey of Junior, the up-and-coming son of a legendary ball player, Duke. With family legacy comes the weight of expectations and Junior’s drive to step out of his father’s shadow, but it goes further than that, grappling with the different perceptions of fame. The Duke that the public knew and the Duke raising Junior are two very different people, and much of 2K21‘s story focuses on Junior trying to reconcile those views, while trying to make a name for himself at the same time.
It’s a story carried by some remarkable performances, especially from Michael K. Williams, a disgraced agent who sees helping Junior as a way to make amends and repay a favour to his old friend Duke. His range is as impressive as ever, and he brings a level of authenticity and emotion to the role that I never thought I’d see in a story for a sports game. Tye White matches that in his portrayal of Junior, with all his bravado and insecurities, and Jesse Williams does a great job of capturing the duality of Duke.
The next-gen version of NBA 2K21 doesn’t fundamentally change this story, though it does add a few more options to Junior’s career path. There’s now the option of declaring for the NBA draft right of high school, Kobe and Lebron style, or to go through the NBA G League, the official minor league for the NBA. They’re nice additions, but the appeal of MyCareer really lies in the story that it tells.
Beyond that, NBA 2K21 comes with the usual assortment of different game modes. MyNBA is a revamped franchise mode that combines MyLeague and MyGM into a single mode where you can customise the league to your heart’s content and share those league setups with other players online. The WNBA is featured with its own MyWNBA franchise mode and a career mode that lets you create your own player and join the league (though without the narrative element from MyCareer). MyTeam is back with all its microtransaction-laden, borderline-gambling nonsense, but it’s at least mostly confined to its own mode rather than trying to flood with card packs and tempt you to spend money on it throughout the whole rest of the game.
There’s a “2K University” tutorial mode, but it’s far from helpful—especially for more casual fans, since it assumes you know already know all the ins and outs of basketball, and only really focuses on teaching how to replicate those things in the game. For rookies, the (somewhat hidden) coaching options are far more helpful—with these, you can opt to leave the play-calling strategy to a coach and just follow the calls, with a further option of having guides display on the court for what you’re meant to be doing with a given play. Even this can feel a bit like being dropped in the deep end at first, but as bits and pieces start clicking into place, it becomes a far more effective training tool than 2K University ever could.
In a world where a new console generation always seems to mean a renewed focus on photorealism first and foremost, it’s nice to have a game like NBA 2K21 to really show off what realism means. And make no mistake, this is a game that pushes the bounds of what a realistic sports game can look like—the point of often seeming indistinguishable from a live broadcast. Between that, a particularly impactful story for MyCareer mode with strong performances from the likes of Michael K. Williams, a good WNBA showing, and a revamped franchise mode, NBA 2K21 is strong first step for next-generation sports sims.
NBA 2K21 is developed by Visual Concepts and published by 2K Sports. It’s available now for PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.