Much like the star athletes who adorn its cover every year, NBA 2K has created a strong legacy, propelling it to the top of the sporting games of this generation. The series has maintained solid gameplay without ever forgetting innovation, and I appreciate the risks Visual Concepts takes even when they aren’t completely profitable. NBA 2K has advanced sports storytelling, character customization, and the level of detail we’ve come to expect from the overall layout. However, once you are on top you have to fight to stay there, and a bad season or two can haunt you. The current version of NBA 2K21 isn’t a bad game, but it doesn’t live up to the old Visual Concepts built. While this iteration lacks improvement in most off-court situations, classic on-court gameplay remains the keystone of this entry. I love how players of all skill levels can play the NBA 2K Series and get as deep into the mechanics as they want while still being successful. Every possession is all about finding the best path to the basket, knowing the right window to land the perfect pass, or setting that screen to free your playmaker to get to the net. It never gets old, especially when you nail that devastating drunkard. This year, expect some AI upgrades like your big man in the paint that will have a bigger impact on defense. AI reaction time could be better; their biggest offender is some late executions when I applied for a pass and not recognizing when the window has passed. Plus, they always do weird hiccups like backcourt violations for no good reason. Outside of AI, Visual Concepts made a slew of other additions as well, ranging from new types of shooting to the inclusion of oversized protection points. But the biggest change is the pro stick for dribbling and shooting. The dribble is more complete; Jumps can now only be initiated by moving the right joystick down, which provides a greater range of motion for more advanced dribbling moves, which I have used to give myself more success in beating my dribbling man. The change that didn’t click with me was the introduction of the ‘pro stick shot aim’, which the stopwatch fans have not gotten used to. Now, a target window will resize based on your player’s skill and a few other factors as they shoot. As a long-time player, I struggled to move the stick left or right to hit the target. In the past, the timer punished you if you didn’t keep the stick straight when shooting. Now, it’s too easy to accidentally move the stick a little too far, causing you to miss a wide open shot. I love that aiming the stick is more difficult and means I can’t take any shots for granted, but I miss the predictable pace of the timer. I adapted after a while, but it’s hard to break old habits. You can turn off the stick for aiming in the game and go back to the old timing meter, and I admit that once I did, I was a lot happier. Other than that, the changes in all modes seem limited. If you’re like me and spend most of your time in MyCareer, you can treat yourself to a new cinematic experience to play as a character you created called “The Long Shadow”. This year’s story centers on a young player named Junior, who lives in the shadow of his father’s career. It’s not as over the top and produced as what we saw with Spike Lee and the Frequency Vibrations storyline a few years ago, but it’s a more grounded story in dealing with the expectations that come with being leading talent and finding his own place in the game. It’s not the most memorable storyline and takes predictable turns, especially with a girlfriend storyline, but it does its job in giving you a history. Additionally, the star role bolsters his scenes, especially Jesse Williams (Grey’s Anatomy) as Junior’s father and Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Lovecraft Country) as an old family friend who becomes your agent. My favorite part was that Visual Concepts brought the college experience back here, giving you 10 officially licensed colleges to choose from, and putting a lot of detail into recreating the crowd chants and look of each arena. NBA 2K21 also has a new Beach District, where you can take your MyPlayer to do everything from 3v3 or 5v5 ProAM streetball games to shopping for the latest clothes. Cool cosmetic items are all overpriced, so I didn’t even bother to make my reader cooler. Worse yet, to have a chance and not to embarrass yourself when competing here, you will probably have to grind in MyCareer to earn VC (the 2K virtual currency) or buy it to improve your player’s stats. As for the neighborhood’s new aesthetic, I like the change of scenery, inspired by the local Southern California beach community; it feels welcoming and colorful at a time when many of us are stuck inside. That being said, it’s more of a showcase than a huge attraction in NBA 2K21, and it’s the area of the game where I experienced the most crashes, especially when traveling between areas. I was very disappointed with MyGM, where you run a franchise and make the big decisions about trading, scouting and price management. This mode is pretty much the same as last year, and that’s not a good thing. The chat system still drags the whole experience with unnecessary gossip about hand soap and waffles. CFOs keep asking you to raise prices and trainers ask you to make ridiculous trades. You have action points to dedicate each day, but not enough meaningful things to do with them. The mode also doesn’t focus enough on the big events and moments of the season; I should be feeling the stress of making the playoffs or the trade deadline, and if a big-star player wants to test free agency, that should be a huge beat – not relegated to a meager social media post. The skill tree for unlocking abilities like better scouting or more referrals seems more compact than last year, but this is another area where Visual Concepts needs to get more creative and interesting. Unlocking new abilities just doesn’t have an impact. Similar to MyGM, MyLeague still shines in your ability to customize rules, teams, and rosters however you want, but it also remains basically unchanged. The WNBA is back here which I love because Visual Concepts is really committed to experiencing a women’s game with a more technical and team-centric style, but unfortunately you can still only play for a season. MyTeam, where you open packs to build your dream list, has plenty of events, challenges, and rewards to keep you connected and make sure your team is in top shape. This year it added seasons, which are free and (like a battle pass) you get rewards only for meeting certain game criteria. It also introduced swap, which allows you to trade cards additional or unused against more powerful cards. I love that the exchange lets you drop cards you don’t use for something better, but be aware that you have to give up a lot to get more of these valuable cards. While this mode is always the one where players are likely to spend the most of their CV, there are at least a few steps to allow players to earn cards that don’t always require depositing money. As we approach a new generation of consoles, Visual Concepts is building a version of NBA 2K21 from the ground up for new systems. As a result, this current generation NBA 2K21 feels left in the dust. It still delivers the solid gameplay the series is known for, but compared to last year, it doesn’t make a lot of jumps. I know I’ll be playing it a lot more until I upgrade to the next gen edition, but it’s disappointing that loyal fans playing on current gen consoles haven’t had more upgrade. It still gives you a decent basketball experience, but we expect better and more.