It’s an unwritten rule of next-gen gaming that a console must launch alongside at least one sports game, and that everyone must fawn over how it’s the best that sport has ever looked in video game form, but then acknowledge that the race to get it on next-gen invariably means modes have had to be dropped in the process.

The general rule of thumb, then, is that you buy the launch game for the visual splendour, but with the understanding that next year’s update will be the ‘real’ one with all the features put back in. Madden NFL 06, FIFA 06, we’re looking at you. NBA 2K21, thankfully, bucks this trend to an extent. It may not necessarily be the revolutionary reworking of the game some fans have been hoping for, but it at least adds one or two new features and modes not seen in the current-gen version released back in September.

First, let’s focus on the obvious and most immediate selling point of next-gen NBA 2K: the visuals. There can be no denying that NBA 2K21 looks better on Xbox Series X than it did on the previous generation. Put the two side-by-side and you can instantly pick out the next-gen game with no trouble at all. Player models are obviously more detailed, but the entire arena just gives off a greater feeling of hustle and bustle, with far more going on and the court filling with more people – staff, performers, coaches, stadium security – during time outs and at the end of each quarter. With its improved lighting too, playing it in 4K with HDR looks tremendous.

The animations have been given a revamp too, and do a brilliant job in giving players more personality. While there are obvious examples of these like the gestures players make on the court, it’s the smaller details that really make the biggest difference when you notice them: the way eyeballs move more realistically when they’re following the ball during replays, the way fingers bend when catching and throwing the ball, the way their feet plant on the ground more realistically when they’re moving around.

To make sure you see these new details better, the game’s default camera angle has dropped much lower and closer than before (similar to the way actual NBA games have been shot recently while its players remained in ‘the bubble’). This is undoubtedly an impressive looking viewpoint that not only highlights details but also gives a better sense of scale between player heights, but the reality is that it’s much harder to play the game with this viewpoint because it’s extremely difficult to judge depth at the back of the court. As such, lovely as it looks, chances are you’ll want to change back to the previous-gen camera before long and stick to savouring the graphics during close-ups.

The other slight tweak worth mentioning is to the shooting system, which was widely criticised among players who took an awful long time to get used to the shooting in the previous-gen NBA 2K21. While 2K has stuck to its guns and kept the shooting system intact, it has at least tweaked it to make it easier to get to grips with. The gauge now stays the same size regardless of your player’s size (it used to get smaller and harder to see when your player was far away from the camera), and the gauge has now been redesigned to include an arrow (to make it easier to track) and a black line showing where the sweet spot is. Shooting does feel a little less frustrating as a result of this.

Making the game look better could have been enough for 2K: indeed, it’s been good enough for most publishers making that initial next-gen jump over the years, 2K included. Fair play to it, then, for including some new modes to the Series X version of the game that genuinely make it feel like more than a simple visual upgrade and give players more to do.

The most notable of these is The City, a new mode that replaces The Neighbourhood (and before that The Park) from previous games. This is a surprisingly large environment you can explore using your created MyPlayer character. You start off in a small area called Rookieville where you have to meet a few set goals in order to unlock the gates to the city. Once this happens, you’re assigned one of four different factions and can then take part in a variety of games to try and earn clout for your faction (while naturally improving your own player’s stats along the way).

The city’s scale is impressive: as well as the selection of courts there are also a bunch of small basketball hoops dotted around the streets that you can use for a spot of shooting practice and eventually find yourself playing H.O.R.S.E. with a stranger. Then there are the numerous clothing shops, the large gym area and the massive arena in the middle designed for timed events. On top of all this, the city is also inhabited by a bunch of NPCs who can give out single-player and multiplayer side quests to keep you busy (2K promises these will be refreshed every 4-6 weeks). It’s perfectly likely that some players will buy NBA 2K21 and be perfectly happy playing The City mode alone.

Almost as surprising is the addition of a proper single-player career mode for the game’s WNBA section. Women’s basketball was added in 2K20 but was strictly limited to exhibition games and single seasons. Next-gen 2K21, however, has a new mode called The W where you create your own player, choose one of the 12 WNBA teams and take her through a career, updating her stats and choosing various extracurricular activities for her to build her status both inside and outside of the league.

At times The W can be a little on the nose: you’ll occasionally get text messages from other players raving about your new hairdo, and one of the stats you can increase is “fashion icon”. These slightly shallow moments aside, though, the mode generally does a much better job of giving women’s basketball more prominence in the overall game rather than making it a token sideshow with not much depth. Even better, it would appear it sits in that sweet spot of being important enough to include but not important enough to monetise, as The W has practically none of the microtransaction nonsense you’ll see in the other modes, making it a refreshingly pure career mode that feels like something from the 360 era (in a good way).

It’s generally great news all round, then, but it’s not without its flaws. Those aforementioned microtransactions are still rife in other modes, most notably in MyTeam. This mode has always been a big barrier for newcomers, and it’s even more of an issue now given that it’s one of the few modes whose progress can be carried over from the Xbox One version of 2K21. This means that anyone new to the game is two months behind everyone else, and as such won’t be able to take part in a number of the extremely specific challenges without certain types of player in their team, players who are more than a little tricky to get without forking out the cash.

The MyPlayer story mode, The Long Shadow, is also mostly unchanged. This is a good thing for those who haven’t experienced it yet, because it’s one of the better NBA 2K story modes in recent years, but it’ll come as a disappointment to those who already played through it on Xbox One. Progress in MyPlayer doesn’t transfer across generations, so if you’ve got your eyes set on The City you’re going to either have to start out with a hopelessly underskilled player, play through The Long Shadow again to enjoy the stat boosts it provides, or – you guessed it – dig into your wallet.

Finally (and this is quite a minor one but it’s still annoying), many of the close-ups during the game still run at 30 frames per second while the action itself runs at 60. This isn’t a massive issue since you aren’t playing during these moments, but it can still be really jarring at the start of every match where you do the tip-off at 30FPS and then the game judders for a split second before switching to 60FPS. It’s a complete illusion-breaker that, while minor, we’d love to see improved next year. With any luck, with another year with this new console under its belt 2K will hopefully be able to get these cutscenes up to 60 too for a truly seamless switch from pre-game to in-game.

We already know it’s going to get better over time. The game’s Executive Producer has already said the game shipped with far fewer next-gen player faces than he’d have liked because 2K hasn’t had access to the NBA players during the pandemic ‘bubble’ and therefore can’t scan them: as such, only around 40 players have true next-gen detailing on their faces. Whether the new players will be updated with patches later in 2K21’s life or 2K will just sit on them until 2K22 remains to be seen, but it’s worth bearing in mind that as good as it looks just now, the studio has already acknowledged that there’s room for improvement.

Conclusion

It should be no great shock that next-gen NBA 2K21 is the best-looking basketball game ever made. What's perhaps more surprising is that 2K has added two substantial modes (in the new WNBA career mode The W and the massively multiplayer The City) to make it the most feature-packed one ever too. Much of its content still has the weight of microtransactions hanging over it, but as long as you don't mind ignoring that and putting in the grind instead, this is a great purchase for NBA fans: especially if you held fire and haven't played 2K21 on Xbox One yet.