It’s been a long time since we picked up sports titles on Digital Foundry, but with the introduction of the NBA 2K21 in a new wave of consoles, we’re seeing something truly fascinating, loyal to generations. To explain that, I mainly watched the game on the PlayStation 5 and PS4 Pro, but I also spent time on both consoles on the Xbox series.
Achieving such a significant quality improvement is, in my opinion, a considerable achievement. Although it may not look like this on the surface, sports games are one of the hardest genres to tackle, as far as I know. The truncated development schedule requires an annual entry for each series. This means less time between releases, but more than that, these games need to match the “real” experience properly and are often delivered in television-like presentations. Games like the NBA 2K21 need to deal with real people in the real world performing complex and interrelated actions. If even your hair is apart, you’re jumping straight into the uncanny valley.
So what makes this so difficult? Determining portraits of arenas and players is a big part of the equation, but what makes this so difficult is movement. Realistic animation, momentum, and collision of each player on the court are big challenges. Working in this franchise dates back to the Dreamcast era The developer’s visual concept is doing some great work here. It’s easy to spot visual flaws, but just flushing the game will actually start to look amazingly real. When fired in a cylinder, it really looks like a basketball.
The NBA 2K21 includes a huge number of athletes, from current NBA athletes to legends of the past. In general, the rendering quality of each player is high quality. The model itself is intricately detailed, with realistic skin shadows, sweat, and facial expressions. Players look around the court and react to play in real time. It’s not perfect, but it’s solid, with hints of a “dead eye” effect. Like its predecessor, 2K21 uses cloth simulation for its uniforms. As you move around the court, the cloth will flow and react realistically.
But next-generation differences are offered in different ways, especially in terms of materials, shading, and lighting. Primarily, when compared side-by-side, the skin significantly boosts the specular layer, allowing ambient light to regenerate more realistically on the surface. With this change, players will look more realistic and the character will be sweating. All of this brings the player to life.
The same applies to courts. The court receives new material and produces more realistic results. In the next generation version of the game, the reaction of colors and materials will be more natural. But in fact, what matters to me is the crowd, which is significantly better than the old consoles. The amount of detail that exists in each member of the crowd is very impressive. They all move independently and are much more detailed until even individual fingers are rendered. Yes, if you look closely you can find abundance of dead eyes, clipping issues, etc., but to be honest, it works very well during gameplay and replays.
Then there is remorse in the court itself, which is the area where trial and error techniques win the day. Based on what I’m seeing, I think the game uses specular rather than raytracing or SSR reflexes. Specular is useful even when applied to a single plane, such as a court, but is much less flexible in the more complex gaming world. In this case, the reflections are modified by the shaders used on the wooden floor, and what is displayed is properly distorted. Reflection quality and resolution appear to be improved in the next and last generations. It’s even more compelling and very realistic. The nature of specular reflection also means that the object can be duplicated perfectly and the reflections can intersect without problems. The backboard also receives mirror-like reflections, showing both the hoop itself and the ball, and the net receives great physical properties when packing the ball. None of these features are new to the next-generation version, but they feel overall sophisticated.
Speaking of sophistication, the upgraded version of 2K21 has also undergone some serious improvements to the user experience. First, the entire UI has been completely reviewed. This is completely specific to the next generation version. The speed of storage allows for quick loading of new character models, which also allows for a more dynamic team selection screen. This is a major upgrade, further enhanced by a significant load improvement, and basically all loading screens are removed.
There’s more to discover about the NBA 2K21, and I think it’s a good introduction to what you can expect from a newer version of the game, but the rest of the question here is how this title is all about: I think it will be delivered-gen system. Well, the good news is that they are visually virtually identical. Both PS5 and Series X provide a complete native 4K presentation. Both systems look very sharp and all visuals look the same. By the way, the PS4 Pro version I used for the final generation of testing also seems to be running in native 4K, but with a clear loss of visual fidelity. One difference here, as expected, is in the Series S version. This is done in native 1080p instead. You can get all the same next-generation visuals as your brother in low resolution.
Performance is about the same. Mixed frame rates are used in all versions. Gameplay runs at 60fps and replays and interstitial scenes are updated at 30 frames per second. With these restrictions, the PlayStation 5 and Series S versions work basically fine, but strangely, the Xbox Series X can drop one frame. With one exception, they are all fairly cut and dry. The parametric camera option runs locked on the PlayStation 5 at 60fps, but drops frames on the Series Console. Thankfully, this can easily be avoided by using other camera angles (and parametric perspectives aren’t really very good for gameplay). It’s really just an academic difference, but it’s there, and the PS5 ultimately dominates here.
The NBA 2K21 is a really good release for all consoles and I think it’s far more impressive than I expected. Animation limitations are still apparent in some respects, but this is the most fluid and realistic basketball game I’ve ever seen. Visual Concepts sets a high standard here for visual quality, which is really just the beginning. We’re also happy that this version is completely separate from previous generation iterations. This suggests that we are building from a new starting point. I think the situation will continue to improve and you will be fascinated by how other companies like EA Sports are handling the transition. FIFA 21 has just received its own next-generation upgrade (featuring Frostbite’s very proud hair physics) and will soon consider it.