We’re at midcourt, and the ball is about to go up…it’s Monday Tip-Off! Start your week here at the NLSC with a feature that’s dedicated to opinions, commentary, and other fun stuff related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games. This week, I’m tipping things off with a comparison of my experiences playing Rec games in the Current Gen and Next Gen versions of NBA 2K21.
Back in December last year, I declared that The Rec in NBA 2K21 was garbage. I stand by that opinion, and the conclusions I drew about who we should blame for the current state of the mode. In short, blame can be attributed to toxic attitudes within the basketball gaming community, but Visual Concepts themselves share responsibility given how the online scene panders to elitism and focuses on pushy recurrent revenue mechanics. The Rec went from being a hit-and-miss experience that could be quite fun at the best of times, to an absolute nightmare.
And so, I gave up on it. It was a healthy decision, especially since I wanted to move away from MyCAREER and its connected experiences. As unfortunate as it was that it took all the fun being sucked out of the mode to break my habit, it did at least prove to be adequate incentive. Of course, I did still dabble with MyCAREER in NBA 2K21 Next Gen in order to play through the story and earn a Trophy, with a view to playing the occasional online game. If nothing else, I was curious to see if anything would change, and wanted to keep tabs on the scene in order to advocate for improvements. With that being said, what is The Rec like on Next Gen compared to Current Gen?
Before I get into my on-court experiences, I should comment on the process of getting to The Rec in The City, and joining a game. In The Neighborhood in NBA 2K21 Current Gen, The Rec can be reached by running straight down the street from the spawn point, and then turning right at the NBA Store. Upon entering the building, you’ll be in the Locker Room immediately, joining teammates or waiting for them to join you. Once you have five players in the Locker Room, matchmaking (such as it is) will begin. It doesn’t require any difficult navigation of the map, but it’s rather tedious, especially when players back out and delay the beginning of the game even further.
In NBA 2K21 Next Gen, the process is even lengthier. The City features a larger map that you’ll want to traverse by bike or skateboard (hey, remember when we could just select modes from a menu?). Once you arrive at The Rec, entering the building takes you to a foyer where you can squad up if you like. From here, you’ve got to run over to the Locker Room to begin a game. This is the kind of stuff that makes me feel like a cranky old man. In old games, the only delays entering these modes were loading times. We have great loading times now, but we have to travel to locations in an open world. I like open worlds in Fallout, but even in those games, I often use fast travel.
Putting aside old man grumbling about the good old days when basketball games were basketball games, The Rec in Next Gen is very similar to Current Gen. You’ll often see a lot of people just standing around in the foyer – much as they did in The Neighborhood – rather than getting into games. It does feel as though people don’t leave quite as often as on Current Gen, but some certainly will if they don’t like the look of the squad. It doesn’t help that a glitch results in everyone’s Teammate Grade displaying as F, regardless of their actual average grade. To that end, you simply have to trust that at least some of your teammates are competent and unselfish players.
AI players joining in the action in The Rec on Next Gen does help you to get games, and lessens the blow of other users ducking out if they don’t trust you to be a good teammate. I realise that AI players are a controversial practice when it comes to Pro-Am and The Rec, but with the smaller userbase here in the early stage of Next Gen, it’s a must. At the same time, perhaps because of that smaller userbase, I’ve noticed that Next Gen Rec gamers are more open-minded, especially if it means playing with a full squad. I was squadded up with four 90+ Overalls, and expected them to quit or freeze out my 78 Overall Glass-Cleaning Finisher. They didn’t, and it was a fun win.
That brings us to the quality of the gameplay experience itself. I wasn’t surprised to find that The Rec is as much of a mixed bag on Next Gen as it has been on Current Gen. I will say that for all the talk about homogenised builds and a new meta, the style of play hasn’t changed too much. As always, I can only comment on how things are on the Australasian servers, but in my experiences so far, you’ve still got a lot of three-point shooting and dunking, with lackadaisical defense on a lot of possessions. Of course, when teams do move the ball, make smart plays, and don’t force up shots with the defense draped all over them, they do tend to find success far more often.
Suffice to say, I’ve felt like the old guy at the gym when I’ve played. While some of my teammates have chased stats, forced highlights, and indulged their point guard fantasies when it clearly isn’t in their skillset, I’ve focused on setting screens, keeping the ball moving, and not doing anything that my build and current ratings won’t allow me to do. It’s not that I’m disdainful of highlight plays – I made a dunking build and have equipped some flashy slams – but I’m being patient and picking my spots, while my (presumably younger) teammates are running wild. Not everyone is like that, but as always it comes down to the luck of the draw as far as the quality of teammates.
Chemistry is therefore very rare to find and difficult to build, while the style of play is extremely haphazard. Of course in that respect, Next Gen Rec isn’t very different from Current Gen Rec. In fact, having jumped into The Rec in Next Gen for a few games, I haven’t experienced quite as much outright toxicity as on Current Gen, though looking at the official NBA 2K subreddit, it’s still an issue. In the games I’ve played though, the basketball IQ might’ve been lacking, but I didn’t encounter sabotage, freeze outs, and other such nonsense. It obviously happens, but for me so far, Next Gen Rec has mostly just been sloppy basketball, compared to Current Gen’s miserable toxicity.
Once again, the smaller userbase may be a factor here, particularly since I’m playing on the Australasian servers. It’s difficult to say without sounding snobby, but the larger a userbase gets, the tougher it is to preserve the quality of the experience. I absolutely believe basketball gaming should be accessible to everyone, but as NBA 2K has grown in popularity, the focus has shifted away from the sim experience and basketball strategy. Without proper matchmaking, everyone gets thrown in with each other no matter their experience or skill level. It leads to discrepancies in competence and preferred style of gameplay, which in turn results in even more toxicity.
Unfortunately, this speaks to how NBA 2K21 Next Gen has failed to address the main issues with The Rec, as well as the online scene in general. Instead of adding proper matchmaking, we got a bigger map. Instead of balanced builds, we got more shops. Instead of adding little quality of life features such as the ability to back out if you’ve been waiting for an opponent for ten minutes, NBA 2K21 Next Gen is trying to tap into the popularity of the Tony Hawk games with all-new skateboard mechanics. The community is slightly better behaved – at least in the games I’ve played so far – but the game itself hasn’t improved, nor does it encourage a better style of play than before.
While I’m content to leave The Rec alone in Next Gen, and have no inclination at all to play it on Current Gen, it’s frustrating, disappointing, and frankly bewildering, that Visual Concepts seems completely disinterested in improving the quality of play; especially given the focus that online modes receive, to say nothing of the NBA 2K League. I wouldn’t mind jumping on every once in a while for a change of pace, and to be honest, my experiences with The Rec in Next Gen so far do make it a slightly more appealing prospect than it was on Current Gen. Even if I’m not jumping into The Rec myself though, I want the online scene to be as good as it can (and should) be.
However, as I’ve discussed in many previous articles and on the NLSC Podcast, the problem is that when you’re the only game in town and you’ve reached the level of success and popularity that NBA 2K has, it’s easy to dismiss these issues as whining by haters and incompetent gamers. It doesn’t help that a lot of gamers, and prominent content creators, will parrot this rhetoric. There’s a constantly evolving selection of thought-terminating cliches here. One of the most popular stock rebuttals as of late is “All games have issues”, to which I say of course they do, but the best ones try to address theirs. Again, I can forego The Rec, but I still want to see things get better.
All the same, it was nice to see that The Rec in NBA 2K21 Next Gen is capable of some enjoyable games and moments, at least compared to the horrible experiences I had with the Current Gen version. It may have just been good fortune and a small sample size, but the fact that I wasn’t immediately greeted by a dumpster fire like I was on Current Gen is arguably promising. The situation may have also improved on Current Gen, but to be perfectly honest, I’m in no rush to give it another chance. It might be worth it for the sake of interest and comparison, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I dashboard well before I can make it through an entire game of Current Gen Rec.
2K has an opportunity to revamp The Rec and its other online modes on Next Gen, and I hope that they can take advantage of it. It will mean less focus on fluff like The City, and more focus on addressing the issues that actually impact the quality of online gameplay. I hate to sound like a broken record, but proper matchmaking and game balance, quality of life features, and a genuine incentive to play good team basketball – along with appropriate penalties if you don’t – are all musts. Maybe I am the old man at the gym, but I’m not the only one with these complaints. If those issues are addressed sooner rather than later, we’ll see a much better Rec on Next Gen.