It’s been a long time since we’ve covered sports titles at Digital Foundry, but with the advent of NBA 2K21 in a new wave of consoles, we’re seeing something really interesting here, including a proper general leap into the board’s absolute fidelity. To illustrate this, we initially saw the game on the PlayStation 5 and PS4 Pro, but we spent some time with both Xbox series consoles.
In my opinion, such a big improvement in quality is enough. While this may not seem like it on the surface, sports games – from what I can tell – are one of the more difficult genres to work with. Short development schedules require annual entries in each series, which means less time between each release but more than that, these games often have to be matched with a proper ‘real’ experience provided with a TV-like presentation. A game like NBA 2K21 should deal with real people in real places by performing real, complex and interconnected actions. Even if you close a hair, you’re diving straight into the playful valley.
So what makes it so difficult? Well, similar names for arena and player are a huge part of the equation but it’s the speed that makes it so difficult. The realistic animation, speed and collision of each player on the court is a huge challenge. The developing visual concept – whose work in this franchise goes back to the era of Dreamcast – is doing a great job here. When shooting at cylinders, it doesn’t really feel like basketball.
NBA 2K21 has a wide range of players from current NBA athletes to legends of the past. Overall, the rendering value of each player is of high quality. The models themselves described intricately detailed with realistic skin shedding, sweating and facial expressions. Players look around the court and respond to plays in real-time. It’s not perfect, as there are hints of a ‘dead eye’ effect but like the solid solid latest-gen versions, 2K21 also uses fabric simulations for uniforms – when you walk around the court, the fabric will flow and react in practice.
The next-gen difference, however, is provided in different ways, especially in the case of materials, shading and lighting. Initially, the illuminations around the skin, as well as the comparisons, allow it to actually play on its surface, giving it significant significance in its specialty layer. The players look more realistic almost right now as a result of this change, where the characters get tired of working so hard. All of these make the players lively.
The same is true in the case of courts, who adopt new materials as well as produce more realistic results. In the next genre version of the game the reaction of color and material is only natural. But really, the main drawing for me is the crowd, which provides a huge boost on older consoles. The amount of detail present in each member of the crowd is remarkably impressive. These are all individually removed and move in more detail to the point where even individual fingers are provided. Yes, if you look very closely you can see the dead eye fun, clipping problems and much more but the truth is, it really works really well during gameplay and reconstruction.
Then there is the reflection of the court itself and this is an area where tried and tested technology can win the day. Based on what I see, I believe the game uses planar imagery as opposed to ray traced or SSR reflection. Planner imagery is effective even when applied to a single aircraft like a court, but they are much less flexible in the more complex game world. In this case, the reflection is changed by the shadows used on the wooden floor to accurately distort what you see. The quality and resolution of the reflection seems to be improved in the next-gen compared to the latter. It is more convincing and highly realistic. The nature of the planar images means that the objects can be completely replicated and the images can intersect without issue. The backboard also gets a mirror-like image that shows both the hoop itself and the ball when you net the ball while the net adopts good physics. None of these features are new to the next-gen version but make everything feel more refined overall.
Speaking of refinements, the upgraded version of 2K21 has also made some serious improvements to the user experience. First, the whole UI has been thoroughly tested – it’s completely unique to the next-gen version. Storage speeds allow for more dynamic team selection screens as new character models can be loaded faster. This is a major upgrade, further enhanced by a lot of loading, which basically eliminates all loading screens.
While NBA 2K21 has more to discover, I think this is a good primer of what you can expect from the new version of the game, but I guess the question that remains here is how this title will be rendered in all of the following. -Zen system. The good news is, they’re almost identical. Both the PS5 and the Series X offer a completely native 4K presentation – it looks extremely sharp on both systems and all the visuals remain the same between them. I’ve used the PS4 Pro version for end-gen testing, however, running on native 4K is also probably seen with visible fidelity. There is a difference here, presumably in the Series S version. It runs at a native 1080p instead. You will get all the visuals of the same next general in its very large resolution, only at a lower resolution.
Performance is also mostly the same: all versions use mixed frame-rates – the gameplay operates at 60fps while replay and interstitial scenes are updated to 30 frames per second. Within this range, the PlayStation 5 and Series S versions run smoothly, while curiously the Xbox Series X occasionally has a single frame drop. It’s all beautifully cut and dried with one exception: the parametric camera option locks at 60fps on the PlayStation 5, but drops frames on series consoles. Thanks to this, using other camera angles can be easily avoided (and the parametric viewpoint isn’t really that great for the gameplay). It’s really just an academic difference, but it’s there, and the PS5’s end is the edge here.
I would say that NBA 2K21 is a really good release for all consoles and much more impressive than I expected. While the limitations of animation are still evident in the points, it looks like the most fluid and realistic basketball game I’ve ever seen. The visual concepts here come as a visual quality when set a high bar and it really starts is also very nice to see that this version is completely different from the last-gen iteration, he suggested that they are creating from a new beginning. I hope we can see further improvements over time and I will be impressed with how other companies like EA Sports are handling this transformation. FIFA 21 has just received its own next-gen upgrade (featuring many of Frostbite’s most wanted hair physics, no less) and we’ll see about that soon.