Mobile versions of console or PC games used to be regarded as inferior cousins, but as games like Fortnite and Genshin Impact have demonstrated, it is possible for mobile games to be on par with their console counterparts in terms of quality. At first glance, NBA2K21 MT Arcade Edition appears to be following in the footsteps of its predecessors; the game's visuals are stunning, the action is smooth, and every NBA team (complete with full rosters) is available right away. I assumed I'd have everything I needed to take in some great NBA action wherever I went, but the more I played, the more I realized that what I thought would be a rich experience was in fact a shallow one, and I was wrong.
This year's NBA2K21 MT Arcade marks the franchise's first appearance in Apple Arcade, and it includes three main modes: Play Now, MyCareer, and Black Top. The game does an excellent job of bringing the visually stunning visuals of the NBA 2K games to iOS, with player models that are remarkably similar to their real-life counterparts in appearance.
The Play Now feature is straightforward: simply select two teams and begin playing a game of basketball. Although the game takes a short amount of time to load, it is only as long as it takes you to select your teams before you can start playing. However, it is when you are actually playing the game that things become difficult, as the game's on-screen touch controls are either too sensitive or non-functional at worst.
Movement is controlled by a virtual stick located on the left side of the screen; however, this same stick also controls your player's speed. A slight push will result in a jog, while extending the stick completely in one direction will cause your player to run. Running requires an additional button press in the console versions of this game, which means that if you're not paying attention, you run the risk of accidentally gassing your players within a single quarter in this mobile version. In addition, avoiding the run function is difficult because it cannot be turned off and the difference between jogging and running is very subtle on a touch screen. Fatigue can be turned off, which prevents your players from becoming overtired, but this does not resolve the issue of running versus sprinting.
On defense, these issues become even more apparent, as attempting to track down the player you have been assigned to guard becomes a frustrating exercise. Because of the constant struggle to keep from sprinting, your player will move erratically around the court, allowing the opponent an easy lane to the hoop. The words "clunky" and "awkward" don't come to mind when thinking about something as simple as moving down the court in a basketball game, but that's exactly what you get on both sides of the ball in NBA2K21 MT Arcade.
Ball controls are similarly sloppy, but passing and shooting are at least made easier by the fact that they are assigned to specific buttons. You can also shoot using a separate virtual stick on the right side of the screen, but it's just as touchy as the movement stick and doesn't always work as it should. This results in numerous frustrating moments, such as when a player crashes into the basket and comes to a complete stop, choosing to do nothing instead of shooting the ball. Connecting a Bluetooth controller to your mobile device (if one is available) will alleviate these control issues. When I connected my PS5 DualSense controller to my iPhone, the mobile version of 2K instantly felt more like the console version, with players running smoothly and buttons functioning as they should. Despite this, there is an obvious problem with the game: it defeats the purpose of it being a mobile game. When I'm carrying around a bulky controller with my phone, it takes away all of the novelty of the mobile gaming experience, and if using a controller is the best way to play a mobile game, that's a major problem.
Out of the three game modes available in NBA2K21 MT, Black Top stands out the most thanks to its streetball, first-to-21 approach. Rather than using a static camera to follow the action from left to right, the camera angle in Black Top switches to a behind-the-back perspective, switching sides every time, so that the team that is in possession of the ball is always facing away from the camera. This small adjustment makes a significant difference in the way the game is played, as it allows you to see more of the court when you are approaching the basket. The first-to-21 point structure is also excellent, as it infuses NBA 2K21 with a sense of schoolyard tension that is both refreshing and entertaining.
MyCareer, on the other hand, is the most underwhelming of the three modes, as it only barely replicates the MyCareer experience found on the console versions. When you play on your mobile device, you can create a character and play two practice games against other players on the team you choose to play for before jumping right into the NBA season. It's probably unfair to compare this to MyCareer on console, because the console version includes a full campaign that follows a player from high school all the way to the pros. However, when the only difference between MyCareer and the Play Now mode in NBA 2K21 Arcade Edition is the ability to create a character and play two games in a quiet arena, it is clear that it is a shallow and unsatisfying mode in the game.
That set of practice games shines a direct spotlight on how barebones NBA 2K21 Arcade Edition is in comparison to its competitors. It is necessary to play these practice games in empty arenas, and because there are no fans present, there is no background noise to distract you from the fact that audio lines are used on a consistent basis. A single voice track of players yelling occurs whenever either team brings the ball up the court, and it is always the same words in the same voices--beginning with HERE WE GO! The most well-known of these repeated phrases is GET IT GOIN'!, which is the most recognizable of these repeated phrases. It is extremely inconvenient.
While the players on the court appear to be in good shape on the phone, the occasional errant movement or visual glitch causes immersion to be quickly broken.
There will also be a lot of player animations that are repeated or clunky. For example, during a three-on-three practice game, I was called for a foul and sent to the free-throw line, which I promptly missed. I made the first free throw, and my player congratulated the players behind him with high-fives. The only problem was that, because it was a three-on-three game, there were no players present to receive the high fives from the crowd. In order to put it simply, my player slapped the air and didn't miss a beat, which, as the scene played out, appeared to be extremely strange.
NBA 2K21 Arcade Edition attempts to bring the NBA 2K experience to mobile devices, but it tends to throw the ball out of bounds more often than it does to make the open three-point shot. While the players on the court appear to be in good shape when viewed on a phone, the occasional errant movement or visual glitch quickly breaks immersion. In addition to the repetitive audio cues, the limited mode selection limits the game's longevity, and the touch controls are a hindrance. If you play with a controller, you'll find a solid NBA game here, but there are so many frustrating elements surrounding it that it's best for everyone not to participate in this NBA Draft.