Ultimately, these games did provide what I think most people still seek when they pick up a controller: an escape from reality. As you would expect, none of these games directly reflect the pandemic. You can’t play “NBA 2K21” in the Orlando setting with the virtual crowd (although it might be kind of neat if you could). In fact, the only fingerprints of COVID-19 on these games was a sense that the final stages of their development may have been more bare-bones than in a typical year. I’ve been playing “Madden NFL” games for half of my life now and I’ve never played a version that was as flat-out broken as this one when it was first released. It’s been patched since then (including a major one just this week), but bugs and glitches remain that shouldn’t be there in a major release in 2020. (I had one game with literally no yard lines, just a field of green.) One has to believe that these kind of flaws would have been ironed out with a more complete staff working without COVID shutdowns. Although a sense that “Madden NFL 21” was rushed pervades even if it wasn’t buggy. It feels like the final game of a major franchise for a console—the next “Madden” will be on the PS5 too. Not much has been done in terms of gameplay development and it really feels almost identical to the last edition.
“NBA 2K21” has a similar been-there-done-that feeling, also likely a product of this generation of consoles ending for Microsoft and Sony, although sports games have increasingly felt like they plateaued over the last four or five years. Each version slightly refines gameplay, player models, competitive balance, etc., but there hasn’t been a groundbreaking sports game in years. Having said that, the “NBA 2K” games are still the gold standard for me in terms of smoothness and depth of gameplay. This year’s iteration is almost identical to the last one, down to the same modes and flow of the game. Again, it kind of feels like any major leap forward that’s going to happen in this series is going to wait for the next PlayStation or Xbox. Still, if you want to keep the NBA magic going after the playoffs are over and until the figure out what the heck they’re going to do for next season, this is the best way to do it.
The funny thing about this little sports game experiment was that the best game I played recently that could qualify is an old game, a remastered pair of games actually, ones that helped make a skateboarding star into a household name. “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” was released for the PlayStation way back in 1999, and its sequel landed just a year later. These games were massive for their era, creating an entire franchise of skate-based games that lasted for years. Earlier this month, Vicarious Visions remastered the first two games for the PS4 and XOne and they don’t show any of their age, playing like they could easily come out today. In fact, they reminded me how hard these games can be with complex button combinations to nail just the right trick at just the right time. There’s a certain irony in the best sports game of the season being one in which you ride around by yourself, entirely social distanced from the world around you. If only Tony was wearing a mask too.