NBA 2K11 Review
By Gaetano Prestia
In a rather fitting manner, Michael Jordan, the greatest basketballer of all time, makes only his second appearance in an NBA game in NBA 2K11, the greatest basketball game of all time. 2K Sports has developed one of the most robust, challenging, enjoyable and deep basketball gaming experiences ever, expanding on a number of already-great features to offer something that not only basketball fans can enjoy, but also sports fans in general. NBA 2K11 is an enslaving and intimate sports title.
The level of detail in NBA 2K11 is absorbing, starting with the superb re-creations of Jordan’s most memorable games, to the realistic GM logic incorporated into The Association, the game’s franchise mode. Each team plays with the same amount of finesse and perfection as their real-life counterparts, exhibiting an extraordinary level of intelligence from both friendly and opposition AI. Furthermore, the overall improvement from last year’s offering is disproportionate from some of the rabble we get from other sports games each year. This is a series that has conclusively reached its highest level ever. NBA 2K11 is an absolute must-have for basketball and sports fans alike, and is as good as you’re going to get from the genre over the next twelve months.
When NBA 2K11 starts up for the first time, you’re introduced to his “airness” as he prepares for Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals against the LA Lakers. It’s in this near-perfect re-creation of the event that we’re reminded of the brilliance that was Michael Jordan, with his virtual charisma as engrossing as it is intimidating. His fascinating “Are you ready?” while looking back at you introduces you to what will be one of your most memorable basketball gaming experiences, leading into the celebrated Chicago Bulls intro as Benny the Bull waves the red and black flag in the middle of the court. As dynamic as a real-life Game 1 in the NBA Playoffs, you’re facing off against the legendary Magic Johnson before you even get a chance to test the water. There’s no doubting that His Airness is the best thing in NBA 2K11, and 2K Sports has embraced that with passion and undeniable dedication.
The inclusion of Michael Jordan isn’t just for looks. The re-creation of ten of his most memorable moments reminds us with unquestionable diligence how superb he really was. With the incorporation of the core NBA 2K gameplay mechanics, you can lead Jordan and some of the game’s best teams to success over many of the game’s greats in Magic, Dominique and Bird. As damaging and unstoppable as Jordan may have seemed on the court, his success was built on passion and commitment, something you’re going to need in order to beat out the best of the best. Part of the successful re-creation is in the challenges Jordan faces, and as good as he was, he was not indestructible. Playing through these amazing moments dictate a level of skill that fall inline with what he brought to the court in real-life, and that’s what makes this experience so alluring.
If you have the same level of passion that he brought to the court and you can complete all ten of the Jordan Moments, you can play a special version of My Player and lead Jordan through the ranks as a young player and into today’s league. His cockiness today says he’d still dominate the court, so this gives you a good opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.
The level of presentation is amazing in the Jordan implementation, but that also spreads out in the game’s other features. The Half-Time Report has a level of detail reminiscent of a real-life network report, with highlights of the biggest and best moments from the first half. There’s also a deep analyse of the best players in the game up to that point. Furthermore, the quarter time and three-quarter time breaks give mention to defensive or offensive achievements by either team, offering an unbiased view of the game and not focusing on the user-controlled team. If your team is getting belted, expect the attention to focus on the winning team. Be sure to also check out the amazing Pressbook after each game, which includes around fifty great snapshots of the most memorable moments from the game.
The NBA as a whole has been captured with an exquisite level of detail, from unique player animations for the best the sport has to offer, to energetic bench celebrations, and dynamic crowds that slowly fill up during the first quarter. The NBA is infamously known for being quite strict on how particular animations are incorporated into officially licensed NBA products, but they seem to have let their hair down a bit with NBA 2K11. Having empty seats in the stadium is hardly a selling point, but it’s pretty cool and adds a certain level of realism to the experience. Players also move and react with the same amount of eagerness as their real-life counterparts. Derrick Rose is near impossible to stop on the fast break, shifting direction mid-air for the crazy circus shot around three big defenders. Paul Pierce moves with a level of craftiness that is reminiscent of his real-life play, whereas Kobe breaths life into the arena with placid and somewhat arrogant mid-range fist-pumps.
As for the gameplay, NBA 2K11 is out to get you and destroy you in every single facet of the game. The AI has been upped quite significantly from last year’s iteration, making the fast break a rarity and the cross-court pass almost impossible to pull off. All an AI defender needs is one foot in front of your teammate and they’ll be able to cut off your pass. 2K Sports has tried to create as realistic an experience as possible, distancing the gameplay as far away from the arcadey rubbish we basketball fans have been subjected to for going on seven years. No matter what difficulty you play on in the NBA 2K11, the AI will absolutely punish you if you’re not aware and are all too willing to take the risk. The bounce pass through defenders might work every now and then, but it’s not worth the risk. Furthermore, the game is heavily reliant on set plays that are automatically incorporated into each team, which allows you to slow the game down and get particular players into the game when you’re struggling.
That’s where a lot of the realism shines through. As a diehard Chicago Bulls fan (I’m one of those suckers that forks out $200 a year for NBA League Pass Broadband), I know the ins and outs of essentially every player on the team, even if they’ve been a new addition in the off-season. I can benefit from this, because I know not to run a play for Joakim Noah that’ll put him at the top of the key on his own against a defender. As for Carlos Boozer, well, he’s more than capable of hitting the jump shot from long range. However, if you’re not as passionate about the league as I am, the included plays mostly take advantage of each player’s skill level, so running a certain play will almost always put your players in positions best suited to their style of play. Kyle Korver for example is essentially a surety on the corner mid-range jumper, whereas Derrick Rose loves the open shot at the top of the key. NBA 2K11 has roughly 24 plays for each team spread out across the five positions, with each play mapped out on the four face buttons, so accessing them and running them is easy and accessible.
Running a play dictates absolute precision though, and if you don’t have the patience to make position and wait for your AI teammates to get into position, it might take you a little longer to get used to the punishing difficulty incorporated into NBA 2K11. Sometimes the game is just too hard for its own good, and it will take you a while to get used to not passing up court to a running player if he has an opponent within a few feet of him. A high number of turnovers is almost a given for your team, so you need to make sure you’re ready on defense, otherwise the opponent AI will destroy you on the scoreboard.
Once you get used to your team and understand the complexities of the difficulty levels, NBA 2K11 is a highly rewarding basketball experience. The AI-controlled players on both sides move constantly and switch on defense, meaning you can control one player and allow the computer to do the rest for you. Funnily enough, the AI will always be the better option on defense for you, as it’s just as damaging on offense as it is on defense with its pass-snatching ways. It’s a real challenge to control your Point Guard on defense and stay in position against the opponent ball-handler, whereas controlling your Center can lead to a lot of opposing offensive rebounds and put backs until you learn how to time your jumps perfectly to grab the defensive board. Still, it’s a better option than constantly switching players around to follow the ball around the key, as the opponent AI will take advantage of open players. If you move in for the double team, you’ll notice your teammates moving around for the switch, but it will always leave a player open for the dunk or open jump shot. The AI will almost always take advantage of this, which is on par with what a real-life team would do in a similar situation. NBA 2K11 tries very hard to play just like the real thing, and it’s as close we’ve ever seen it. This is an accurate virtual portrayal of the game of basketball, with movements, intelligence and plays that are reminiscent of the complexities of the sport of basketball.
Teams play just as they do in real-life – the Pistons are slow and defensive minded, the Warriors are fast but shocking on defense, whereas the Spurs will suffocate you with their defense and punish you with their fast breaks. While the superstars of the league play with as much damaging skill as they do in the real game, there’s a much bigger focus on the team than the individual. For example, if Kevin Durant goes for 45 points, it won’t make much of a difference if the rest of his team his devilishly ill from the field and can’t make a basket. If you manage to shut down a majority of the team, you can rest assured you’ll probably come out on top.
As for the core gameplay mechanics, including the great IsoMotion, much has been improved, making NBA 2K11 a game that is much more reliant on your own skill than the actual implementation of the controls. In previous years, you could make an error simply because the controls were broken or the AI screwed you over. This year, any error you make will be entirely your fault, as almost every facet as been improved and expanded on, forcing you to focus and ensure you use every mechanic to its best ability. While in last year’s game you could break ankles with a Greg Oden crossover, try it this year and you’ll almost certainly lose the ball. The controls are outstanding because they dictate precision, allowing you to incorporate a level of tactical gameplay that was infrequent in previous iterations. Furthermore, the implementation of Move on the PS3 version works well for the most part, allowing you to control your player and shoot with a realistic flow of motion using the new motion-sensing device.
Still, the gameplay isn’t perfect. Your dominant center will still occasionally miss the lay-up directly under the basket, even under limited or no pressure. The rule should be that any player with a certain skill level should be able to perform a particular task on the court without any issues, including a dunk. Carlos Boozer should not be missing two or three layups per game, and while the opponent AI does a good job most of the time on suffocating your low-post players, your players don’t react and move well enough to counter the double-team.
The Association mode, which is NBA 2K’s franchise mode, has been given a presentation overhaul, as well as improved GM logic that ups the ante and challenge quite significantly. Teams are built around the needs and coaching style of your head coach, meaning it’s near impossible to trade for a superstar from another team unless you’re giving them something similar in return. While in previous years you could probably work out a swap for Kobe Bryant if you threw in a few low-80s ranked players and a first round draft pick, there’s no way in hell the Lakers are going to give up their team centerpiece. Free Agents also react based on team chemistry and your style, so a defensive-minded player isn’t going to sign with your offensive-minded team, no matter how much money you throw at them. Your players are also assigned roles, which must be met in order to maintain a high level of chemistry. If you have a player with a Starter role coming off the bench, you better ensure he gets plenty of game time to make up for not being a starter, otherwise his mood will deteriorate.
The opposition team AI can be just as damaging off-court as it can be on-court, often trying to swindle your best players in a trade that appears attractive at first, but actually turns out to hurt your team chemistry. You need to ensure you know your team needs before making a trade, no matter what ranking the player coming in has. My Bulls team only had one center but three power forwards, and taking into considering the defensive-minded approach of coach Tom Thibodeau, I traded away bench warmer Brian Scalabrine and the rights to a future 2012 first-round draft pick to the Pistons for Ben Wallace. This cut the Pistons’ horrendous payroll while giving them access to a young player in a few years, whereas the Bulls got a veteran center with a great defensive IQ and a contract that expires in two years time.
The trade logic works very well, allowing three-team trades, the trading of future draft picks, and a better association with team needs. The league also maintains a high level of quality after a number of years, meaning a cellar-dweller like the Warriors isn’t going to win the Championship in the fourth year of your franchise. There’s rarely a moment that distances the experience away from the real-life NBA, meaning the best teams that draft well and have the pieces to sign big free agents are always going to be the teams that go deep into the playoffs. A highly sought-after free agent isn’t going to sign with the Clippers, no matter how much room in the cap they have.
Then there’s My Player, a mode that is long, tedious and at-times boring, but has a conclusion that makes it all worth it. Creating your own player and leading him through the D-League to the NBA is a long, dry process, and while you might find it difficult with limited incentive early on, finally making the NBA with your player is rewarding and very cool. Reporters ask you questions about trade rumours, the way your team plays and your position on the team, and your responses are reflected down onto your teammates, who react accordingly. You can choose to be the arrogant, egotistic arse that only cares about money (ahem, LeBron), or you can be the team-driven superstar that is driven by success and loyalty. It’s just a shame that it takes so damn long to reach the peak.
The Final Verdict
NBA 2K11 offers so much that any type of gamer can appreciate its quality, whether they’re a basketball fan or not. The Michael Jordan aspects alone make this a worthy purchase, but The Association, great NBA implementation, realistic presentation and gameplay, and great AI make the core gameplay experience one to remember. NBA 2K11 is as good as it’s ever been for basketball games, and is an absolute must-have leading into the highly anticipated 2011 NBA season.