In much the same way that EA dominates the football and hockey genres, 2K has held a firm stranglehold on basketball for the better part of the decade. The NBA 2K series has seen steady, incremental improvements over the years, and has managed to stay one step ahead of EA’s Live series and several steps ahead of Sony’s now-defunct NBA: The Inside franchise. This year’s offering promised a more in-depth, realistic take on the sport, as well as a level of presentation that had never been previously achieved. NBA 2K11 unquestionably lives up to those lofty aspirations, but with too much focus on its cover-star, Michael Jordan, and major issues with several of the game’s modes, there’s a distinct feeling that its impressive mechanics could have been put to better use.
More than ever, NBA 2K11 is a highly realistic NBA simulator. Whereas last year’s game could be exploited by quick guards, this year’s game clamps down a bit more on the little guys, and forces players to funnel the ball through their big men, much like real NBA games. Feeding the ball to your center may seem less exciting than focusing on the quick movements of your 2-guard, and it does slow the game down to amore realistic pace, but NBA 2K11 gives low-post players many more offensive options than last year, allowing them to use post moves, square up for jumpers, pop quick hook shots, or kick it out to an open guard. Different combinations of triggers and the left and right analog sticks will perform a wide variety of offensive moves, like up-and-unders, drop steps, and post ups, and while the new controls take some practice to master, they open up the offensive game considerably, and really enhance the feeling that you’re playing NBA basketball, as opposed to a street game. Guard play has seen some improvements, too, and quicker, more agile players can take advantage of a similarly expanded moveset. Upping the game’s realism also increases its challenge. Players need to think like an NBA coach or point guard when running their offenses, as long cross-court passes are now far more likely to be stolen away by opponents. This turns NBA 2K11 into more of a thinking man’s basketball game, and the change is a welcome one.
In general, the game’s AI is pretty bright, but there are moments where computer-controlled players will make bizarre decisions that can take you out of the experience. Loose ball situations are especially prone to this, and it’s not uncommon to see your teammates ignore a ball as it rolls out of bounds. Computer-controlled players will also heave up terrible shots from time to time, but overall, the AI is improved from last year.
The new, hyper-realistic mechanics are backed up by some of the most impressive visuals ever seen in a sports game. On-court action is remarkably fluid, and players move around the court just as one would expect NBA players to. Collision detection between players is excellent, meaning quick cuts to the basket are often cut off by defensive screens, and big men are frequently seen boxing out and fighting for position. It’s a beautiful thing to watch in motion, and in the hands of a skilled player, the game can be hard to distinguish from real basketball.
All of the modes found in last year’s game are present in 2K11, and while one has been improved upon, others have either stagnated or taken steps backwards. Association mode is better than ever, with some excellent team management options and a great new trade finder that makes it easier than ever to put your team together the way you want. AI teams are much smarter, as well, and make personnel moves that actually make sense. It’s one of the best franchise modes we’ve ever seen, and offers nearly limitless replayability.
In stark contrast to Association mode’s various improvements, My Player mode is a poorly executed attempt to emulate EA’s “Be-A-Pro” mode, and suffers from the same issues as last year’s. Starting players off as a college “star,” My Player mode first tasks players with competing in the NBA Draft combines. This consists of three scrimmages with other highly touted college players. The problem here is that while college stars like John Wall, Evan Turner, and Derrick Favors all have appropriate overall ratings between 80-85, the player you control starts off as a 41. I understand that the game wants players to start small and build up their player over an extended period of time, but starting players off with the skills of a mediocre high school player is silly. Moreover, the game judges your performance in extremely harsh and sometimes arbitrary ways. Scoring points, even off of well-selected shots, fails to benefit your player as much as letting your opponent score hurts him, and players are punished for everything from bad transition defense to allowing passes inside, even if they had nothing to do with the play. It’s far too punishing, and will undoubtedly scare off many less skilled or dedicated players.
Online play, which was relatively smooth and lag-free last year, suffers from terrible slowdown at times, making it nearly unplayable. It’s a real shame, too; the new game mechanics and animations should make for some epic NBA action between friends, but until the servers can be upgraded to handle the load, it’s not really a viable option.
As evidenced by the cover, Michael Jordan is the star of this year’s game. In addition to his presence on the cover and the ability to play as any of his championship teams, NBA 2K11 offers players the opportunity to recreate some of His Airness’ greatest games in Jordan Moments. Attempting to score 63 against the 1986 Celtics or drop 38 and seven boards against the 1997 Jazz isn’t as fun as it sounds, though. The mode forces players to play selfishly, and ignore the mechanics that work so well in the rest of the game. Unlike the Madden Moments that seemingly inspired the mode, all Jordan Moments are full games, and many of the challenges require Jordan to hold his man below a certain score. These can be extremely frustrating, with legendary scorers like Clyde Drexler and Dominique Wilkins simply refusing to be stopped late in games. When this happens after finishing 90% of the game, it can be extremely irritating to have to restart entirely.
NBA 2K11’s players look fantastic on the court, but what makes the game such a visual standout is its incredibly realistic presentation. Team intros are a bit bland, but every other aspect of the game’s faux broadcast is spot-on. Halftime reports are expertly done, featuring in-game highlights and analysis from Clark Kellogg and Kevin Harlan, and the post-game wrap-up is even more robust. In-game commentary is some of the best ever, with long stretches of game-specific dialogue that can actually be interrupted and picked up later by the announcers. There are just too many clever and well-implemented touches to mention here, but suffice it to say that the game looks more like its real-world counterpart than just about any sports game ever.
NBA 2K11 is, without a doubt, the best basketball simulator ever made. It offers more options on offense and defense than any basketball game ever made, and does it with an incredible sense of style and polish. Michael Jordan’s involvement is a nice touch, but the main reason for his presence, Jordan Moments, seem a bit unbalanced. The fact that playing online or in My Player mode is such a chore is a real shame, and really hurts the overall value of the game. It’s still a fantastic b-ball experience, but its uneven challenge level throughout the different modes keep it from being a truly great title.