“Quite possibly, the best basketball game ever made.”
- Incredible depth
- Smooth gampley
- Jordan mode delivers
- Online connectivity issues
- Inconsistent graphics
- AI can be too good at weird times
I don’t typically begin a review by discussing my personal biases, but in this case I think it is important to frame the man-crush I have for NBA2K11. I have never been a fan of basketball video games, but I really, really wanted to be. I love basketball. I went to the University of Kansas, where basketball is a religion, and figures like James Naismith are legends that have streets named after them. I have played several basketball games over the years, both college and pro, and on all the systems that I have owned throughout the years — of which there have been many — I enjoyed many basketball games, but generally played them and forgot about them. So please understand that I am not exaggerating when I say that NBA2K11 is without question, the best basketball video game I have ever played.
The game isn’t without a few minor flaws, but 2K Sports put a lot of care and thought into this game. Everything in it exists for a reason, and while in most yearly franchises you simply get a newer version of the same thing, NBA2K11 is a significant improvement over its predecessor. It isn’t perfect, but it won me over. And then of course there is Michael Jordan.
The Jordan Challenges
Adding Michael Jordan to NBA2K11 is much more than a gimmick; it is a complete section of the game that could stand on its own. It is too short to justify a full price tag, but 2K could have simply released the Jordan Challenges as a download, and it would be a hit. But since it is just one part of an incredibly deep game, it makes NBA2K11 the best value in terms of basketball video games on the market, and arguably in terms of sports games on the market, too.
When you start the game for the first time, you will find yourself standing in the tunnel behind Jordan. You then run out onto the court and begin your NBA2K11 experience by facing off against Magic Johnson and the ‘90-‘91 Lakers in the first game of the 1991 NBA Finals. Then the game begins.
The Jordan Challenges comprise 10 moments from Jordan’s history, from his early days to his return from retirement. They ask you to play through the games and match Jordan’s impressive feats, such as dropping more than 63 on Larry Bird’s Celtics or better FG average against the Knicks after Jordan’s return from baseball, or outscoring Dominic Wilkins while holding him under 25 points.
For those of us who grew up watching Jordan, it is a nostalgic tour through our childhoods, where Jordan was king, and the NBA was in a golden age where players like Magic and Isiah Thomas helped define the era. They were bigger than life- modern day heroes that belonged on cereal boxes. The stories being retold are the legends of our youth. Even if you hate basketball, it is hard to forget the iconic image of Jordan simply shrugging after making six three-pointers against the Trailblazers in the ’92 Finals- which as a Portland resident was tough to relive. The Jordan Challenges let you relive those moments, and they do so in style.
The challenges are not easy. In fact, they can be positively annoying at times, unless you are a veteran of NBA2K games, and even then they are hard. But completing them rewards you with the ability to start a career with a young Michael Jordan. He starts out as a top-rated rookie, but you will need to build him into the behemoth he is destined to be. Once you do, you can assign him to the team you want.
Controlling the rock
While the inclusion of Jordan into the game makes it a story worthy of headlines, his role would be seen as little more than a gimmick designed to sell games if gameplay were just average. Thankfully, NBA2K11 nailed it.
The controls have been tightened over previous games, making it surprisingly easy to switch strategies on the fly and set up plays with the push of a few buttons. The IsoMotion movements with the left stick have also been improved, which allows for better ball control and a more natural feel to the game. For example, while you are dribbling, you hold the left trigger and press the opposite direction for the ballhandler to switch hands. Add in a half circle and he will dribble behind the back. Time it right and you can burn defenders, back them down, or perform several other movements, all with the proper timing.
The right stick, known as the ShotStick, also opens up dozens of possibilities. It takes some time to get used to it, but once you do, it makes it possible to pull off some incredible plays. You can even change the play while in the middle of another and create new moves. If you go up for a layup, but it looks like you are about to be blocked, the ShotStick will allow you to switch hands in mid air and try to get around the defenders’ arms. It takes practice, and during a game you will make more errors than great plays at first, but thankfully you can get by with the shoot button until you feel comfortable with the ShotStick. Plus, it gives you something to keep playing and practicing. You may pick up the way it works quickly, but it will take time to master it.
The AI has also seen a big boost as well, which is good and bad. It is much smarter than in previous games, and it will look to exploit weaknesses. Even on the rookie difficulty setting, the AI will play a smart game. Some might not like that you won’t be able to dunk on every play, but it helps to make the game feel more like a real game of basketball.
One of the problems that stands out is the insanely self-aware AI. If you throw a pass near another player, even if he’s running in the opposite direction, has his back turned to you, and is not rated as a good defender, he will grab the pass if the ball is anywhere near him. He could literally be on fire and screaming for water, but he would still manage to grab the interception, like a piece of metal near a magnet. “Frustrating” is a kind way to describe it. There is a reason for it though. NBA2K11 wants you to play the game like a real basketball game. Developers put a lot of work into the team dynamics — more on that in a bit — and they don’t want you ruining all their hard work by doing fast break after fast break. That doesn’t mean you won’t get plenty of fast breaks, but you can’t force them like you could in previous games. This is not NBA Jam, and the defense won’t take kindly to you trying to play it that way.
Speaking of the defense, the matchups will be key, which is another nod to the AI. If you have Lebron James against a 7-foot perennial bench rider that you have never heard of, you can shake him with a quick move, then shoot for an easy basket. If you try to drive on him though, you will probably get swatted. The same is true when you are on defense. If you try to pair up Greg Oden against Kobe, Kobe will burn you every time. In fact, the game is so realistic that you can expect to see Oden injured and out for the season in week three (I kid, I kid!). The AI is smart, and it wants to win. In terms of technical achievement, this is actually fairly amazing work.
As for the teams, they will match their coaching style according to your play. If you have the paint locked down and are dominating the inside game, the AI will sub in their best shooters and fire away, forcing you to adapt or get left behind. It ensures that every game you play will feel slightly different, and no two games will be identical.
Overall, the gameplay is spot on, and it feels as natural as a basketball game can. The passing is a bit of an issue, but only if you try passes you probably shouldn’t try anyway, and there is a way to bring up each player’s button icon and pass directly to them that helps. There was a great deal of thought and programming put into this game, and it shows.
The sight, sounds and feel of the NBA
The graphics are good, but not great. That doesn’t really matter though, because the character animations are amazing. The players move and react naturally, and it is detailed enough that you might want your player to dribble with his other hand because a defender’s arm is within stealing distance. The courts also look good, and each location is exacting in its detail.
The problem with the graphics lies with the faces of the players. It won’t affect the game in any way, but the Trailblazers’ coach, Nate McMillan, looks like an angry Mr. Potatohead, while Dwayne Wade looks like a bored robot. It stands out. But again, it does not affect the game, and you might chuckle at the graphics at that point and move on.
The sound works well, and the soundtrack isn’t bad and features several top names including a new track from Snoop Dogg, but you won’t hear it much beyond the menus and a few gametypes. The court sounds are executed well, and the commentators know their stuff, although you will quickly hear the same lines repeated.
If you were trapped on a desert island with just one video game…
NBA2K11 is a deep game, with play modes that will take you days just to try out. You have the stuff you expect: the season, franchise modes, playoffs and online games, but all are done so well that they should set the bar for basketball games to come. The AI again shines, especially when you play through a season or two and begin to work the draft and free agent market. There is always a sense of purpose to trades and an intelligence behind it, and each team is looking for specific trades to help their franchise, rather than just trying to nab every great player.
The create-a-player mode also returns, and 2K missed the mark on this a bit. It takes forever to get your player up to the NBA. It takes so long, that most people probably just won’t have the patience, unless they are utterly determined to see their own name in the game, and even when they do land their player in the NBA, it will still take a long time to build them up. Once you create your character, you will need to take him through an NBA combine and pull off a handful of requested plays. It is more of a chore than a treat, and it is not something you look forward to. There are a few cool reasons to do it, including press conferences where your answers determine how others play around you, and how the crowds treat you, but only the most determined will have the dedication to find out.
The NBA Blacktop, which adds a dunk contest, a three-point shootout, and a few other mini-games is alright, but more of a mini-game than anything worth getting excited over. It is a good addition though, just not an important one.
The online play was solid, but there were only a handful of people online when we tested the game. All the options you expect are to be found, including the ability to form or join a crew, and the option to be part of an online season. What we were able to play ran smoothly, and everything worked as you might hope. Once tens of thousands of get connected, the online play alone could make it worth the purchase.
If you are a basketball fan that enjoys video games, this game is an easy 10 out of 10, and nothing else comes close. For the more casual fan, the learning curve is going to be fairly steep, but if you give it a chance, the more you play, the more you will enjoy it.
A few minor problems mar the game, including seemingly preternatural defenses that have total awareness no matter where they are or what they are doing, and the graphics, in regards to the characters, border between weird and “meh.” The awareness is a deliberate attempt to make you play like differently, and the character animations are top notch, so it is easy to overlook the minor flaws.
The highest praise I can give this game is that even if you hate sports games in general, NBA2K11 is worth at least trying. It is definitely the best basketball game out, and it might even be the best sports game period, but that will come down to individual tastes. Everything in the game is there for a reason, and once you understand that reasoning, it all makes perfect sense. The game is already deep and the gameplay is stellar, but adding Jordan is almost unfair to all other basketball games. For NBA fans, this game is a must have.
9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by 2K Sports)
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