Replay Value: 9
His Airness is back. NBA 2K11 focuses squarely on the legendary player and gives fans the single best virtual presentation of Michael Jordan’s unbelievable abilities. But on top of that, we get what is easily the most accurate and most fulfilling basketball simulator of the generation thus far, which means EA’s NBA Elite 11 must really step up when it finally releases next year. 2K Sports should be able to take advantage of the competition’s delay, especially because hardcore, veteran fans of the sport should really appreciate the significant improvements made over last year’s iteration. They’ve refined and fine-tuned just about every last aspect of the gameplay and overall presentation and in the end, this title looks and sounds a whole lot like the real thing. It only falls just shy of awesome elite status due to online issues, some lingering AI problems, and a few minor drawbacks that tend to pile up over time.
Although I’m still not overly impressed with the player detail and animations, I have to remind myself that Visual Concepts needed to capture the likeness of hundreds upon hundreds of players, not to mention coaches, referees and fans. And really, it’s probably just nitpicking. The developers put a huge amount of effort into even the smallest element of the visual presentation; from the moment Jordan is introduced to the time when you’re driving the lane after a signature, ankle-breaking skill, you’ll become deeply immersed in the display. The actual gameplay animations are silky smooth and you only catch hiccups in terms of frame rate and collision detection during inactive sequences. There’s a lot to like and most fans of the sport in question will be satisfied. You might even trick your eyes into thinking you’re looking at a real basketball game, and that’s because 2K addressed all possible graphical details.
The sound is almost as good, as the commentary is about as accurate as one could expect, the sound effects are spot-on, and the soundtrack is varied and constantly works to enhance the atmosphere. You might get a particularly kickin’ soundtrack during a fun round of NBA Blacktop, and the fans will react realistically to the home team’s successes (and failures). There’s only one thing missing, and that’s the on-court effects, which – besides the squeaking sneakers and the bouncing of the ball – seems lacking. For instance, players make almost no sound when running into one another, so there’s very little in the way of impact effects. But because the designers make just about everything else in the game sound amazing, I can ignore this flaw. It’s an appropriately diverse assembly of pinpoint audio, extremely authentic announcers that don’t often foul up, great musical accompaniment and ambient effects.
When one first starts the game, you can’t even access the menu until you complete one quick introductory game: Game 1 of the 1991 Championship between the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Chicago Bulls. That’s right; Magic vs. Jordan. Now, you might not win that game because everything will be pretty new, but I still think tossing the player directly into the action is a nice touch. It forces you to sort of crack open the instruction book and get a handle on the basic gameplay controls, and really highlights so many of the game’s strengths. In short, NBA 2K11 puts its best foot forward right off the bat. You’ll immediately notice the great physics with realistic momentum and direction changing, the enhanced technical aspects, and the new challenge of dealing with a competent defense. Of course, it might seem a little too difficult, but that’s mostly due to a better recreation of the sport. I will say, however, that opponent AI and defensive capabilities can feel a little…lame.
But you know what? If you work at it, you will be rewarded. Once you’ve got the basics down – Square or the right analog shoots, the X button passes and the Triangle button jumps – you can buckle down and learn how to run a successful offense. A successful offense in the NBA means taking advantage of ones strengths and minimizing the weaknesses, so if you’ve got a team that likes to run, push the ball up the court. If your opponent’s occasionally annoying lock-down defense is pinning you down, run some pick and rolls, send a player cutting to the basket, try to draw some fouls, or let your star player shine with signature moves and potentially dominating skill. The best news I can deliver is that skill is indeed rewarded; those who work to really master the controls and the on-court strategy will reap the benefits. This is exactly what every simulator strives for.
The post-up game finally lets the big men have their day in the sun, and that new upgraded feature alone sets the game apart and makes it feel more complete. And it doesn’t end there. As 2K put a lot of time and resources into the look and style, they put just as much effort into the mechanics. Behind the back, through the legs, spins, sprints, even leaning in different directions with the right analog to give you better position; it’s all here, and all just waiting to be sampled. If you think you can ignore all that and win, think again. This is a simulator, and one that does it’s job exceedingly well. The addition of Jordan is a big ol’ feather in its cap, too, although the 10 Jordan Challenges might be a touch too demanding, even for the hardcore. It’s also a bit of a drawback that you can’t actually put Jordan into a current NBA season (where he’ll start as a rookie), until you complete all his specific Challenges. Good luck with that.
On the downside, I keep thinking the defense is almost psychic, as they can easily pick off cross-court passes, and unless you actually see a clear path between you and your target, it’s bound to get intercepted and knocked away. They took this too far and what’s worse is that your team can’t seem to make the same plays. Either that, or the computer is just that good at the passing game. Furthermore, success in basketball often depends on ball movement amongst the team, and because you almost have to use the advanced form of passing (hold R1 and see your teammates designed by a face button or shoulder button), things slow down. You just can’t do that quickly. I also noticed that no matter how well I played defense, most any team I played against was perfectly capable of shooting 60-70% from the floor, which is a recurring problem in b-ball simulators. Even this one, which is the best attempt yet, doesn’t get it quite right.
Oh, and I have to say, I know a few people who would actually play this game online with me, but it has all sorts of problems. There’s a lot of lag and other technical failures, and this can get pretty frustrating. However, I’m not about to judge the game too harshly on this last drawback for two reasons: 1. the depth of this game is so insane, what with a large number of gameplay modes and supremely deep and functional mechanics, one person could easily lose themselves in this one, and 2. the online issues are something 2K can fix over time. Let’s not forget that. For now, the online play seems to be in desperate need of a patch, but it can be fixed. Therefore, I prefer to focus on everything Visual Concepts does right, and…um…they do a lot right. The presentation, atmosphere and mood is about as good as you could hope for, and the refinements to the gameplay – which is far and away the most important – are absolutely essential. In short, if you’re an avid fan, NBA 2K11 is what you’ve been looking for.
Provided you’re willing to work at it, and you can look past a dash of cheap AI, you can easily spend the entire NBA season with this game and love every minute of it. If you’re wondering if it’s better than NBA 2K10, the answer is a big fat "YES." Everyone always wants to know if this year's version of a particular sports franchise is "more of the same" or an actual improvement, and NBA 2K11 is definitely the latter.