NBA 2K11 Review (Xbox 360)
When you boot up NBA 2K11 the first time, he is there to greet you. His Airness emerging from the tunnel, "Sirius" by the Alan Parsons Project (Bulls introduction theme song) playing at the Chicago Stadium, and the PA announcer introducing the players to an audience that I was now a part of despite being behind a TV screen. It was Jordan, it was June 1991, and it was Magic all over again.
This phenomenal intro was a great way to start off the NBA 2K11 experience, and it also set the tone for what the game has to offer this year.
This opening sequence capsulized the fact that the developers at 2K Sports team were up to the challenges that came with using one of the most popular sports figures in history as a cover athlete for their top franchise.
Meeting the expectations that come with creating an authentic Jordan experience would have been enough, but 2K Sports didn't stop there. NBA 2K11 dared to go even beyond that and put together the most compelling basketball video game to date. Just like MJ had done throughout his career, NBA 2K11 sought out greatness.
The man, the challenge, the legend.
There are eight different versions of Michael Jordan in NBA 2K11, differentiating in age, ratings, appearance and style of play. All eight are the best NBA 2K players you’ll ever play with because all but the 1994–95 Jordan have a 99-overall rating. You can choose to play with any of these different Jordans right away in exhibition modes, or you can attempt to complete the Jordan Challenge.
Here, you get a shot at re-enacting 10 games that helped define Jordan’s career against his most formidable foes like Magic, Bird, the Bad Boys of Detroit and the bad sushi in Utah -- or better known as the "Flu Game." The game does a great job detailing all 10 games as well. Taking place in the original arenas, the games look similar to what you might come across on ESPN Classic. The commentary chatter is based on events that were occurring at that time, like Scottie Pippen’s troublesome back during the Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. The classic teams also play like their historical counterparts. For instance, Jordan’s "Arrival" game against the Celtics in '86 had a handful of isolation plays for No. 23 to do his thing, while Jordan versus the Jazz in '96 got most of his looks in the mid-post in a Phil Jackson triangle offense.
Sadly, once the nostalgia wears off, the Jordan Challenge loses its luster. The objectives of each challenge make the games feel a bit too constrained and less like free-flowing organic basketball. However, every MJ or NBA fan of the '90s will definitely get a kick out of playing as the different Bulls teams or with the legendary players and teams they played against.
Fortunately, playing as MJ does not end there, and it also becomes more fun with the Creating A Legend mode. I laid out a few options of how to draft a rookie Jordan months ago, but little did I know the importance of choosing the right team to get the most out of the re-creating Jordan experience. Although some still will, drafting MJ to the Lakers might not be as satisfying as you would like. I say that because your team plays realistically with established rotations and an offensive pecking order. Playing alongside a 97-rated Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol leaves little opportunities for a young Jordan. Even though you’re able to call plays for your team, the AI is smart enough to ignore you if there’s a better option -- and with an veteran Kobe on the floor, there’s always a better option.
For that same reason, you should think twice about heading to Miami. But hey, do what you want, LeBron certainly did. Ultimately though, the mode is fun to play regardless of what city or beach you choose to take your talents to since you are after all controlling Michael Jordan night in and night out.
The mode plays very similar to the My Player mode, as each game has specific goals to be reached to gain reward points that improve Michael's attributes. The in-game grading scale is more intuitive and better detailed in NBA 2K11. A bar at the top right of your screen always displays your grade and what exactly you did to get there. However, the bar does not only display what positive or negative action you performed, but also exactly how much the action was worth. For instance, setting a pick is a good act, but it’s not going to give you as many grade points as taking and making a good shot. I'm sure Mark Madsen’s rolling over in his grave right now, but hey that’s just how the NBA works, and NBA 2K11’s Create A Legend follows suit.
Your Jordan can request a trade, but sadly there’s no "Kobe option" to withdraw requests based on your mood swings. You can also suggest to your front office what players you want traded to your team. However, my young MJ got drafted to the Timberwolves, so he knew better than to ask David Kahn to make a move that actually made basketball sense. (My team on rare occasion will sub in Corey Brewer and Martell Webster as the two big men, while $20 million center Darko Milicic rides the bench.) I do wish simulating through the schedule was an option since a 10-year NBA career is pretty lengthy, but overall the mode is definitely a great addition to the NBA 2K11 lineup.
On the Court
Michael Jordan is not the only great thing about this year’s 2K hoops game. In NBA 2K11, on the court is where amazing happens. Although a bit difficult to get the hang of at first, the new Isomotion controls are much more efficient and realistic. The new way to handle the ball and player movement is based on a principle all students and gamers of the basketball should know -- dribble moves are a way to get from point A to point B, not showing off your "crazy" handles whilst never moving from point A. Pull off the right combination of skills with the left trigger in NBA 2K11, and you’ll be pulling off triple-threat moves that would make Carmelo blush.
My one qualm with dribbling moves is the effectiveness of the step-back dribble. The move often creates so much space that you can essentially go from around the charity stripe to the 3-point line in an instance -- not even Dwyane Wade gets that much separation on a step-back dribble. It's about the only cheap move within what is otherwise an outstanding area for NBA 2K11.
Shooting the ball in this year’s game is also really a game changer. Signature gathers, leaners, momentum shots, drifting right, drifting left, contested shots, and on and on. It’s almost like playing with Kobe Bryant’s full repertoire.
But makeovers were not limited to just the flashy stuff, passing too has also been upgraded. Pass fakes are back, and a new total-control passing system (using the right stick to make passes as well being able to control guys off the ball) is available via a menu option. Players now juggle bobbled passes upon reception or reach out, sometimes unsuccessfully, for wayward attempts as well. Much like how the 2K Sports team finally figured out the alley-oop pass in NBA 2K9, passing out of jumpers or layups is now nicely implemented in NBA 2K11. These leads to players like Rajon Rondo and CP3 making those gorgeous wraparound passes once they get into the teeth of the defense.
Speaking of the drive and kick game, spacing by the AI is stellar, and so too is the presence of mind by perimeter players to jump behind the three-point line in a ready-to-shoot stance upon receiving a pass. More life-like reactions are also evident. Players do not always stick a perfect landing on a contested jumper, and they now even go against the new NBA rules and demonstrate to refs how they got hacked on their last drive to the rim. You also have much more control over dunks and layups. Pull off the right move at the right time and you might get a sweet-looking poster plus a nice little pose for the cameras after the dunk. However, having the euro-step layup as its own command seems like a stretch because only a handful of NBA players have the move in their arsenal.
Overall, all the intricate additions and added user-control help to create something that plays like the most realistic basketball game ever. Simply put, NBA 2K11 is the closest any sports video game has ever come to depicting the actual real-life sport in both feel and visuals.
NBA 2K11 boasts the best AI of its series, but not without a few odd hiccups along the way. Getting in the passing lane of the CPU’s first and second options on an inbounds pass leads to very interesting and fundamentally bad results. The player inbounding always looks to his third option, typically the big man in the post on the strong side of the ball, the issue is the recipient never moves to create a passing lane, and this results in a lot of awkward passes and turnovers. The AI will also occasionally launch a few bad passes far down the court even when there is noticeable traffic.
Beyond that, CPU players force up some real tough shots. This is understandable for players like Dwyane Wade, but something’s not just right about Johnny Flynn shooting a fade away at the free-throw line over two defenders on a three-on-two fast break. This is not the Big East anymore Jonny.
Luckily, none of these mishaps take away from the gameplay all that much. The AI does a great job of running team-specific offenses while still letting players show their real-life tendencies. In addition, the AI also plays an honest game on the defensive end. Basically, the CPU is not necessarily too difficult, but NBA 2K11 is more challenging than its predecessors because the AI is much smarter.
The Association and My Player
The Association through the years has been the richest mode in the NBA 2K series, and this year is no different. There are enough good upgrades and additions to make the mode feel new again. The individual and team stats are mostly on point if you simulate the games. You also don’t have to user-control all 30 teams to get a realistic NBA experience (at least not at the start, more on that in a moment) because things stay pretty much as realistic as you would expect. In my first season, the Lakers and Heat were the top seeds, LeBron won the MVP, All-NBA teams were carbon copies of last year’s NBA season, and of course Tracy McGrady got hurt for eight weeks in his first game back after a two-week layoff. What more do you want?
CPU trade logic was fairly decent, but I did receive a trade offer asking for my first-round pick in exchange for Sean Marks. I didn't even bother to respond. Then again, it's better that the AI is trying to swindle me than the other way around.
Player progression and regression also showed a realistic trend. Steve Nash fell off after season one, but Kevin Durant increased to a 94 overall, and players like Joe Johnson and Andre Iguodala saw no movement in either direction. This feature is nice to check out after the year ends because now you can see how each player progressed or regressed in a simple menu option. And, speaking of menus, they (along with the interface in general) are much better and cleaner this year.
However, there are some problems within the Association mode once the years progress. As Chase pointed out in his preview, home-road records are really out of whack from the start. On its own it's a minor issue, but it tends to throw off simulation results from a win-loss perspective, especially in the playoffs. You will see the home team blow out the away teams in the playoffs by 30-plus points way more than you probably should.
Beyond that issue, the auto-generated draft classes seem to be throwing off the amount of trades and free-agency signings that go on as the years progress. Because many of the rookies come in with relatively high ratings, teams will simply draft the players they need and pass on free agents or making trades to fill holes in their lineup. So as the years progress, better and better players will be in free agency and fewer and fewer trades will occur.
If you like to play every game, Association mode will more than hit the spot. Every game and every team will feel different, and the feeling of living and dying each game with your squad is readily apparent here. For those that are more into simulating lots of games and being more GM than coach, some of these problems will probably frustrate you in later years if you don't take your time to correct them manually.
My Player also received a few upgrades in NBA 2K11. Press conferences, shoe deals and Hall of Fame aspirations are neat additions, but perhaps the one issue with this mode is the very beginning of it. A player who is a 35 overall to start his career has little to no chance of becoming an NBA star, let alone a Hall of Famer.
Starting off as a 60-65 rated prospect would be a more realistic premise and a less tedious beginning to your career. Very few people probably want to spend time playing D-League video game basketball -- not even players in the D-League probably want to do it. My Player is still a well-crafted mode, but I believe Create A Legend will get more playing time in NBA 2K11 because everyone still wants to be like Mike.
Graphics and Presentation
The jerseys seem to fit better than the baggier uniforms from NBA 2K10. Player models are clearer, but not all player faces are picture perfect (many of the issues seem to arise when players show emotion). Nevertheless, viewing the "pressbook" after a Jordan Challenge game shows how much detail was put into creating the classic teams and the individual marquee players. And, the improved lighting in the arenas makes the games look much more like something you would see on a TV broadcast.
With all the other good things going for it, presentation is perhaps one of the best parts about NBA 2K11. The way in which the game is packaged, from the 1991 Finals introduction to the final buzzer of every game, is nicely done. You have the option of adding your own music, but the soundtrack is a great compilation of songs highlighted by "Little By Little" from The Chicharones. The in-game discussion between Kevin Harlan and Clark Kellogg touches on a lot of current storylines in the NBA, such as the forming of Miami’s big three, and even consists of a couple genuinely funny moments. The presentation aspect of this game shows just how much detail and attention was given to the development of NBA 2K11.
Online play has been the Achilles heel of the NBA 2K series over the years. This is one part of the game that has not quite met expectations so far, at least not yet. That being said, the game is light years ahead of where it was at this time last year, and this is probably with more people hammering the servers. Still, games have been dropping at a regular rate on both consoles (this seems to be getting better by the day though), and although the game looks smooth in motion, you still feel enough online lag to stop you from pulling of delicate stick moves like the "flick-flick" shots. In addition, it has still been hard to connect to random ranked games at times, and finding a Team-Up game that starts can be a chore.
It’s still the early stages though, and the 2K team is making tweaks seemingly twice a day right now, so there’s hope things will continue to get better. As for game modes, leagues are back in both fixed and flex schedule form, and Crew games have also made a return as well.
The verdict is still out on the online servers, but NBA 2K11 is a reason for all sports gamers to rejoice. The amount of effort and detail put into this year’s title by the 2K Sports team should raise the bar for all sports games moving forward. Playing and looking like real NBA basketball while giving fans the opportunity to play as His Airness makes NBA 2K11 the most realistic and fun basketball sim to date.
NBA 2K11 is not perfect and neither was Michael Jordan. But that didn't stop him from being the greatest.
On the Court: Great refinements with player movement, and more user control with Isomotion skills and shot types makes NBA 2K11 a basketball lover’s dream. Both the offense and defense have realistic chances at winning every one-on-one battle, and little additions like fake passes and refined player movement make the team game a very rewarding basketball experience.
Graphics: No mind-blowing changes in terms of player models, but good arena lighting and better fitting jerseys make NBA 2K11 look realistic in any camera view.
Audio: Awesome in-game commentary and a good soundtrack make this one of the rare sports video games you don’t rush to turn down the volume. Pregame cut scenes are cool, and Damon Bruce does a great job hosting the halftime show. NBA 2K11 brings its "A" game in this department.
Entertainment Value: The Jordan Challenge gets old quick but serves as a good dose of nostalgia. Creating A Legend is a fun and different way of playing the NBA season because playing as Michael Jordan really is as good as it gets. His signature moves, like the one-handed shot fakes, cradle dunks and layups only MJ would even think of, make you feel like you are watching those Michael Jordan highlight tapes all over again.
Learning Curve: The game is certainly the most challenging in the series to date, but there are a ton of sliders, tutorials and difficulty levels to appease fans of every level.
Online: Consistent online servers is what holds NBA 2K11 back from staking its claim as the best all-around sports game of this generation. A fair amount of games disconnect and there's enough lag to hinder the experience of NBA 2K11 online. In such a read and react sport, a delayed reaction could be the difference between blowing by a helpless defender for an easy two points or getting your shot sent to the bleachers. It's still early, however, and we've seen some improvements since the release so hopefully 2K Sports get the kinks all worked out soon.
Score: 9.0 (Exceptional)