Thoughts on the NBA Elite 2011 Demo

September 24, 2010 in Basketball, Game Reviews, NBA by pacejmiller

[If you want to read about first impressions of the 2K11 demo, click here, and if you want to read pre-demo thoughts on both games, click here]

I am speechless.  I am without speech.

A couple of days after the release of the NBA 2K11 demo, EA Sports followed with the demo of their game, NBA Elite 2011 (formerly Live).  I just downloaded it for free (on the PS3) and gave it a decent try…and all I can say is that I am astounded.

Last year’s NBA Live 2010 was pretty good, probably because Mike Wang, the guy who many credited for 2K’s success, was poached by EA to fix things up (he went back to 2K after Live 2010).  In my opinion Live 2010 was a relatively small step behind NBA 2K10, but there are others who have it the other way around.  The graphics were good, the gameplay was vastly improved, and for those who like their basketball sims a little more arcady (ie lots of flashy dunks and layups), Live was the better video game.

But this year, EA took a giant risk by going with David Littman, the guy behind the success of EA’s hockey series.  With him, Littman brought along a bunch of what he perceived as new things such as ‘total control, ‘real AI’ and ‘real physics’, in an effort to totally transform the game by rebuilding it from the ground up.

Did these things translate Elite into a good basketball sim?  Well…I can’t be definitive because I’ve only tried the demo.  But if the demo is anything to go by, then the gamble has certainly not paid off, because the result appears to be bordering on disaster.  In just about every facet of the game, Elite has taken a step back from Live 2010.

[To read on and see the videos click on ‘more…’]

Positives

I’ll ease myself in by starting with the positives.

First of all, as a demo it is more comprehensive than what 2K offered (4 minutes of the first quarter).  Elite’s demo starts off with a much-needed tutorial on the new controls, which are completely different to anything we’ve ever seen before in a basketball game.  You go through dribbling, shooting, layup, dunking and defense drills before you can start a proper game — the last 5 minutes of game 7 of the last season’s NBA Finals between the Lakers and Celtics.  And unlike 2K, you can choose either team.

Furthermore, you get a decent look at their new ‘Become Legendary’ mode, which is essentially an attempt to replicate 2K’s highly successful ‘My Player Mode’.  You actually get to make a very basic model of a player and get to play him in the Jordan Draft Showcase, where you play against John Wall and the other top rookies of 2010.  I liked this a lot as your first taste of pre-NBA basketball.

Unfortunately, there’s no sample of the much anticipated NBA Jam, but as far as demos go, this was pretty solid.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I liked the concept of the new controls.  It does at least try to give you total control with the left and right sticks, which you can use to dribble, shoot, layup and dunk.   And even though we’re still under the ‘Positives’ heading, I’m going to start venturing into the negatives already.

I don’t fault new controls for being different or initially difficult because all new control systems take time to learn.  When I made the switch from Live to 2K last year I struggled mightily getting used to the controls.  However, the problem with the total control system is that the margin for error is too small, and the controls are not responsive enough. For instance, dribbling moves are performed in the bottom half of the control stick circle, whereas shooting, dunks and layups are in the top half.  When you are staring at the screen, it’s very easy to creep over from one half to the other, meaning you might often find yourself taking unwanted shots or performing the wrong dribbles.

Further, the accuracy of a jumpshot is based not only on timing, but also on the angle at which you flick the right stick up.  To shoot a proper jumper, you need to flick it perfectly straight.  But of course, when you are playing, it’s actually not easy to do when you’re not looking at the control pad.  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the controls are not relative to what you see on the screen.  In other words, even when you turn the cameras to the side view, your shooting and dribbling controls remain as though you were still in the baseline view.

Passing and changing player is done with the R2 button.  I don’t have a problem with that per se, but it’s not very responsive.  There seems to always be a lag when changing from one player to another in defense.  Further, there is no direct pass or direct change of player (though you can change back to the conventional controls).  You have to use the directional stick to channel the pass in the direction of the player you want to pass or change to, and as I noted above, it’s not always as accurate as you would like, meaning you will often end up throwing bad cross court passes or changing into the wrong defensive player.

Maybe this can be overcome with lots of practice and patience, but I doubt it’ll ever be completely faultless.

Oh, and did I mention there’s no turbo button?

Negatives

Since I’ve already started, we might we well continue onto the negatives.

Where do I start?

Let’s start with the graphics, which I am not exaggerating when I say is not much better than PS2 visuals.  The Live series had always been very strong on visual representations of the players, but Elite was abysmal in this regard.  From the skin to the jerseys to the reflections, everything took a big step back in the graphics.  The cut scenes with close ups of the players look fairly decent, but the actual in-game graphics are simply shocking.  The net is just all wrong.  Rajon Rondo looks like freaking a stick figure.  Even the cheerleaders look weird.

Check out this hilarious video of the demo (be warned, lots of profanity).  Make sure you at least watch it from around the 3 minute mark!

What irked me more than the graphics were the player movements and animations.  This was probably my biggest complaint about the entire game.  There’s no excuse for how ugly, how awkward and how unnatural the players looked out there on the court.  It was like watching NBA Live 95 — players slide all over the court, especially from side to side and in the post.  Obvious and bizarre travels.  And don ‘t get me started on the shooting and dunking.

The shooting is designed to be ‘100% skill based’, meaning the success of the shot depends on how accurately the user flicks the right stick and the timing of the release.  To get a shot in, you need to release the shot at the top of the player’s jump.  But any moron who has ever seen or played a game of basketball will know that not all players shoot the same way (ie at the peak of their jump).  Some players, like Ilgauskas, barely even get off the ground for a jump shot.  But in Elite, they all seem to shoot in the same mechanical, unnatural way.  Do you think Kobe Bryant shoots the same way as Kevin Martin or Shawn Marion?  Well, in Elite, they do.

I understand EA wanted to make basketball a realistic experience in that practice makes perfect.  You have to keep practising on the control sticks in order to become better shooters.  But in doing so, it’s actually taking away realism in a basketball sense.  You still want the good shooters to be good shooters and bad shooters to miss shots they shouldn’t be making.  You don’t want your centers to be the ball handler and your point guards to dominate in the post.

Moreover, there’s a lot (and I mean a lot) of floating around in the air when taking jumpers.  When you take a leaner, you glide through the air like Clyde freaking Drexler.  None of it looks real at all.

And the dunks, my god, the dunks.  Two handed, in-game dunks by 7 footers from just inside the foul line are not realistic, and yet they happen all the time in Elite.  So much for the real physics.

In contrast, 2K has done a very good job of emulating the real life NBA players and their every move on the court.  When you perform a dribble move with Kobe Bryant, it’s going to be different to when you perform the same move with Derek Fisher, because they are different players and have different arsenals in real life.  But in Elite, everyone has become generic in the sense that the moves you perform are entirely in your control.  While I thought this was initially a good thing, I’ve come to the realisation that it’s not, especially if you want the game to look and feel real.  I don’t want Kobe Bryant to look exactly like Andrew Bynum when performing crossovers.

As for the sound, well, it’s not too bad.  I don’t know how complete the demo is, but it’s much better than what we got in 2K, which didn’t even have commentary.  In Elite, you’ve got the formidable EPSN trio of Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen.  While I’m not accustomed to their style, I must say it’s not bad.  It follows the action and I haven’t yet noticed the repetition.  So yes, in terms of sound, Elite has the edge over 2K — at least in the demo, anyway.

The most important thing, of course, is the gameplay, and unfortunately Elite continues to disappoint in this regard.  I wanted to see this so-called real AI and real physics, but all I got was crap.

Is it that hard to make sure things like back court violations and stepping out of bounds get called?  They do sometimes, but there were many other times (from just my brief sampling of the game) when a player clearly stepped on the line but got away with it.

The AI is horrible.  I’m not exaggerating at all when I say it truly is.  The CPU has no sense on offense.  They take awful shots on almost every possession.  I can basically leave my defensive assignment and go double whoever has the ball and start swiping like a madman, because the ball handler will rarely look to pass to the person I have left open.  In 2K11, the second I leave my man he will undoubtedly take, and usually make, a wide open shot or layup, but in Elite, you are seldom punished for straying away from team defense.

It’s an equally grim scenario in the post, where the players slide all over the place and even when they are left wide open, they take forever to turn around and shoot.  Sometimes they even jump while their backs are still to the basket.

The offensive distribution also leaves a lot to be desired.  When I play the Lakers I don’t want Derek Fisher to be taking all the shots.

The CPU’s defense is much better than its offense, but only in terms of staying in front of you.  However, when it comes to team defense, fighting off screens and cutting off the drivers, the CPU remains rather clueless.  Nevertheless, given my crappy use of the control sticks, the CPU didn’t really need to defend much!

The final word

There’s no nice way to say it — NBA Elite 2011 is an underwhelming gaming experience that is inferior in just about every respect to its competitor, 2K11.

If the 2K graphics are a solid 10, then the Elite graphics are  a 6, at the very very most a 7.  If the 2K gameplay deserves a 10, the Elite gameplay is probably a 5.  If the 2K AI is a 10, the Elite AI is only a 7.  If the 2K scores a perfect 10 for realism (in terms of how much it looks/plays like real basketball), Elite would not make it past 5.  If 2K rates 10 out of 10 for authenticity (in terms of emulating real NBA players), the Elite would only garner a 4 or 5.

The only thing about Elite that is comparable or potentially better than 2K is the sound (as far as we know) and the ESPN presentation.  The Become Legendary mode may be quite solid, but it’s hard to imagine it, in its first year, outdoing 2K’s second iteration of My Player.  And of course, there’s no Michael Jordan in Elite.  If there was no NBA Jam included with Elite, it’s hard to envisage anyone objectively believing that Elite is a better buy.

NBA Live’s biggest advantage over 2K was its long history with gamers and its well-established name and reputation,which provides it with a certain familiarity and goodwill.  In one fell swoop, NBA Elite has destroyed both of those advantages.  First, it changed its greatest asset, its name.  And secondly, it got rid of all the wonderful things it had been developing and improving over the years — the graphics, the AI, and the control system which long-time players are so comfortable with.

Even though I’m going to buy 2K11 instead of Elite 2011, I’m still disappointed that Elite is not a better game.  Last year, Live 2010 managed to push 2K10 further than it ever had before, and I’ve always thought competition is required to make both games better.

I can’t fault EA for attempting something a little different and potentially revolutionary.  Using this brand new system, Elite may be able to eventually develop into something special in a few years — but right now, the franchise, like its name, is back to square one.