Game Review: NBA 2K11 (PS3)

October 21, 2010 in Basketball, Game Reviews, NBA by pacejmiller

[Note: Almost two weeks after its release, I am finally reviewing NBA 2K11.  I wanted to make sure I played enough of the game to do the review justice.]

There is no competition this year.  Literally.  With NBA Elite 2011 back to the drawing board until further notice, NBA 2K11 has been automatically elevated to the title of the must-have basketball sim of the year.  Not to say that Elite would have been a challenge had it been released.  Anyone who has played the demo knows that.

In a nutshell, NBA 2K11 is the best basketball sim ever released.  It’s not perfect and there is still plenty of room for improvement, but 2K has kept the bar so high over the years that it doesn’t take much improvement to make a new game the ‘best ever’.

This year, the major improvements have been:

  • improved gameplay, in particular better off-the-ball movements, set plays and more fluid ISO-motion plays;
  • improved presentation, with slicker half-time reports, Player of the Game videos and highlights and easier to control menus;
  • upgraded My Player experience, to include the Draft Combine for free, trade requests, endorsements and post-game interviews; and of course
  • the Jordan Mode, which allows gamers to relive 10 of Jordan’s best moments and then the ability to play as him in My Player Mode.

Okay, time for me to review the game elements one by one and give it an overall rating.

(click on ‘more…’ to find out!)

Graphics

NBA 2K11 features the best visuals ever for a basketball game, hands down.  That said, 2K10 previously held that title, and 2K11 didn’t do too much to improve it.

I may have mentioned this before, but from first glance, or even a couple of glances, 2K11 looks very similar to 2K10, especially if the camera is panned out.  You do see some subtle improvements in textures, details and colours during the close ups (such as the holes in the jerseys and the fingers), but honestly, the improvement has been rather underwhelming.

The Greatest of All Time...hang on, that's Danny Granger!

Further, there are still a number of problems with the graphics that have persisted throughout the years.  Bodies and their environments don’t often interact perfectly together, leading to body parts going ‘through’ jerseys and benches, and even other players.  Granted, as far as I can tell, it only happens during cut-scenes, but because of that it’s actually more obvious.  I trust they can fix these little things for next year.

That said, the player still look amazing.  Some clearly look more like their real-life counterparts than others, but on the whole it’s all pretty close.  I have noticed that they tend to stuff up white players/coaches with light-coloured hair.  There’s something about the hair texture that just doesn’t look right (they tend to look like squarish toupees).

And the player animations on the court are as solid as ever.  If you’ve ever watched real NBA basketball, you’ll be amazed by how dead accurate the player movements are, and especially certain players who have very distinct moves and shooting styles.  When you create a player you’ll be bombarded with an insane amount of shooting and dribbling styles to choose from, which just shows how much effort has been put into making the game a truly authentic product.  [They haven't just reused the same ones from last year either -- I have noticed a significant improvement in Danny Granger's shooting style, from the floor and from the line.  Well done!]

The off-court details are also improved, and the most obvious is the crowds, who now look and move less like robots, and they have a little more variety in their clothing choices.  Not big things but they are things you notice and add to the overall experience.

So yes, a slight upgrade on what was already the best in the business.  I’m going to be nasty and give the graphics a 9.5/10 rather than a perfect score, simply because, relatively speaking, the improvement is not very obvious, and there is indeed room for improvement.

Sound

As always, the 2K sound is impressive, and this year the most obvious improvement is the crowd, which really gives the gamer a taste of stadium atmosphere.  In past games the crowds tended to always sound the same, but you can notice a difference between certain types of games this year (eg regular season vs playoffs).  I think this may have been something they stole from NBA Live.

The music is also very good, but I don’t find it great.  There’s the usual mix of addictive tunes, many of which you’ll probably hear again later on in the year in the charts or elsewhere, but in my opinion it’s not a standout aspect of the game.

And I did find it weird that in My Player Mode, when playing an unofficial NBA game (eg practice or Summer League), they would play some of the songs in the background, especially the more relaxing ones, as though the players were stoned or something (hang on…).

The centrepiece of a basketball game’s sound is of course the commentary.  This year they have stuck with the familiar voices of Clark Kellogg and Kevin Harlan, but gone is sideline reporter Cheryl Miller, who has been replaced with the equally capable Doris Burke.  A lot of the commentary from last year has been recycled, which may irk some gamers, though there is enough new stuff thrown in to keep it fresh.

Like the graphics, the sound was a slight improvement on last year, but this was expected.  So I’m going to give it a 9/10 for keeping up the good work but leaving ample space for improvement.

Presentation

A considerable upgrade in this department.  Last year a lot of people had trouble navigating the nine-square menus, but this year they have gone back to a more basic, more user-friendly drop-down menu (well, drop to the side) that gamers will find much easier to use.

What I like most about the presentation this year is the variety.  Last year, while the pre-game intros were nice, they got old and repetitive in a hurry because they looked and felt the same for every game.  This year, they have made a conscious effort to prolong gamers from skipping those scenes.  Now, for any given game, you might be given an outside view of the stadium, cut scenes of players walking in through the car park, players getting ready in the dressing room, coaches talking to players, and so on and so forth.  There’s great panning shots of the crowd, different angles as the players get prepared for the tip off.  All relatively minor things in the scheme of things but undoubtedly add something to the game.

This is how the teams are introduced

Another thing I like is the slicker Player of the Game, which is done very nicely with a series of cuts and pauses, though I can still seem room for improvement.  The HP halftime report is also revamped and with more footage and commentary.

On the whole I like what they have done with it.  I’m feeling strict today so I’ll give it a 9.5/10, simply because it doesn’t feel like a 10.

Gameplay

Gameplay has always been the strongest part of the 2K basketball franchise, and this year they’ve taken it to another level.  I was already very impressed with that they had to offer in 2K10, and wasn’t really sure whether significant strides were possible.

Well, they’ve surprised me.  Again, at first glance it may not be obvious, but when you have that control pad in hand and you are controlling the players, the improvements start to shine through.  It’s more fluid, strategic and fun to play than last year’s game.

The first thing I can’t get enough of is the ISO-motion moves, which bring a whole new dimension to the game, especially when sizing up your opponent.  The important thing to note is that the moves are not there simply to look good — every single move in your player’s repertoir is there so you can beat your opponent.  Whether it’s sick cross-overs, double crosses, in and outs, up and unders, leaners, fadeaways, bank shots, step backs, hop steps, Euro steps — this game has it all.  It may take a while to get a hang of all the moves, but once you do, the game becomes a completely new experience.

The second thing is the playcalling, which I admit I had never used in any previous versions of the game.  Each team has an authentic set of plays that you can trawl through on the fly and implement.  I would advise turning on the detailed play diagrams from the options menu, at least at the beginning, so you can see the lines on the court that assist you in carrying out the plays.  And when a play is successful, it becomes that much more fun and rewarding.

The third obvious thing to me is the player movements off the ball.  In the old days, the movements were a lot more predictable as opponents tended to always do the same things.  While they may not be entirely unpredictable, you can no longer expect the AI to run the same plays every time and shut them down in advance.  If you leave your assignment for a split second, they’ll punish you, and that’s the way it should be.

On top of this the game has become more difficult and realistic.  You can no longer keep hacking away at the opposing ballhandlers and expect to not be called for a foul.  If you want to steal the ball, you have to intercept the pass or go for the pilfer when the opponent doesn’t have full control of the ball.  You can no longer throw lazy passes into the lane and expect them to go through to the target each time.  If there is a defender in the vicinity, chances are they will deflect or intercept the pass.  As for alley-oops, they are harder than ever.  You really need to have a real opportunity to pull them off in the game.  These things can make the game frustrating at times, especially if you are used to dominating your opponent, but I think it makes the game a more genuine basketball experience.

Oh, and I almost forgot.  Excellent additions are the pass fake, and the ability to call pick-and-rolls.  There’s also an assortment of off-the-ball moves, but I haven’t gotten around to them yet.

One minor complaint is when a player gets injured, everyone just stands around and watches as the player writhes around the floor in pain.  Have a bit more compassion!

Anyway, great effort by the 2K crew again.  10/10 for gameplay.

My Player

My Player was the big addition to 2K10, and while it was well-received, many complained about various aspects of the mode.  This year, they have upgraded this excellent feature by taking it a couple of steps further, though it is still far from perfect.  Expect at least another two or three years before they get it right.

Most of the amendments have been external to in-game gameplay.  Once you create your character, you automatically go into the Draft Combine (which had to be purchased as an add-on last year) to test your mettle against the other potential draft picks.  If you do well enough, you’ll get drafted, probably in the latter half of the first round.  It’s particularly exciting to see your player go up on stage and shake David Stern’s hand.

From then onwards, the game pretty much replicates last year’s experience in that you go through Summer League, training camp, train, play games, and upgrade your player while trying to achieve certain milestones.  The training exercises have been revamped a little and are more fun and more challenging than last year’s, but the point system is essentially identical, except occasionally you might get a ‘Key Game’ where the points earned double.

What sets this iteration of My Player Mode apart from last year’s is the introduction of branding, team decisions and press conferences.

If you play well enough, chances are you’ll get a letter from Mr Michael Jordan himself, and you’ll get an endorsement contract.  I got my rookie on a billboard within weeks of playing in the NBA.  I’m eager to see where this will take me.

You also get a say in management decisions.  For example, if you’re not happy where you are, you can request a trade, including your preferred teams, though you might not necessarily end up there.  The team also asks you for your input on which players they should go after in the trade market, so you’ll have a say in which players you want to play with.

Thirdly, there’s the post-game press conferences, which I didn’t think would be a good idea when I first heard about it.  After each game, you sit in the press room and a reporter asks you a question, and you have four options — answer professionally, arrogantly, with loyalty or with indifference.  Each response will have a different outcome for your popularity with your team, your local community and the league as a whole.  I have played around 20 professional games so far and have yet to encounter an identical question.  So for now, I’ll say it’s not a bad addition, though I expect it won’t last.

As for in-game changes, there haven’t been a lot.  Your rating now has a meter which goes up or down with each play you make (or don’t make), so you’ll know how far you are before you go from C+ to B-.  Certain plays will now improve your rating, whereas they would not have last year.

I do still have a problem with some aspects of My Player’s AI.  There have been many times where I’ve passed to a wide open teammate under the ring, but instead of finishing off the play they pass it back out to someone on the wing.  There have also been times when I’ve made what is considered a ‘bad pass’, and even though my teammate scores off it (ie an assist), it doesn’t count as an assist.  And the player rotations seem to be based on your minute allocations, and doesn’t seem to take into account whether your team is blowing out or being blown out by another team, which means you can still have all five starters on the court with two minutes to go and leading by 40.

I’m happy with My Player Mode because it adds a whole new dimension to the gameplay (it’s just completely different to playing proper 5-on-5 games), but it still has a ways to go.  With that in mind, I’ll give it an 8.5/10.

Jordan Mode

Jordan is the greatest of all time, blah blah blah.  Wonderful selling point for the game and a great source of nostalgia for those that watched his Airness during his prime.  Indeed, the entire visual structure of 2K11 is built around the fact that Michael Jordan is in the game (right from the intro).

However, Jordan Mode is what it is.  You play through 10 of his greatest moments (from his 63-point playoff record against the Celtics, to the ‘Flu Game’ to ‘The Shrug’), complete all the statistical requirements set for that particular challenge, and that’s the end of it.  And if you really love Jordan that much, create your own legacy with him through the ‘MJ: Creating the Legend’ mode that comes after you finish the Jordan Challenge (though you can also do it with the secret code: icanbe23).

Yes, if you play your cards right, you'll get to see all these memorable images

The best thing about Jordan mode is the authenticity of those games from the 80s and 90s, and of course, the teams and players that come with it.  Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Karl Malone and John Stockton — it’s great to be able to play as and against these great players.  Each Jordan looks and plays slightly differently, and the courts and details are also remarkable.  They have clearly put a lot of effort into this.

Divac vs McHale, can't get better than that!

As fun as it is to play with the GOAT, my problem with Jordan Mode is that it becomes a simple stat-collecting exercise.  You have certain stats you need to accumulate to complete the challenge, so all you’ll end up doing is trying to get a certain number of points, rebounds, assists, etc.  You’ll end up neglecting great players like Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc, because you’re too fixated on letting Jordan get his numbers.  That takes some fun out of the team game in my opinion, but hey, I suppose it’s another mode that plays differently to the others and will give the game more replay value.

Keeping in mind how rare it is to even have Michael Jordan and his tongue in a video game, I’ll give Jordan Mode a 7.5/10.

Overall

2K have taken what was already the best, most realistic and most authentic basketball sim ever and made it slightly better in all aspects.  It’s also upgraded the fabulous My Player Mode, while keeping in tact all the other great things about it, such as the Association Mode, NBA Blacktop and NBA Today.  And on top of all that, they’ve included (in a big way) Michael Jordan.

I know people will always find something to complain about, but let’s be honest and admit that this is the best basketball game out there at this point in time.  Nothing else comes close.  As I have pointed out, there are still things that can be improved on and fixed, but the same can be said for any game.

I’ll be very curious to see what NBA Elite 2011 can offer if and when it ever comes out, but EA will really have to flip the script completely in order to mount a challenge to NBA 2K11.

9.5 out of 10

[PS: One of the biggest complaints about NBA 2K10 was the online play -- I can't comment on this aspect of 2K11 as I haven't tried]

[PPS: I hear 2K11 is compatible with the PS3 Move, but it sucks]