With no competition except itself to go up against, the NBA 2K series has redefined the basketball simulation genre in sports video games this year with NBA 2K11. While many of the core elements that made the game successful have made a return, there is no XBLA teaser game like last year’s ‘Draft Combine’ for NBA 2K10. Instead, 2K Sports took a different approach and simply released a limited demo that in no way does the game justice. In fact, I was turned off by the demo so much that I actually had a moment of questioning if I really wanted to pick up this year’s iteration. Did they try to cover up the same game as last year with a new roster by adding a mode that allows you to experience simulation basketball as the legendary Michael Jordan? Judging from the demo, yes. The demo only allowed a few minutes of a game between the Lakers and Celtics, and was without much of the presentation I was expecting. Before I get too far off track, let me ease basketball fans’ fears by saying the full product is better than it has ever been.
The level of realism in the game is so good, I had my family wondering if I was watching an actual NBA basketball game. The announcers and commentary were so convincing that those watching me play wondered how it was possible this was coming from a video game. Everything from the remarks on how good or poorly my team or individual players were performing, to commercial-like advertisement where the announcer would pitch to an audience upcoming games that are actually happening in the real NBA league. The player animations and detail look amazing and fluid. The arenas and stadiums with all of their cheering fans, along with their signature sounds and music are really well done and are a near perfect re-creation of their real-life counterpart. I often take these things for granted, and its not until I take a step back from the game and realize that the developer really took its time with even the smallest of details, that I realize just how good this game is at providing a realistic basketball experience.
The familiar controls of 2K10 are back, and have been reworked and vastly improved. Sure, you can still use the face buttons for classic shooting and passing, but if you combine the triggers with the right analog stick you’re going to be amazed at just how much control you have over offense and defensive style in the game. Not only that, but when you combine movement with these advanced controls, you’ll get a whole a new set of options depending on the direction you’re headed as well as your position to the basket. Top that off with the ability to change your move in the middle of another move, instead of waiting for a canned animation to finish, and you’ll be going for a dunk and switching to your left hand for an impressive finish in a highlight reel. Don’t worry about trying to figure all of this out on your own, as there is a tutorial mode that shows you what is needed to perform these moves, and you can practice them as much as you want. One other good thing about the practice mode is if you’re having trouble with jump shots, when you perform them in this mode, the game gives you an icon at the top of the screen giving you an idea if your timing is off or not.
The gameplay and AI is noticably smarter and will take the open jumpers or drive the lane for a quick dunk as many times as you let them, even on the default ‘Pro’ difficulty setting. One big change I noticed over 2K10 is the AI defensive ability to pick off your lazy passes. I remember being careless and throwing a lob pass across mid court was possible before, but now the AI seems to recognize this and will use the potential turnover to their advantage. I do have to nitpick about the game’s willingness to call fouls before the actual move has taken place. For example, I’ve noticed at least a couple of times per game where I make the motion to steal and would get a reaching call before my controlled player even started to move his arms on defense. Or if I do force my player to ram whoever is covering them on defense and pick up a charge, I would expect the call to come maybe a second or more later than before the two actually make contact.
Beyond the core game with seasons, quick games, and challenge modes among others, players are once again treated to building a career with the My Player mode, along with a robust multiplayer list of game types to play alongside the Draft Combine. Of course, the multiplayer ranked matches are back, and this year has even included a special online tournament for owners of the PS3 version. Further increasing the replay value of this year’s release is the addition of the Jordan Challenge mode, allowing you to play through 10 pre-determined classic NBA games from Jordan’s career. Here you attempt to meet certain requirements on your way to unlocking Jordan himself as a playable character and a rookie that you can use on any team of your choice.
Although using the retired cover athlete to answer many sports analysts questions of how the league would be different if he were playing today can be interesting, the real meat of the game is still in the execution of playing real (but simulated) NBA games in high profile locations and against other gamers online. This is what I expected, and 2K Sports has really delivered. NBA 2K11 definitely provides the most entertainment I have experienced from a simulation basketball game, and I look forward to playing many hours of it from here on out.