I’ve already detailed in length about my interest in sports games, with the Madden series being a long-standing favorite of mine. NBA games however, have always come in at something of a close second for me. It started with the old Tecmo Basketball, which to my knowledge was the first time an NBA game had full seasons, stat keeping and playoffs. Later there were NBA games by EA Sports that captured more unique aspects of the players and their likenesses, and eventually they introduced franchise modes complete with the kind of player progressions that really hooked me into most sports games. EA’s brand was the strongest for years, but then the 2k series started to show up strong around 2k5 (back when my Pistons were on top of the league), and the sales and reviews began to swing in favor of the 2K series. This year, EA was going to scrape its prior recipe for the NBA games and release a new series called “Elite” – that unfortunately got derailed for reasons of timeliness and – according to some sources – quality. So with NBA 2k11 the only contender in the space, did they put forth an All-Star effort or mail it in?
Graphics – 9:
The animations are generally very smooth. NBA games are some of the trickiest of any sport to model. In football or hockey, you tend to be a bit further from the action, so face and hair models don’t generally have to be as precise. They also tend to be covered with bulky gear. Baseball games still show less of the players’ physiques and the number of animations really are not as varied either. People have a tendency to play in space by themselves. This makes what the 2K series’ graphics so impressive –they have to account for facial models, physical accuracy (and things like tattoos), as well as varying playing styles and work it all into the context of a game where these already difficult to manager characters are jostling around and interacting with each other constantly. Sure, it’s not perfect, sometimes slightly canned animations do odd things like have you step out of bounds when you shouldn’t be, and some faces really give you pause.
The arenas look great overall. Crowds don’t do much, but they fill space and look convincing enough. Lighting, floors – all of it just feels very authentic. I also need to give a nod to the replay features. The Sprite Slam Cams, Gatorade Moment of the Game, and Jordan Brand Player of the Game replays all look very slick (I love the player of the game one, which shows various cuts of action from the game, played out against various filters. Rodney’s Stuckey’s whirlwind layup in my last game looked amazing).
Sound and Music – 9:
There is a very good mix of songs that make up the music in this game. In what my wife and her friend once called the greatest invention in a sports game, years ago many games started adding actual songs to the tracklists (apparently my buddy’s wife and mine got tired of the same old music playing over and over and over for hours on end when we were tweaking our Madden or hoops rosters. Who knew?) Hearing The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” play when you first fire up the game and take control of Jordan as he enters the court was an amazing video game moment.
The announcing is quite good as well. Of course these games do tend to get a bit redundant. I wish they could work in more variety, and while the contexts are usually quite good, I could only stand to hear the same thing said about my team so many times. If you play as the Wizards, you’ll hear about John Wall a lot – which makes sense, but they have 2 or 3 canned dialogs about him, and odds are, you will hear them each and every game of his rookie season. I haven’t gotten through enough seasons yet to be sure, but I’m curious if they’ll still be talking about him as some hot prospect in 8 years on there or not. Still, overall, the graphics, sound and music bits work wonderfully to create a live TV game environment.
Overall, it handles really well. The movements are pretty good, and it’s easy to navigate around the various menus. There are some quirks though that can get annoying. You take too many shots down low that tend to hit the sides or backside of the backboard, and some of the canned animations can have you stepping out of bounds even if you’re pushing away from the baseline the entire time. Also, there are way too many steals and blocks. I don’t mind tight defense, but using the Pistons I’m getting at least 8-10 blocks a game, and while my steals are only around 5 a game, my opponents pick off at least a dozen a game. If anyone but a guard is dribbling, or you try to throw an outlet pass or a cross court pass regularly, you will be lucky to complete 2 or 3 a game, which is a bit frustrating as I prefer up-tempo (as do most players, which is probably why they’ve added this artificial layer of defense). The post game however is solid – probably the best I’ve seen it in awhile.
In the create a player mode, there’s a lot to do, but the game judges your actions oddly. If my opponent scores a bucket, I can lose an entire bar of ‘grade’ – but if I score one I barely see an increase. And it encourages you to play somewhat selfishly. For example it comes up with 3 challenges for you each game, and when my 7-3 center is asked to take 4 jump shots in the game? That’s hurting my team because it’s not my style, but if I want those 100 skill points, I’ll go ahead and force a few up anyway.
Intangibles – 10:
The integration of Michael Jordan is amazing. I grew up a Pistons fan. As such, I grew up disliking the Bulls a lot. But over the years I’ve come to really appreciate what Jordan did for the game and just how amazing he was, and the Jordan challenges are very cool. The additional Jordan sneakers for completing certain things in game, and then being able to apply them to your create a person is cool too.
There’s a ton of drills and practice modes, and the online is solid too, though it can get a bit laggy at times, and I’ve always felt like it hurts the NBA games more than NFL, NHL and MLB titles just due to the constant action and motion. With timing on jumpers being so critical, any lag can really mess with you – especially if you happen to be playing a perimeter based team.
I really enjoyed the crate a player mode. I sunk a ton of time into last year’s version doing that, and I’m at it again this year. It’s addicting getting those few points to spend where you want them, and telling yourself you’ll get even more on your next outing. The various goals and achievements you can earn by hitting milestones can be cool too.
Most people will spend the majority of their time in The Association/Franchise mode. It’s a solid game of hoops there, with lots to do as both the coach and manager. And the computer seems a lot smarter this year too. I remember last year’s game when the Bucks wound up with something like 5 point guards and 3 shooting guards and were just unable to field a proper team. The trades from what I have seen so far in 2k11 are made with better overall team awareness – from both a positional standpoint and respecting a player’s potential to improve. The trade finder is a cool new innovation too, that can be a real time-saver when you’re trying to tweak your roster or draft picks.
In case this isn’t enough game for your buck, there’s also the blacktop mode with 3-point shootouts and dunk contests too. There’s also quite a few classic teams out there. You won’t run out of things to do any time soon.
Overall – 9:
There’s still a few glitches here and there, and when they happen they can become very frustrating. Overall though, they don’t happen very often and what you do get is a great game of hoops that is brought to you a lot of different ways that help to keep the proceedings fresh and entertaining. At first I was worried that the Jordan stuff would be minimal or gimmicky – just an excuse to slap him on the cover and get a few extra sales, but it really looks like they put the work in this year. If EA’s Elite is hoping to come to market next year, they better bring their best playoff game, because right now 2K looks like the reigning champ for the foreseeable future.