It’s October – the leaves are starting to fall, the temperature drops, school is well in session for most everyone…But perhaps most importantly, the NBA season is kicking off! NBA 2K11 released this past week, and it may have been at least partially responsible for the last-minute delay in rival NBA Elite’s delay. With a major focus on Michael Jordan aka “His Airness” this year, does the entry do enough to stay fresh or should 2K go back to the drawing board?
The name of the game this year is immersion. Though that may be said every year in sports games, this year’s entry really takes that word to another level. You are greeted upon startup by a cinematic introduction of Michael Jordan. Once that spectacle is done, there is no menu to navigate. No, instead you are thrust into the hallway of the Bulls’ stadium back in 1991. Michael Jordan is ahead of you, and he turns to say “are you ready?” Yes, the very first thing you do in this basketball game is, well, play basketball. What a concept! The commentary in this as well as other Jordan-based modes have been recorded as if the sportcasters were there live at the event. So you hear references to the season that year, or in the case of that opening game that first loads, comments about how this is Jordan’s first finals game, and more.
What really sells this game is how closely it resembles a broadcast game. It’s not known just how much commentary was recorded for this game, but it must be on the order of days’ worth. When a game first gets under way, the announcers will spend a good couple of minutes conversing about different aspects of each team. In fact, they actually tend to ramble, even more than in real life. The game has already been under way for quite a while, and the sportscasters are still often talking about some odd fact about a coach or player. One extremely well-done aspect to this, however, is when a player performs a crowd-pleasing dunk – the announcers will stop mid-sentence and shout “wow!” The first time you hear this may give you chills, and others in the house may come over to the television to see what NBA game you are watching. The crowd also seems to have improved AI, reacting realistically to not just how a play unraveled, but how the game is going overall. For example, if the home team is losing by a massive amount of points, the stadium will be extremely quiet. But if you listen closely you’ll hear a few people clapping as they try to rally their team. On the flip-side, when things are going well for the home team you will hardly be able to hear much else other than the crowd.
But the presentation goodness does not stop there. In between quarters you are greeted by a broadcast-style break, which is a short, fully narrated teaser of an upcoming game coming up in the next few days or week. There is also a halftime report that showcases hot scorers on each team as well as overall commentary on how each team is doing. After breaks or even after timeouts ESPN’s Doris Burke will give amazingly in-tune reports from interviews of players and coaches on the court. Also during timeouts you can hear the cheerleaders and other performers attempting to perk up the crowd, with the sound system booming and the audience cheering.
One area that seems to be a bit of a blemish in the otherwise astounding presentation of this game is, surprisingly, the character models. When the camera is zoomed out, the game looks very realistic. Combine that with the excellent sound design and you have to do double-takes to make sure you are not watching an NBA game. But once the camera shifts to look closer at a player or enters a replay, things will look a bit worse. Yes, depth of field is used here to make it a bit more realistic, but when some players such as Kobe Bryant or Yao Ming look vastly different than their real-life counterparts up close, it is a bit jarring. While you can definitely tell who they are supposed to be, certain things are just off about the models. They also appear to be made of rather low polygon counts, which seems to contrast with the basketball in their hands. This is definitely not a deal breaker, however.
As was mentioned earlier, Michael Jordan is a huge focus of the game this year. This includes a set of 10 “Jordan Challenges.” These include some of MJ’s best career performances, such as scoring 63 points in Game 2 of the playoffs against the 1986 Celtics or scoring 35 or points in Game 1 of the Finals against the Blazers. These challenges are not for the faint of heart. They are intense, and can be frustrating if you do not know how to play the game extremely well. But if you can persevere long enough, you are rewarded with the “Creating a Legend” mode, which has you playing as a rookie MJ and creating your own season. Getting there takes a ton of work and is only for the hardcore, but still has the amazing presentation present in all other game modes. Throughout the game you can also earn “My Jordans,” which are different “Air Jordan” brands of shoes which you can place on your career player to improve his stats.
The game plays very well. You can call plays with ease, move the player you intend to pass to, and do some fancy footwork with the L2 button held down. You will not find yourself stuck waiting for an animation to end, and can essentially react at will. New this year is improved shot control. If you go up and notice your defender is about to block your shot, try moving the stick to the left or right to attempt to shoot around them. It is yet another nice little detail that will not go unnoticed by fans. Also new to this series is PlayStation Move support. This really boils down to a few gestures such as left, right, up and down. You whip the Move controller up to initiate a shot, then whip it back down with proper timing to release the ball for offense, and can do the same gestures for different things on defense such as left or right to attempt to steal or up to try to block a shot. You can also perform the same ball tricks with those gestures using the L2 button on your DualShock/SIXAXIS/Navigation Controller in your left hand. The controller does automatically calibrate to the PlayStation Eye, which is definitely a nice feature. This setup does not really seem to give a player an advantage, but it is there for those who want a slightly more visceral playing experience.
Your goal in the “My Player” mode is to make it to the NBA. This is no easy feat. It will take many hours of gameplay to get there. But this is really no different than other sports title’s career-building modes. There are various trophies to collect as you reach certain career milestones, and those “My Jordans” shoes that you earn elsewhere in the game can help to boost your player’s stats. This really is for the hardcore fans again, as the casual gamer will likely never touch this mode.
The career mode known as “My Player” makes a return here, and is a bit improved. You start as a nobody and work your way up the ranks. There are drills to play through, skillpoints to earn and skirmishes available to you to improve your player. If you have been playing a lot of NBA-calibur game modes, then you will notice a sluggishness to your new player compared to the pros. His ball-handling skills are not as tight as say LeBron, which is to be expected but is a bit tough to get used to at first. Every game you are graded on an A-F scale by your teammates based on nearly every action you perform or fail to perform. Perform a bad pass, get downgraded slightly. Fill your lane correctly on offense, and earn a boost. Assists often earn you more respect from your teammates than simply making a nice shot, and blocking the opponent’s shots also earns you a lot of kudos. Hogging the ball, allowing your man to score, or making a bad steal attempt all downgrade your rank for that game.
So, whereas NBA 2K10 was a moderate update in the series, 2K11 has made a heaping lot of improvements across the board to achieve a much better overall gameplay experience. The presentation is loud, full of energy, extremely realistic, and hardly ever falters. Michael Jordan’s inclusion as well as his iconic Air Jordans as rewards is a very nice touch. PlayStation Move functionality is a decent change of the control scheme, though it is not exactly advantageous to play with that setup. Overall, you will definitely find yourself immersed in the game, and friends and family members will likely enjoy simply watching the game, especially when there are no actual NBA games on regular television.
Developer Visual Concepts and publisher 2K Games have definitely answered the call here. 2K11 is the king of the court this year, bar none.
PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score
+ Improved ball movement, intuitive play calling.
– Occasional gameplay glitches, career mode a bit slow-paced.