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Review: NBA 2K11

6:12 PM on 10.13.2010 // Andrew Kauz

Questions about which NBA game released in 2010 would come out on top ceased with Electronic Arts' announcement that the first installment in its new NBA Elite series would be delayed to 2011 due to concerns about its polish. Since NBA 2K10 was plagued by performance problems, there was some concern that a quality basketball videogame wouldn’t be released at all in 2010.

Questions about which NBA game released in 2010 would come out on top ceased with Electronic Arts' announcement that the first installment in its new NBA Elite series would be delayed to 2011 due to concerns about its polish. Since NBA 2K10 was plagued by performance problems, there was some concern that a quality basketball videogame wouldn’t be released at all in 2010.

NBA 2K11, however, seems cut from an entirely different cloth, right down to its focus on Michael Jordan instead of a modern superstar. Yet at the same time, it claims to be the most realistic simulation of basketball ever, despite allowing matchups such as the 1996 Chicago Bulls against the 2011 Indiana Pacers. Somehow, the game manages to pull all of its disparate parts together to fashion an incredibly realistic game of basketball, but one that isn’t particularly gentle with players. In fact, it can be downright brutal.
The question is, what level of brutality are you prepared for in a basketball game?
NBA 2K11 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], Wii, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 2)
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Released: October 5, 2010
MSRP: $59.99 (PS3, 360) / $49.99 (Wii, PS2) / $39.99 (PSP)
The selling point of NBA 2K11 comes down to just how much of the game is -- or feels -- entirely new. It’s hard to pick up it up for the first time and not feel like you’re playing an entirely different brand of basketball game. Hell, it doesn’t even feel like any sports game I’ve ever played before.
Many recent sports titles have been lauded for their presentation, but NBA 2K11 proves that they don’t deserve it. Plenty of attention was given to the broadcast presentation, and it shows. Even from the first moments of the game (which drop the player not into a menu but rather into a 1991 NBA championship game), the commentary, replays, and intensity far surpass any sports game I’ve played.
Most notable to me is the running commentary, which is so fluid and seamless that, perhaps for the first time, players feel like they’re listening to live narration. Sure, lines repeat, but it’s a far cry from the typical “The basket is made by... NUMBER TWENTY THREE... Michael Jordan. That’s his... SECOND... of the night.” The commentators have far more complex strings of dialogue, yet they’re delivered more naturally than ever.
Complexity is a theme of NBA 2K11, and one that often works in its favor. Nearly every aspect of the game is deeper than you thought possible, such as the IsoMotion stick that allows for a variety of dribbles, post moves, and even full control over what kind of dunk you want to pull off. Really, playing the game for the first time is akin to starting up a brand new fighting game franchise. Sure, you’ve played games like that before, but now you’re tasked with learning an all-new set of moves and strategies, and if you’re not of the right mind when you go into it, the game will hurt you plenty.
It’s extremely unfortunate that the game doesn’t seem to know how to ease players in after that first Bulls game. The menu system is rather cluttered and difficult to navigate, relying upon a popup menu with option after unexplained option. And unless you go online to read the full manual (as 2K Sports included only a limited and incredibly unhelpful set of instructions with the disc), you’ll have no idea what the modes and options are, especially if you’re new to the series.
The same is true of the gameplay. Complexity, of course, comes at the cost of accessibility, and the gameplay here is far from accessible. Learning how to call and successfully run plays, how to pull off the full list of IsoMotion moves, and even how to dunk in the game’s slam dunk competition, is a feat in itself. And the real problem? It’s absolutely necessary for success, because if you don’t know what you’re doing, your opponents will crush you -- even on rookie difficulty. Oddly enough, one of the most difficult things to do in this game is pass properly, as defenders seem to have a sixth sense about your passing intentions, even if you employ a lot of fakes. And the long pass? Forget it. 
The difficulty, at times, can really work against this game. Take, for example, the My Player mode. Usually, I hit this kind of mode up first in a sports game, perhaps due to some deep role-playing games ties and an unavoidable need to develop stats. Whatever the reason, it led me quickly into the game’s create-a-player mode, which led to some of the darkest hours of my sports-game-playing life.
The mode starts you out in the NBA Draft Combine, where you’re required to not suck in a series of drills and a few games in order to get drafted by an NBA team. While it’s nice to know what it feels like to not be able to sleep at night -- because you’re worried that all of your effort to make it to the NBA will be worth nothing when you blow a few passes in a Combine game -- it’s really not a good way to have an enjoyable afternoon. It’s realistic, sure, but it’s not fun. I shouldn’t have to pull my hair out just to get my created player into the league that the game is named for.
The difficulty works a bit better in the Jordan Challenges, but only a little. In Jordan Challenges, the player is tasked with recreating some of the most impressive moments in Jordan’s career, right down to the smallest detail. If Jordan had seven rebounds and nine assists, then you had better get ready to hit the boards hard on defense and pass to perfection. There’s definitely a measure of thrill involved in making such legendary performances come to life, but it’s unfortunate just how detailed they are, which will cause you to hit the pause screen after every score in the second half just to make sure you’re on track to hit the requirements. Miss them by a little? You’ll have to play the game over again from the start. Over and over and over.
But when it comes down to playing a regular old game in Association (franchise), Season Mode, or even just a quick game, NBA 2K11 can be a blast. The first season game I played turned into a 2OT nailbiter that had both my roommate and me hopping around the room like idiots. Once you’ve become comfortable running plays, stringing together IsoMotion moves, and trying to stay somewhat near your man on defense, then you can get some pretty fun games going, and the presentation does an amazing job of making the games feel just as fun and exciting as they really are. Well, at least on offense. Defense still isn’t fun or exciting, and can be incredibly frustrating.
Try taking the game online, though, and you may find the fun you’ve found to be gone again. The game’s online play is surprisingly spotty -- get used to seeing the tipoff devolve into a couple of dudes having a high-jump contest long after the ball has fallen to the ground. Lag seems to be fairly common, though it’s very up and down even within games. You’ll have a perfectly smooth game, then a mostly unplayable game, then one that begins unplayable and becomes perfect. Asking around to other players confirmed for me the randomness of when these types of network problems pop up. 
If the goal of NBA 2K11 is to craft the most realistic basketball game ever, then it succeeded: this is the most realistic basketball game ever. However, the game definitely takes a hit to its fun factor for what I imagine will be a great deal of its audience. This is a game that will make you bad at basketball games even if you’re good at basketball games, and that’s a frightening prospect, and one that I think may initially turn off a lot of players. Stick with it, though, and you’ll find an incredibly complex and rewarding game of basketball, even if it doesn’t put all of that complexity to good use.
Score7.5 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)

Andrew Kauz,
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