Review: NBA 2K11

I feel like I can summarize NBA 2K11 well with one thing. A few days ago, Silicon Sasquatch editor Nick said this while watching me play a game between my beloved Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder: "Man, Kevin Durant is going to light you up."

First, some context. NBA 2K11 is, as the title would suggest, this year's version of 2K Sports' long-running NBA basketball sim game series. Almost since the series' inception on the Dreamcast, NBA 2K has lorded over other NBA games. That's why, before its cancellation, EA Sports was planning on rebooting its NBA Live series into NBA Elite to try to surpass NBA 2K.

Combating NBA 2K is definitely a mighty task: Beyond being a good-looking title with well-developed controls, this is a sports game with a long feature list. Along with exhibition mode and online multiplayer, there are three primary single-player modes: Association, where you manage and play games with your chosen NBA team; My Player, where you create a rookie and lead them to fame and glory in the NBA; and then the Jordan Challenge, where you're tasked with recreating 10 great games and moments in cover star Michael Jordan's legendary career. Each of these modes would make for a complete experience on its own, but combined together, it's easy to imagine getting 100 hours or more of NBA goodness from 2K11.

Each of these modes provides a slightly different twist to the staid basketball formula. The Association career mode is pretty standard — you control a team, play through games, try to make the playoffs and the Finals and hopefully take home the NBA title at the end of it all. It's the stock multi-year franchise mode. However, 2K Sports has done a great job providing a ton of customization and features into the Association mode; instead of just trying trades, you can put a player (or players) on the block and see what every other team in the league would offer you in return. The depth available is a step up from many (if not all) other contemporary sports sims. It's built upon previous titles, obviously, but the trade features and the incredible presentation in Association mode set it apart from previous 2K basketball games and from other sports sims.

My Player is almost a basketball RPG, where you take your created player through their own career and improve stats by playing well in games and in practice drills. This mode has become pretty standard in most other sports sim games, but what sets 2K11's version apart is the near-instantaneous response it provides to how well you are playing. You are graded not just on points, assists, and other statistics, but for making the right play, making good passes, and forcing mistakes while on defense. There's a meter called the Teammate Grade, and it's updated almost to the point of being real-time. Reaching a specific Teammate Grade (just like school grades, from F to A) is needed each game in My Player mode, and things like shot selection, passing selection, defensive plays, and drawing fouls will affect the grade. Play smartly, take good shots, and make free throws, and the grade goes up; be a ball-hog on offense and dumb on defense and the grade goes down.

Lastly, there's the Jordan Challenge. This mode has you trying to recreate some of the legendary moments that made Michael Jordan into the greatest player of his generation and, arguably, the greatest player of all time. Featuring both single games and multiple-game series, the player is tasked with attaining a number of tasks during the game — from scoring 35 points in the first half against the Blazers in the 1992 Finals (triggering The Shrug) to The Flu Game and the game-winning shot against the Jazz to win his sixth title with Chicago. One of the challenges from early in Michael Jordan's career is to score 69 points in a playoff game against Cleveland, but it's never that simple; not only do you have to drop a ton of points on the Cavs, you also need to shoot 50%+ on field goal percentage, get 6 assists and win the game. Reaching all of these tasks in one single game can be herculean, and really puts Jordan's greatness into view.

What sets 2K11 apart from other basketball games — and, really, from most every other sports game — is how much attention to detail the presentation receives in every game. Not only are the menus well-designed and clear to follow, but the presentation of a game is the closest I've yet seen to a real game on TV. Nick and Aaron are only casual basketball fans, but were convinced I'd switched from my Xbox 360 back to the cable input and turned an NBA game on when the game started. Almost every detail you see in a real NBA on TNT or ESPN game is there: broadcasters hyping star players for the game's matchups; players walking to the arena in suits pre-game; dynamic broadcasters who weave stories about teams and players in and around the action on the court; some of the best crowd effects in any sports game; and more. Hell, if you're playing against one of the team's bottom-dwellers, your arena will be empty; if you're playing the Heat or Lakers, it'll fill up with a raucous crowd.

2K11 features two great commentators, Kevin Harlan and Clark Kellogg (who are commentary partners for TNT's NBA coverage) and I don't know how much dialogue they recorded, but it's been put together incredibly well. It flows together much better than in other games, that much is sure. The way the commentary has been recorded and crafted leads it to be incredibly flexible; a pet peeve of sports games is how quickly the commentary gets stale. There's a ton of dialogue recorded specifically for the Jordan mode, too, and it's both high-quality and also discusses the storylines surrounding those periods in His Airness' career. I hate to lean on the word "dynamic," but the presentation in the game demands it. After I got off to a slow 1-4 start with the Blazers in my Association game, the commentators mentioned before tip-off that I had a talented group who had started slow and were playing disjointedly. A lot of that great presentation surrounding the game can be crafted in the game on the fly, and it shows.

Of course the action on the court stands up to the litany of great features in 2K11. NBA 2K has always played well, but there's been some good refinements and added depth since I last played a game in the series. Controls are simple to pick up, but there are more advanced ball-handling controls available for the advanced player, and if you really want to explore the game's depths you can start making shots with the right stick, which opens up a great deal of flexibility. However, even turned down to "Casual" gameplay mode, it's fast and fun basketball action; change the sliders up to Simulation mode, though, and it'll be a hoops-head's fantasy come true. The animations are great but never feel like they're driving what you do on the court. With some minor tweaks (8 minute quarters, slight nudges of the sliders) I've got my Trail Blazers Association providing very realistic game stats.

On-court behavior from players is also very true-to-life. Back to Kevin Durant for a moment — he's become one of the best players in the league, even leading the NBA in points scoring last year. So Nick's warning about him preparing to light up the Blazers was well-founded...and it came true.  In a 15-point loss for my Blazers to the Thunder, Durant scored 33 points, and had 4 rebounds and 5 steals. But what was most impressive wasn't the stat-line, but how powerful a player like Durant felt; not cheap, just incredibly good and frightening. In that way, 2K11 is an absolute success: the best players in the league feel like they're very hard to stop, and they're all good in the way they're supposed to be. Giant Chinese center Yao Ming will abuse you in the paint, Kevin Durant can shoot and drive at will, LeBron James is like a powerful bulldozer that can impart his will on a game, and so on. Brandon Roy is a great jump-shooter and driver of the basketball, and having him heat up feels just as exciting in the game as it does watching in real life.

NBA 2K11 is an incredibly well-made, feature-rich game with an amazing presentation, and above all else, it's great fun. 2K Sports has outdone itself with NBA 2K11, creating what is easily the best sports game of the year and what may be the best current-gen sports game, period. Give it a shot; you might be pleasantly surprised.

Recommended for:

  • Diehard sports fans, who probably already bought the game
  • Casual basketball fans who know LeBron, Michael Jordan and (if you're in Portland) Brandon Roy or Clyde Drexler
  • Features, features, features — a variety of deep game modes provide lots of ways to play a long time
  • Amazing presentation; playing every game is like watching the best NBA TV production you can imagine

NBA 2k11 is published by 2K Sports and developed by Visual Concepts and 2K Sports and is on sale now. It is available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, and Wii. The version reviewed was on Xbox 360, but the views from this review are relevant for the PS3 and PC editions. It is available for Xbox 360 and PS3 from $59.99 new, but retailers like Amazon have had it on sale around time of review.

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