NBA 2K11 (Xbox360)
It appears that sports games with roleplaying elements may be my Kryptonite. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that I’ve a long and generally regrettable history of adding roleplaying elements to those sports games in which, strictly speaking, no roleplaying elements existed. In any case, the reason I’ve spent the past few weeks enthralled by a game depicting a sport in which I have little interest and less knowledge can be summed up in three words: “My Player Mode”. It’s strikingly similar to the Be A Pro mode in FIFA 09 which ate so much of my life – you create and control a single player through the course of his professional career, gaining experience points depending on how well you perform which you then use to increase that player’s abilities. And so: DIRK JUSTICE.
The first pick of the second round of the 2011 draft by the New Jersey Nets, at the start of the season he was a tall, quick point guard whose talents included: a) a pretty sweet medium-range jumpshot and b) nothing else. DIRK JUSTICE! spent exactly six games in New Jersey being played out of position, not getting the ball and watching team-mates launch hopeless shots into the first four rows of the crowd before demanding a trade and taking his meagre talents to the Pacific Northwest where he survived as a soldier of fortune. After a few months of development playing as a facilitator and streaky scorer for the Trail Blazers, he has now turned into a tall, quick point guard whose talents include a) an even sweeter medium-range jumpshot b) an awesome Sideshow Bob hairdo / serial killer moustache combo and c) nothing else.
It’s possible that NBA2K11 is a rigorous and authentic recreation of basketball. I haven’t the faintest idea, because I know as much about basketball as Danny Dyer knows about string theory. I just know I love the announcer shouting “HERE’S JUSTICE!!” like an Eighties straight-to-video action movie hero every time I take a jumpshot. I love that different teams and different players play noticably different styles, forcing me to adapt my game to beat them. I love that the game’s a significantly different experience playing as a centre than as a shooting guard. Mostly, I love that enough is out of my control that it emotionally involves me.
That seems a bit counterintuitive, so let me try to explain.
When your player releases a shot in NBA2K11, it has a percentage chance of going in. That chance is based on how far from the basket the shooter is, his skill at that range, whether he’s spotted up or shooting off the dribble, how tight the defence is around him, how well you time the button press to make him release the ball and probably several other factors. No matter how ideal the situation you’ve manufactured to take the shot, no matter how well you time your release you can’t guarantee a basket, only shift the percentages in your favour to a greater or lesser degree. This means every shot gives a small gambler’s thrill when it swishes through the hoop, or a sudden spike of righteous annoyance if it clangs off the rim. Either way, the emotional stakes are increased, either in an “I AM A GOLDEN GOD OF BASKETBALL!” fashion or an “I’LL GET YOU NEXT TIME, GADGET!” sort’ve way. The perfect balance of control to Mongo Only Pawn In Game Of Life is found in My Player mode, where I’m regularly delighted by the play of my AI teammates but even more regularly frustrated with them. Crucially though, I’m usually frustrated by them in fairly predictable ways – Greg Oden’s reluctance to attack the basket or Deron Williams’ monomanaical tendancy to take ridiculous shots, for example. Those tendancies make me mentally assign personalities to algorithms, make me get invested in what I’m doing, make me develop a relationship with the other nine players on court and a relationship with the game itself. This results in the sort of emergent narrative you get playing a game like Championship Manager, where the abstraction and random element both fill in the gaps in the AI, playing into the natural human tendancy to see pattern and design where none actually exist. Essentially, the instinct that makes people turn the shadows cast by curtains flapping in the night breeze into a vengeful ghostly apparition, or made a bunch of frozen Scandinavians decide that lightning hitting trees was thrown by a beardy alcoholic with an enormous hammer is the same instinct that makes me shout at Kevin Love for bricking open but insanely optimistic 3-point attempts. I’d like the game to embrace this even more. When I score or block a shot it makes me feel the overpowering urge to declare my awesomeness / taunt my opposite number. To that end, I wish there were some equivalent of the insanely detailed FIFA goal celebration mechanic in the game – if he sinks a clutch shot it would be nice to have DIRK JUSTICE!!! bounce back up the court doing Sam Cassell’s Testicle Dance, f’rinstance.
Other nittiest of picks – the commentators aren’t brilliant, there’s way too much repetition and they don’t seem to recognise that season averages will be reduced if you’re not playing full-length games. Hence you hear things like “He’s not a regular scorer, but he’s contributing tonight” when DIRK JUSTICE!!!! is 3rd in the NBA in points per game. Also: in “The Association” mode (the game’s equivalent of a Madden Franchise mode, where you’re in full control of a team, functioning as its GM and coach as well as playing every game) you have the option of reducing the number of games played in a full season from 82 down to 54 or even lower. Bizarrely, that’s not available in My Player mode, you’re forced to grind through a full-length season or nothing. Oh, and why are there no glasses available in the otherwise nicely comprehensive player appearance editor? Amar’e Stoudemire has his excellently stupid goggles present and correct, why can’t DIRK JUSTICE!!!!! have the same? Or even better, Rip Hamilton’s mildly terrifying Phantom Of The Opera facemask?
These really are trivial complaints. NBA2K11 looks good, feels brilliant and has me shouting at Imaginary Brandon Roy for not JUST TAKING THE BLOODY WIDE-OPEN SHOT THAT I JUST SET HIM UP FOR WHERE ARE YOU GOING? OH MY HUGGING GOD. That’s what I want from a sports game.