"NBA 2K11" features an incredible amount of detail and realism, but don't expect any help learning the ropes.

‘‘NBA 2K11,” the latest installment in 2K Sports’ annual basketball franchise, is as fantastic as everyone says. The game has a level of craftsmanship, depth and attention to detail that’s simply not found in sports games bound to a yearly release schedule.

But to casual gamers or folks who haven’t played a hoops game in ages, it can be daunting. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the lock-down defense that takes away myriad fast-break opportunities found in previous games becomes a frustrating obstacle. “2K11’s” biggest weakness is one nearly all sports games suffer from: It’s terrible at teaching novices how to play.

The first time you play “2K11” (rated E, $60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, $50 on Wii, $30 on PC or PS2, $20 on PSP), you’ll bypass any menus and be taken right to the start of Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals, where the Bulls and Michael Jordan are trying to win His Airness’ first NBA title against Magic Johnson’s Lakers. Because “2K11” is designed to showcase Jordan, the game’s greatest player, you’ll start the game in the tunnel as Jordan runs onto the court for player introductions.

It’s a fantastic way to start and, because you’re largely controlling the greatest player of all time, it’s not too difficult. I stayed true to history and lost this game, the only game of the Finals the real ’90-’91 Bulls lost, but not by much. I was in it the whole way.

If you haven’t played a basketball game in a while, the first game you play in charge of a team of basketball mortals will not be close. Part of that is expected: No one should be able to pick up an unfamiliar game and dominate right out of the gate.

But fault also lies with developers of “NBA 2K11” and other sports titles for not creating more robust in-game tutorials. While playing on “rookie” difficulty, you get little aid beyond some help with free throws and player substitutions. If you go into the game’s menus, you can enable options like automatic play-calling or on-court diagrams that show you how to run offensive sets, but you’re left to figure out what all those arrows mean on your own. And the NBA’s 24-second shot clock doesn’t allow a lot of room for experimentation.
A practice mode that has you learning the game in an empty gym with no competition falls flat.

This squandering of an opportunity to teach comes in spite of “NBA 2K11’s” focus on the greatest, and most popular, basketball player of all time. The inclusion of Jordan promises to draw interest from lapsed basketball fans who might otherwise not have picked up a 2K Sports simulation over something like Electronic Arts’ arcade-style “NBA Jam.” But some of those converts might be frustrated upon losing their third game in a row to the current incarnation of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

That said, there’s plenty of fun to be had in “NBA 2K11” for those willing to suffer a few beatdowns while they get the hang of things. I’m still getting comfortable with the controls that call plays, or ask teammates to set screens, but I started being able to win games on “rookie” difficulty by slowing the pace, hitting the open man and nailing uncontested jumpers.

There’s still a lot to learn playing a game that has seemingly as many different types of layups and dunks as it does teams for you to choose from, but “2K11” does get easier if you stick with it. Such perseverance is worthwhile. The “Jordan Challenge” mode, in which you try to replicate 10 of Michael’s greatest moments — not including drafting Kwame Brown as an exec with the Wizards — is sports gaming at its nostalgic greatest. For fans who came of age when the Bulls were racking up rings, “2K11” is a treat, re-creating both Jordan’s squad and those that served as the Bulls’ rivals, such as the 1989-’90 Bad Boy Pistons or, my favorite, the 1995-’96 Seattle SuperSonics.

Those picking the game up with hopes of blazing to glory as the 1996-’97 Utah Jazz need to be warned, though, that the rosters of the historic teams aren’t wholly accurate. Because likenesses of retired players need to be secured on an individual basis, rather than through the NBA Players Association, all teams include a starting five, but benches are often populated with generic benchwarmers such as “Richard Johnson” and “John Brown.” As a Sonics fan, I was a little dismayed to see “Mr. Sonic,” Nate McMillan, left off Seattle’s bench despite his already being in the game as the Portland Trail Blazers’ head coach.

All that said, “NBA 2K11” is being hyped as the greatest basketball simulation ever made, and I haven’t seen anything that refutes that assessment. The Association, the game’s franchise mode, returns with as much detail as ever, and My Player lets you take an aspiring hoopster from the ranks of combine tryout to All-Star. The Jordan modes and extremely polished presentation make the game a can’t-miss title for anyone with a passing interest in pro basketball and a modicum of patience for the effort needed to learn the ropes.