After a lengthy absence, the greatest player of all time has returned to the virtual court. Much has been made about Michael Jordan’s inclusion in NBA 2K11, and it turns out that the cover athlete has a great deal in common with 2K Sports perennial powerhouse. Both have shown a drive to improve, a desire to be the best, and the ability to absolutely dominate their competition. This year’s title is no different. With a host of new improvements, some incredible new Jordan specific content, and a brand fresh coat of polish, NBA 2K11 more than lives up to the lofty standard set by #23.
For starters, the game looks fantastic. Player models from current stars, to classic players and coaches are incredibly detailed and true to their real life counterparts, none more than Jordan himself. The arenas also look great, and the crowds are among the best I’ve seen. Presentation values are also very high. From the in game cues for substitutions, to the camera angles, to the fantastic pregame ceremonies (especially for the classic Bulls teams), you can tell that a great deal of time and effort went in to the visual side of the game. Perhaps the game’s greatest visual accomplishment is the array of thousands of animations for dribbling, shooting, dunking, lay-ups, passing and anything else you can do on a basketball court without getting arrested and/or tazed. Returning are the fantastic signature animations for specific players and it can’t be overstated how much these add to the authenticity of the game.
Of course, lots of basketball games look pretty. The steak is infinitely more important than the sizzle. Thankfully 2K Sports delivers on this aspect as well. There is no doubt that this series has been the best playing B-Ball game the last several years and 2K11 is no exception. Controls are crisp and easy to learn. The game forces you to make good realistic decisions each trip down the court, especially on the higher difficulty levels. Shooting controls are handled with either the X button (Square on PS3) or the right stick. ISO motion moves (crossovers, behind the back dribbles, hesitations) are handled by holding the left trigger (L2) down and moving the left stick. This method seems slightly more clunky than using just the right stick for ISO moves, but it’s not game breaking by any means. Free throw control is handled by holding down the right stick to begin the shooting motion, then releasing it when the player should release the ball.
The passing is mostly very good, although occasionally inaccurate. I ran into several instances where I intended to pass to a specific player and ended up throwing it to another of my teammates who was heavily guarded, but in a similar area of the court. These moments were aggravating, but infrequent. Turbo is handled via a sprint button (R Trigger or R2), but is limited. When you use the feature your yellow stamina bar will begin decreasing, displaying blue underneath. If you run the bar all the way to the bottom, you will begin eating into your overall stamina for the game. If you release the sprint button before it reaches the bottom, you’ll slowly regain stamina to the maximum length. This feature allows for extra speed when you need it, but does a great job of preventing abuse.
Perhaps the best aspect of the game is that the great players in NBA 2K11 play great, without being infallible. As should be expected considering their focus on him, this is immediately noticeable when controlling Jordan. He feels incredibly talented, dominant even, but not overpowered. You won’t make every silly off balance shot you take with him, but if you play the game right you’ll own the court. Nailing this aspect was key to legitimizing the Jordan segments. The copout way would have been to just juice up his stats to inhuman levels and let you make everything, but they put the work in to accurately reflect his skill set.
Speaking of Jordan, fans of his magnificent career will not be disappointed with the content on display here. When you boot up the game for the first time, you’ll be treated to the classic Bulls intro and dropped into the 1991 NBA Finals against the Magic Johnson and James Worthy led Lakers. All in all you find 10 Jordan Challenges in the game that pick specific games from Jordan’s career like his 69 point performance in the Finals, the infamous Flu game, and of course the 1998 NBA Finals game against the Jazz which ended with one of the most iconic shots (and potential offensive fouls) in the history of the game. With all of these classic games to dive into, one would be forgiven for thinking that you’d be playing with/against such legendary players as John Smith1 and Bulls #33. Thankfully, 2K sports went the extra mile to ensure that all the starting and high profile bench players from each of the Bulls teams featured, as well as each of the classic NBA teams you’ll face off against are represented both in name and likeness.
Completing all the Jordan challenges opens up a brand new mode called Creating a Legend. This mode tasks you with taking a rookie MJ and dropping him into the current NBA to see how his career would play out now. This is a fantastic addition, and should make for some great “fantasy” matchups with MJ guarding and being guarded by guys like Kobe and King James. Of course, what Jordan tribute would be complete without the shoes? Players can unlock 40 different pairs of classic Jordan’s to outfit their players with, each offering a different attribute point increase. All in all, the Jordan content in 2K11 is a shining example of how “legends” content in sports games should be done. 2K could have easily just put him up as paid DLC for the dunk contest, or slid him in a couple modes and on the box and passed it off as the “Jordan Edition”. Instead, they went all out to put together a fitting virtual tribute to the career of the greatest athlete of a generation.
Of course the name on the box isn’t Jordan 2K11, so there’s a full fledged NBA game nestled beneath all this #23 love. Complete with the full suite of modes you’d expect from a modern sports game, as well as some great returning online modes like Pickup Game. My Player is back with several overhauls. Teammate grading is much more fair and accurate, and your career takes a much more logical path than the first step framework mode they laid down last year. This mode is where I’ve sunk most of my time, and it’s incredibly fulfilling to watch your teammate grade increase as you improve your quality of play.
The grading system forces you to play smart; taking bad shots, making bad passes, or not playing solid defense will decrease your rating and cause you to get cut. On the flipside, take open shots, set up your teammates for scoring chances, rebound and box-out and you’ll find yourself slowly climbing up to the ranks of the NBA’s elite. 2K’s second go around with this mode is incredibly deep, and in a couple years may even challenge Sony’s mighty MLB: The Show for best sports career mode.
To say that NBA 2K11 is a great basketball game is a vast understatement. It’s a great representation of the sport, a fitting tribute to a legend, and the one of the best sports games I’ve played in years. Whether you’re a Jordan fan whose interest has waned since his Airness hung up the sneakers or a diehard fan of the current NBA you’ll find a lot to love here. This is one game that should be on every sports fan’s shelf.
Review copy provided by publisher.