Posted by Neil Paine on November 1, 2010
As cyber-ballers from the 1990s know, pinning down Michael Jordan is no easy task for an NBA video game. After 1992, when Jordan signed a licensing agreement independent of the Players' Association, he rarely appeared in virtual form, only lending his likeness to 1994's Chaos in the Windy City, NBA Live 2000, NBA Street, and 2K/Live during his Wizards comeback. For most of Jordan's prime, his Bulls were led on the video hardcourt by Scottie Pippen and/or "Roster Player #89", a fictional MJ doppelganger who took #23's place on Chicago's roster.
All of that changes with NBA 2K11. In it, 2K Sports brings vintage basketball back to life with the Jordan Challenge, a game mode that allows players to relive 10 of Mike's most memorable games, including his coming-out party against Boston in the '86 playoffs and the Flu Game in '97. The rosters of the teams involved -- well, the starting lineups at least -- are faithfully re-created, so you'll find Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, and co. just as they were when they crossed MJ's path (complete with accurate abilities & animations). In fact, the first time you start the game, you're immediately dropped into Chicago Stadium for Game 1 of the 1991 Finals against Magic Johnson's Lakers -- a highly memorable experience, and one unlike any other you'll find in a sports video game.
Of course, Jordan Mode does have its flaws. The challenges are overly difficult at times, and they force you to focus not only on winning but also on checking off a list of statistical accomplishments that tend to lose meaning outside the context of Jordan's original performance. Still, it's difficult to truly understate the thrill of re-enacting moments like The Shrug in video-game form -- and besides, there's way more to NBA 2K11 than just the Jordan Challenge.
For instance, let's talk gameplay. Last year's 2K offering already featured a strong simulation engine, provided you tweaked the sliders a bit, and they refined that formula this time around by making a more sim-style game the default option. The AI's defense has been ramped up, so you'll find it far more difficult to get to the rim than in years past -- and even harder to finish a play among the tall trees -- but fortunately the midrange game is alive and well, as is a more varied array of low-post moves. This more realistic gameplay frustrated me at first, and it can still be tough to consistently score with certain teams, yet after a handful of games the action becomes more immersive and rewarding than ever because of the increased difficulty. If there's one major complaint, it's that turnovers are still a bit too prevalent because buggy off-ball teammate AI makes accurate passing tougher than it should be, but the overall package has to be considered the truest representation of basketball in a game yet.
In terms of sounds & graphics, 2K11 is impressive. Like in past years, the presentation is geared to replicate what you see on a TV broadcast, which means beautifully rendered arenas, tons of overlays, lifelike commentary from Kevin Harlan/Clark Kellogg, and generally a polished, network-style feel to the proceedings. In terms of animations, the player models move as fluidly as ever, and I encountered fewer instances of players going into canned, slow-developing moves this year (you know, the turnover-prone kind that you can't cancel once they begin). My only beef with the game's animations is that many players' unique shooting styles are incredibly difficult to time perfectly, both from the field and the charity stripe, without practice. This isn't a big deal if you're playing franchise mode with the same players game in and game out, but if you play a quick game with a team you've never used before, it usually takes a half's worth of awful shooting to get the timing right.
Speaking of franchise mode, "The Association" is back for another season, and while it hasn't changed a great deal (the CPU gets more out of their trades this year -- bad news for those of us who exploited holes in 2K10's AI), it's still among the best dynasty-style modes in a console sports game. "My Player" also returns for those hoping to build their own legend from scratch, and it's a mode that requires just as much patience as ever ("My Career" does include some sweet off-court activities, though). Throw in Jordan's eponymous Challenge, as well as familiar favorites like Blacktop (a collection of streetball modes) & NBA Today (an expansion of 2K10's mode where you play current real-life matchups), and 2K11 is definitely an upgrade over last year's game in the features department.
NBA 2K11 may not be perfect -- the complexity of the control scheme can be daunting even for experienced players, and the new simulation-heavy gameplay is sometimes frustrating -- but it didn't just win the basketball gaming crown by default this year with the indefinite delay of NBA Elite. Adding Jordan was an impressive coup in and of itself, and 2K11 bolstered most of its other core features as well for this season. Couple that with the sense of history Jordan's classic teams provide (I can play as the 1986 Celtics!), and you've got easily the best console basketball game ever made, plus the big step forward the series needed to finally challenge MLB: The Show as the best sports franchise in console gaming.
PS3 Grade: A