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Game Review: NBA 2K11 (PS3)

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

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8 Responses to “Game Review: NBA 2K11 (PS3)”

  1. Jason J Says:

    I was on vacation at a buddy's and we rented this game. It was the first NBA game I'd played since 2001, and the difficulty knocked my socks off. We realized pretty quick that even if we took the full weekend to try to get a handle on it we wouldn't get any good. So we just went outside and played some actual basketball.

    I am thinking of buying it though and sinking some hours into it. How is the online play?

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Online ranked and unranked play isn't too bad, although the timing on jumpers is difficult to get right (then again, timing shot releases is frustrating even in local play). I'd say the biggest problems come when you try to play the 10-player "Team Up" mode. It's tough to find people to play with and the action struggles to stay smooth & in sync.

  3. Anon Says:

    I didn't know basketball games did that. I would buy the game just to play ref, if that was an option.

  4. Jared Ras Says:

    Michael Jordan was also in NBA Street Volume 2, and possibly a couple other games, I thought.

    2K can use a ton of work in the customization department, because now I want to recreate other old teams, but there is a limit of 150 created players, and things like socks, headbands, goggles, and shorts aren't editable. Still, Jordan Challenge and My Player has kept me occupied until I can find some time to overhaul the roster and start my Association. A lot of features, just as last year. I'm looking forward to seeing if they made any changes to The Association, which is really a fun GM mode.

  5. Neil Paine Says:

    Good catch with NBA Street, I added it to the list.

  6. koberulz Says:

    There's an option to have the success of shots determined solely by player ratings, rather than by anything you as a user do with the shot stick (with the release timing, at least; shot selection and whatnot still obviously matters).

  7. Nick C Says:

    I think that NBA 2k11 is the best basketball game to have come out, although I think that some of the older players point rankings are lower than what they should be. Take Bird in '86 when he was at the prime of his career. He's ranked at 96. Seriously? Maybe I don't have a problem with it being 96, but when you have BOTH D-wade and Lebron at 97 for this current season, it just seems too low. Same with Magic, and although I realize they are basing it on him being at the end of his career in '91, I still think he should have been higher. Same goes for Malone, Stockton, Pippen, etc. Even on the '96 Bulls, they have Kukoc in the 70s if I recall. Thats insane. Anyone who saw that team day in and day out, would have Kukoc in the high 80s at a minimum. He was so underrated because he was on a team where he was pushed to 6th man (winning it in 95-96)

  8. Online Games Reviews Says:

    I don't say this often but NBA 2K11 is worth by, just to play Jordan. The graphics are top level and the light rendering makes it seem more like a real game. I highly recommend playing/buying this one. I don't buy the sports games because they out dated so quickly but this one I'm keeping in my collection because it's replay value is excellent much like John Madden.