In a league of stars, from Magic Johnson to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James, there has not been a bigger star than Michael Jordan. With NBA 2K11, California developer Visual Concepts has delivered a game worthy of MJ. Packed full of features and stunningly presented, it’s as tough and daunting as facing the ‘95 Bulls but as thrilling as a game seven buzzer beater in NBA Finals.
As soon as the game loads you know exactly what it’s all about - Michael Jordan. The legend himself is heralded as the man who changed basketball, and then it’s time for you to take the court to show what you’ve got. First up is a quickplay screen where you can choose to play a single or two-player game, or find a quick match online. On the same screen you get to choose a team from every franchise in the NBA, complete with up-to-date rosters. Also playable are some of the greatest NBA teams of the last 25 years.
Available to play right from the start are the ’85 Bulls. With a young Jordan, fresh from being selected third in the ’84 draft, ready the Bulls are ready to match up against Larry Bird’s ’85 Celtics. Actually, most of the significant Bulls teams from ’89 through ‘98 are playable, as well as the teams (the Knicks, Jazz and Pistons, for example) that tried to match up with them. The depth and detail of the game is staggering. It’s like an archive of Jordan era history. All the greats are there including Magic Johnston, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Stockton. Every player brilliantly re-created, totally accurate and completely playable.
Once you choose your team (maybe Jordan’s ’97 Bulls up against Kobe’s Lakers) you get a dramatic introduction to the game, beginning with players arriving at the stadium, stats and match-ups, Snoop Dogg’s perfect theme song and a commentary track so well done you easily forget that it’s not the real thing. The player models have never been better and apart from a very strange looking Larry Bird, for the most part they look just right. Also, the bodies move well. While there are some collision issues, nothing is too distracting, except for those eighties style short shorts. The stadiums and crowds look good too; each designed to re-create the unique atmosphere, with the chanting and music, of the particular building. They are so good you almost expect to see Jack Nicholson screaming at the ref from the front row of the Staples Centre.
Gameplay itself is difficult. But, not because of awkward controls. It’s difficult because of the level of control you have to master. At the game’s most basic you move with the left stick, pass with the x button and shoot with the square. After that there are incredible layers of fluid, subtle and intuitive combinations that will see you performing every imaginable dunk, performing cross-overs, dribbling behind your back, and calling all manner of screens, isolations and post-up moves. Each move in their own right is not that hard to do, using the right stick for dunks, the d-pad to call plays or the trigger to select passing options; but remembering and using them all is where the real test is. Everything you can dream of doing in a game, if you’re good enough, you can do in NBA 2K11.
On top of the quick games there are all the other gameplay options that you would expect of a top class sport sim. The Association lets you play manager and My Player lets you create a rookie to take through a career. They are familiar game modes, but again NBA 2K11 does it as well as you could possibly imagine. The Association shows great statistical depth and nice opposing management AI, and My Player provides a long and in-depth journey from proving yourself in the combines, to the draft, and eventually to press conferences, playoffs and stardom.
Also added to the mix is the street ball mode called NBA Blacktop. Here you can play pick up games as, or against, most of the past and present NBA stars, as well as a few celebrities. So it could be Snoop Dogg versus Shaq, or Bow Wow against Steve Nash. Or you could be a young Michael Jordan, complete with a full head of hair, up against old and bald MJ – just to see if the old man still has the skills. If pick up games aren’t enough, you can also compete in games of 21, Slam Dunk contests and Three Point Shootouts. All minigames are played out on a city court at night. It’s a great little diversion/practice area and a nice showcase for the game’s excellent soundtrack. It's also a cool little nod towards those first basketball games that pitted Larry Bird against Dr. J.
If you haven’t got enough game options yet, then NBA 2K11 provides more. Perhaps this year’s most important addition, added to the top menu along with Quick Play, Game Modes, My Player, Team Up (where you can set up your online crews) and Manage Rosters, is My Jordan.
In My Jordan you can play through a list of Jordan challenges that recap some of MJ’s greatest moments. From game 2 in the ’86 playoff series against the Celtics, where Michael scored 63 points; to his 45 points and 4 steals against the Jazz in ’98. You have to play the games, match Jordan’s stats, and win. Completing all the challenges, unlocks Creating a Legend. In this mode you can use MJ as you created player and take him through a career of records, MVP awards and Championships. The only thing missing is the ability to place a few bets, a season playing Minor League Baseball, and a movie with Bugs Bunny.
There is little doubt that NBA 2K11 is an outstanding all-round game. But like Michael, with the gambling questions and strange baseball excursion keeping him human, NBA 2K11 has a couple of issues stopping it from flying like an eagle. As with previous games there is still a tendency for centres, even centres like Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol, to miss easy lay-ups. Online lag issues are magnified by the control system. Shooting a free throw is a matter of moving the right stick down, then up. However, there is no on-screen swing meter to help, so if you have a player with a shooting animation you’re not used to, and a bit of lag, you will get an on screen message telling you that your release is ‘a bit late’ as yet another free throw rims out. Horribly frustrating.
There are other frustrations in NBA 2K11. There are some pretty long load times even around simple little training runs and sometimes substitutions and in bounding seem to take a long time. If you aren’t familiar with the previous versions, it will take time to start winning games, and it will take a long time to get very good. But that is what sport sims are supposed to be like. It’s big, it’s technical, it’s innovative and it looks and sounds great. And somehow, at the beginning of the 2010/11 NBA season it has taken the focus off LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and the champions elect, Miami Heat.
MJ has said recently he could drop 100 points in a single game if he were playing this season. While we’ll never know if this is true, NBA 2K11 has got very close to doing it already.