If you were coming of age in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s like we were, you probably witnessed healthy competition in just about everything in life—Mario vs. Zelda, Nirvana vs. Guns N’ Roses, Sega vs. Nintendo, Jim Kelly vs. Troy Aikman, G.I. Joe vs. Transformers. But there was one place we could turn to find the undisputed best of the best, the envy of all young ballers, the man we all wanted to be (even if to just experience one epic dunk). That man, of course, was Michael Jordan.
When we saw Jordan was going to grace the cover of NBA 2K11, we were worried it was nothing more than a ploy to attract us nostalgia-fanatics, looking to regain a piece of our happy past. Was this going to be just another sloppy basketball simulator with unrealistic gameplay? After spending some time with the game we know two things are certain: NBA 2K11 is, and probably will be for a while, the absolute best basketball game on the market, and Jordan is still the king in our books.
The biggest addition to 2K11 is, of course, Michael Jordan himself and the all-new accompanying Jordan Challenge. These challenges let you (attempt) to relive 10 memorable moments from Jordan’s career. Basketball fans will probably be giddy to try their hand at Jordan’s Flu Game, or replicating his 63-point game. That’s right; the goal of one Jordan Challenge is to score 63 points, with at least a 50 percent field goal percentage, and six assists. These are not challenges for the faint of heart, but because they are so difficult you really feel like you are finally mastering the game when you actually claim a win.
Part of the reason these challenges are so difficult is because the controls are complex and take quite some time to get used to, let alone master. There’s a new IsoMotion dribbling controls and dynamic shot controls, all of which make for a much more realistic gaming experience, but will likely turn people new to the series off. This isn’t arcade-style gameplay like in an NBA Jam game; this is full-fledged control of your entire team. Dribbling and shot controls are mostly available via the analog sticks. You can pull off just about any more in the sport if you can learn it on the controller. This is pretty much the only area we found fault in the game, and it’s not really a fault—the depth of control is so difficult to learn and master that it will inevitably turn some off. If you stick with it, you will be rewarded with the ability to drive the lane, and as the ball falls to your right hand, press the right analog to the right and watch the ball roll off your fingers, against the backboard, and in for two points. Again, this is a system that takes a lot of practice, but lucky for us there are so many places to play around with it in the game.
You’ll have plenty of time to practice the control mechanics as there is plenty to do in game. If you aren’t up for the Jordan Challenge, you can play through a career via association mode. This mode allows you to take over a franchise. This is your basic career mode, and while it’s great to follow a team to a potential championship, there is actually more fun to be had in the Blacktop mode. In Blacktop mode you can play all sorts of basketball mini-games, like a dunk contest, a game of 21, and a 3-point shot contest. You can play as Jordan here, too, so feel free to match him against modern legends and see how it turns out. Jordan is the best in the game, no doubt, but it’s great to see him against the titans of today. All of these modes within Blacktop are tough to master, again because the control mechanics will take some time to get used to. It took us quite some time before we got our first dunk, let alone our first W.
NBA 2K11 looks and feels like a television broadcast. This is to be expected in a modern sports simulator, but the team at Visual Concepts really went the distance. There is rarely an awkward camera angle or visual hiccup – though they do exist as players sometimes defy laws of physics – while even the crowd is incredibly responsive to the game in front of them. The announcers, Clark Kellogg and Kevin Harlan are as good as sports broadcasters get in a videogame. When you have complete classic teams at your disposal, you need a good set of announcers to call the action on the court—the players deserve proper stat coverage and general interest. There are plenty of in-game ads, especially for Sprite. This is a great annoyance for us, but it obviously makes it a more “realistic” TV-style appearance. Still, as we’ve said before in our reviews of games like Madden, cut people a break if you are going to throw in heaping piles of advertisements.
After you’ve mastered the game mechanics and complete all the Jordan Challenges you will be rewarded with the Creating a Legend mode. This allows you to play as a rookie Jordan and enter the NBA, essentially calling your own shots for Mr. Air’s talents. You’ll also unlock Air Jordan shoes along your travels. These effectively provide enhancements to players of your choosing. It’s a nice touch and a great reward for all the effort you put in.
Elsewhere, we should point out that there is an online mode available; however, we were not able to test it at this time. In addition, the PlayStation 3 version includes Move support, though again we sadly couldn’t take it for a spin. However it pans out for both online and Move, there is so much to do and enjoy in the standard game that we have little doubt you’ll be playing 2K11 long into the NBA season. It’s hard to see how 2K Sports and Visual Concepts will improve upon this epic sports game in future installments, but for now they have firmly set the benchmark for future basketball games. Barring any major accomplishments in upcoming sports simulators, NBA 2K11 will likely be at the top of many “best sports game” list of 2010, and quite deservingly so.