With the NBA season again upon us, its video game equivalent has too again marched its way into our consoles in the form of 2K Sports NBA 2K11. While NBA Live 10 bridged the gap between last year's edition of the NBA 2K series, this year's hoops race looked to be heating up. But with Electronic Art's revamped NBA Elite 11 stuck in development limbo and the licensing coup of landing 'His Airness', NBA 2K11 looked to retain its crown by default. But not one to rest on its laurels, the team behind the title have lovingly created a basketball simulation which holds the mantle of not only the greatest basketball title of the moment - its the greatest sports game in the video game world at this point in time. A fitting feat considering that the greatest player to ever play the game graces its cover.
NBA 2K11 has received a number of upgrades across the board, but its best inclusion has to be the Jordan Challenge mode. For many fans of 90s NBA action, just having a fully licensed Jordan model in a basketball title is a big deal. After enduring years of having our hearts broken year after year as we cracked open the latest basketball title only to find that again the game's greatest player was absent, true hoops aficionados now have something to smile about. Let's be straight about something, the Jordan Challenge is pure, unadulterated fan service. It does allow gamers to play through some of Jordan's most prolific moments on the basketball court. From the infamous 'Flu Game' to his final game in a Bulls uniform, there are plenty of legendary moments to relive.
The task of the Jordan Challenge is to equal or surpass the stat line of Jordan's stats for that game. 2K Sports has created each of these 10 memorable moments with a surprising level of detail of the players and teams of the era, with each game serving as a piece of NBA history that will give you an appreciation for not only the greatness of Jordan, but the quality of the opponents he found on the court each night. The level of detail of Michael Jordan alone is worth the sticker price of the title with all of his movements and nuances recreated with care. The fadeaway jumper, signature dunks, the tongue hanging out of his mouth, triumphant fist pump and even the famous shrug as he drops 35 points in a half against Trail Blazers have all been included. Completing these challenges further rewards the player by unlocking a special version of the My Player career mode - MJ: Creating a Legend, which allows you to bring rookie Michael Jordan into today's league and see how he faces up against today's NBA superstars. The last of the Jordan flavoured content is the inclusion of 40 pairs of Air Jordan kicks which will unlock as players reach certain in-game milestones. These sneakers prove to be more than just fan service, as each shoe can be equipped to give players mild stat bonuses in certain areas of the game.
Once you are done with playing through the Jordan features of the title, all of your old favourites have made a return. 'The Association', 'My Player', slam dunk competition, three point comp, one-on-one streetball and practice modes are all here. Online modes again return, with a noticeably smoother experience - featuring little to no noticeable lag when playing the game.
'The Association,' NBA 2K11's franchise mode, is much improved this year, largely thanks to a lot of behind the scenes aspects of the mode rather than the actual gameplay. Trade AI that actually makes smart decisions is one of the greatest strengths, making it a more difficult task to snag a superstar player away from their team in exchange for a cow and some magic beans. The AI also makes smarter decisions, taking into account of a team's needs allowing them to keep a more balanced roster as you progress through multiple seasons. The Association also allows you to take the reigns of your development league team, like setting up practice drills and playing all of your D-League team's games if you're after that level of depth. Thankfully for those of us that prefer to dive into the NBA side of things, the management of your development team is easy enough to automate.
While its debut was a welcome inclusion in NBA 2K10, there were a number of issues that kept this from being a truly great experience. This year's 'My Player' has fixed many of the issues and added in some additional features, making it one of the deepest basketball role playing gamess you can experience. Definitely a mode with the long-term gamer in mind, My Player is not likely to appeal to the casual set as you'll find yourself sinking in a considerable amount of hours in order to build your young baller into an NBA ready thoroughbred - and you'll need a hell of a lot of determination and patience if you want your custom player to be a superstar. Compile the time spent on all of the training, drills, scrimmages and pre-season games, and there are several hours of gameplay to wade through before you hit your first real NBA game. One new addition is the ability to have your player respond to questions during press conferences which will impact how your teammates and fans view you. Say something stupid and you'll find yourself riding the pine on the bench. Get everyone on your side and your teammates will pass to you more frequently in games. My Player is a great look at the hard work that goes into becoming a champion player, and it is most satisfying to find your player's gradual rise through the NBA ranks as you build upon his skills. The only real bone we have to pick with My Player is that it isn't friendly to the casual player and that it provides no way to automatically skip straight to the NBA for those looking to bypass the arduous draft combine and skill drills.
After spending a few hours with the game, you'll find that the finely polished sheen of NBA 2K11 isn't exclusive to the Jordan-specific content, it extends right throughout the title. The quality visual presentation has again been beefed up with a slick half-time show that accurately sums up the happenings of the game to date and a wicked Player of the Game presentation that pops up post-game, allowing players to relieve the best moments of that game's outstanding player. Another great addition is the Pressbook feature which collates a slide-show of photos from the game which often pick up some wicked camera angles of the best on-court action, which you can then upload to the 2K servers for bragging rights.
The most important presentational upgrades appear on the court itself, with most players looking and moving just like their real-life counterparts. Another great inclusion to the atmosphere of the title is the dynamic crowds. If you're spanking the home team, you'll see the crowd flock to the exits like a bat out of hell. Another great addition is the crowd chants. Have a player on the home team carving up the opposition? Then you're sure to hear chants of 'MVP!' flock the stadium, while those that are lucky enough to stay competitive with the Los Angeles Lakers when they visit your house will treat Kobe and company to the chant of 'Beat LA!' It's a small touch, but it shows just how thorough the developer was with the title's level of detail.
Of course, none of these great features mean squat if the gameplay isn't any good. Good thing that isn't a problem in NBA 2K11. This year's edition sees players given an unprecedented amount of control on the court, with heaps of new player-specific animations combined with a large amount of improved IsoMotion ballhandling controls and brand new dynamic shot controls. These animations weaved together better than any of its predecessors, with players able to alter most of them on the fly. This gives gamers more fluid control of each player, and the ability to get yourself out of most sticky situations. Think that slam dunk of yours is going to be blocked? Easy, a simple flick of the analog stick and you'll be able to alter your shot to give yourself a better chance of scoring a basket - or at least drawing a foul.
The player AI is where NBA 2K11 truly excels. While past titles in the NBA 2K series did a good job of making specific players behave as you'd expect, NBA 2K11 takes it up another notch. There are enough subtle tweaks and adjustments to the control scheme that seasoned NBA 2K players will find themselves in early trouble. Gone are the constant half-court passes and the ability to manufacture a dunk out of thin air. Try to pull any of those old moves and you'll quickly find yourself behind on the scoreboard. Once you've settled into the of the title, you'll find yourself again being proficient with the game. Though make no mistake, NBA 2K11 is no arcade affair. Even when playing the game on the lower difficulty levels, NBA 2K11 will thoroughly punish those that attempt to play the game at a breakneck pace that attempts to exceed even that of real NBA action. That being said, spending a few minutes with the game sliders will allow who aren't used to the challenge of the NBA 2K franchise to find a comfortable setting.
With oodles of upgrades and features that supersede anything before it, NBA 2K11 is an open love letter to the basketball aficionados of the world. While those that don't religiously follow hoops will not pick up on many of the subtleties contained in the game, those in the know will load up the title and feel that this is the NBA in its purest form aside from experiencing it in the flesh. There is no place in here for those looking for NBA Jam-esque antics, but if you're looking for a solid basketball game, be assured that no one else has ever come this close to representing the beloved pastime in such a way that we can honestly say that it is the most accurate and polished sporting video game on the planet. Make no mistake, NBA 2K11 is where amazing happens.