Michael Jordan returned to the NBA in 1995 with a famous two-word statement. He returns to video games with NBA 2K11, a deeply compelling narrative of both the league in present day and the feats of its greatest player ever.
NBA 2K11 is this year's edition of gaming's premiere pro basketball simulation. It offers a full buffet of gameplay, from Association, its persistent franchise-management mode, to My Player, the singleplayer career mode now in its second year; to traditional competitive multiplayer and the cooperative Crew mode, sort of like a rec league on your console. To all this, NBA 2K11 adds 18 fully playable classic teams, headlined by Jordan's Chicago Bulls of 1986 to 1998.
A sports fan who either has experience playing basketball on some organized level, or is an informed observer of the game.
Why You Should Care
Even if you're just a casual sports fan who came of age during Jordan's career, this really is something you have to see and experience at least once. Sports games are roundly criticized for just delivering the current year. This packs in an entire era, with a supporting cast of legends.
What's this Jordan mode? It's a recreation of 10 of his most memorable games. Perform as Jordan did in real life and you'll unlock him in the game's singleplayer career mode. The hardwired 8-minute quarters make some of these games very daunting. But at least try them all, especially the postseason moments. It's electrifying to see the NBA's most significant games happening all over again, live.
Fine. Enough about Jordan. Did they improve the main game? Absolutely. It's virtually eradicated the canned animations that leave you helpless until they finish. You can get out of your player's present behavior and into what you intend to do almost instantly. This is symbiotic to the game's refined analog controls. The ballhandling commands have been changed for some acts, but overall it's intuitive enough that simply focusing on the left stick for your player's direction (or the "feel" of how he's dribbling or crossing over), and the right stick for your shot selection (or, after a bumper button, passing) will combine with the new animations to deliver something smoothly realistic and, more importantly, intentional.
Really, it's that easy? Well, not really. Don't expect to beat your man 1-on-1 with just a juke move and turbo and abuse the lane this year. Defense is much sharper - preternaturally so against your passing. You'll see a few plainly unfair turnovers. That will probably need tuning, either in your sliders (CPU Settings: Tendencies: Play Passing Lanes) or better yet in a patch. Passing requires more attention than players have given it before, and the new right stick passing, which I prefer, is still a little loose given the tough defense.
Why upgrade to 2K11? 2K10's modern game was already really good. In addition to the smoother controls, a comprehensive upgrade makes this the preferred title. Association Mode now gets draft-day trades, one highlight of a fine-tuned management sim. The games feature more responsive crowds that add payoff to your exploits. Playcalling is vastly streamlined, much better than last year's dizzying menu setup. Opposing teams run the offenses they run in real life - and that's true of the historical teams as well.
Stop fawning over this. What's not awesome about NBA 2K11? My Player, the singleplayer career mode, for one. You're still graded by a drill sergeant, still underpowered in your developmental stages, still slogging through a long preamble that will be discouraging to lesser players. The story of reaching the NBA is not the same as reaching the show in baseball. If you've been drafted, you're good enough to play. I'd rather get on with that, and see the new role-playing aspects such as news conferences and product endorsements.
What about multiplayer? This has been an ongoing problem for 2K Sports. It's something we'll follow but it's too early to tell. On launch day, the game was managing huge numbers on both consoles and there were some connection issues, particularly in quickmatch. In games connected through a lobby invite, I noticed some lag, typically in transitory moments like after finishing a play and going to inbound the ball. 2K Sports said it heard the complaints from last year and added infrastructure; it's something that bears watching.
NBA 2K11 In Action
Each game wraps with a highlight package. If you're playing with him, expect MJ to star.
If you're at all a sports fan. If you haven't picked up this series in a year or two, now is the time to return. Jordan's presence makes the game almost heirloom-quality. Michael Jordan was the last true appointment-television superstar in sports. Now he's the first appointment superstar in sports video games.
Don't Buy It
If you don't have and have never had any interest in basketball. With Jordan, 2K Sports has made a broadly appealing game but its basis is still simulation-quality basketball, which will be most fun for those who can recognize the star performers and legends, and who know how a team plays together.
The Bottom Line
Like its title star, NBA 2K11 is a transcendent performer. Even in your worst moments you will still feel a part of something bigger than just your player, team or game going on at the moment. The staggering amount of detail, polish and new content -all of it, by the way, included with the retail price - raises the bar for what the public will expect from sports gaming's showpiece titles in years to come. It is, quite rightly, the greatest basketball video game of all time.
NBA 2K11 was developed and published by 2K Sports, released on Oct. 5 in North America for the Xbox 360, PS3, PC, PSP and PS2. Played Xbox 360 version, which retails for $59.99. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all singleplayer modes and tested online multiplayer modes.