If there's one truism that generally applies to sports games, it's that they're usually slightly improved iterations of their predecessors, coupled with updated rosters. While these usual types of updates are also true of NBA 2K11, 2K Sports has gone quite a bit further this year, with an unmatched number of gameplay modes, mind-boggling depth (both on and off the court), and unprecedented control of its digital players. A couple of entirely new gameplay modes based around NBA legend, Michael Jordan, add another layer of value that will keep the game in fans' libraries long after the 2011 season concludes.
The NBA 2K series has always looked damn good and this year's entry is the best looking to date. Players are instantly recognizable, and while you'll still encounter a few alien-like renditions of particular ballers (Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant), most of the players look very much like their live counterparts.
The presentational upgrades extend well-beyond the players themselves. Subtle touches like dynamic crowds that head for the exits if the home team is getting spanked in the fourth quarter and arena noise levels that accurately reflect crowd size and stadium acoustics might be lost on more casual fans. Playing 'away' games as the Lakers against the Kings or Jazz, the crowd is loud enough to distract. Chants of "Beat LA!" could be heard from rival fans during close games. Basketball aficionados will certainly appreciate the tiny details afforded their favorite teams.
Players are also given an unprecedented amount of control on the court. Scores of new player-specific animations combine with a near ridiculous amount of improved IsoMotion dribbling controls and brand new dynamic shot controls. The animations are stitched together better than any previous game in the series and most of them can be altered on the fly. What this means from a practical standpoint is more fluid moment-to-moment control of each player, and far fewer instances in which you'll feel trapped in a drawn out shot. If your layup is about to get swatted, a quick flick of the shot stick will alter your shot, giving you a much better chance of scoring (or going to the line).
The player AI in NBA 2K11 really shines. Past games in the series did a good job of making specific players behave as you'd expect, but NBA 2K11 takes things to the next level. Players of previous games will feel just at home enough to get themselves in trouble, though there have been enough subtle tweaks and additions to the control scheme that it'll take more than a few games to become proficient. If you're prone to lobbing half-court passes and manufacturing dunks out of thin air (as was possible in previous games), prepare to turn the ball over a lot. Even on the lower difficulty settings, the AI will present a significant challenge for those more comfortable with arcade-style affairs. NBA 2K11 is a simulation that punishes players who try to play at a pace that outstrips real NBA action.
The Michal Jordan-themed content is pure, unadulterated fan service. There are ten challenges to complete, each based around a classic MJ career performance from one of eight classic Chicago Bulls teams. Players will need to match or surpass Jordan's stats in games that range from his 'Arrival,' when he scored 63 points and 6 assists against the '85-'86 Celtics, to recreating the 1991 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers where he averaged 31+ points, 55 percent shooting, and 11+ assists. The challenges are tough as nails on the whole, and very rewarding to complete. Customized announcer commentary for these match-ups is a nice bonus, and all of the featured classic Bulls teams (and their rival teams) are all playable.
Completing various in-game milestones unlocks different pairs of Air Jordan kicks, which can be equipped to give players mild stat bonuses in certain areas, depending on the shoe. There's also a mode called MJ: Creating a Legend, which allows players to remake Jordan's career from the beginning, but you'll have to complete all ten Jordan challenges to unlock it.
'The Association,' NBA 2K11's franchise mode, is also much improved this year, thanks to Trade AI that actually makes smart decisions. You won't be able to nab someone's superstar player for a couple of draft picks and second-tier players. The AI also takes better account of individual team needs, which keeps rosters much more balanced in subsequent seasons. If you really want to get dirty with stuff like playing all of your D-League team's games and practice drills, feel free. Luckily, if an aspect of team management doesn't appeal to you, it's still easy enough to automate.
This year's 'My Player' mode turns out to be one of the deepest basketball RPG's I've experienced. It likely won't appeal to casual players because it takes considerable effort to get your custom player into the NBA, and even more determination to become a superstar. With all of the training, drills, scrimmages, and pre-season activity, there are (at least) several hours of gameplay before you hit your first real NBA game. Your responses in press conferences will impact how your team and fans view you. Say something boneheaded, and you might have a hard time getting them to pass you the ball. It's very well done, but you need to have the patience and willingness to slowly build your player's skills. It would have been nice to enable less dedicated players to skip straight to the NBA.
Players can also match up online for quickplay or ranked matches, join a crew with other players to compete against other crews, or create online leagues and tournaments. What I experienced was silky-smooth, with no noticeable lag - a much better "out-of-the-gate" experience than previous years.
Serious basketball fans have something really special to look forward to with NBA 2K11. It's the most feature-packed version of video game basketball I've played to date. The game is chock full of little presentational touches and gameplay improvements that true fans of the sport will appreciate, and it provides a staggering amount of game types. The Michael Jordan-related content stands out as some of the best basketball fan-service available, on any platform.
NBA 2K11 was developed by 2K Sports for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PSP, and PC. Review based on the Xbox 360 version.