A long time ago, in a land not-so-far-away, there was a bald-headed, mustachioed man who managed to create an entire kingdom out of nothing much at all. This man had many enemies, all of whom tried over and over again to take his kingdom away, but to no avail. Each conflict with his many rivals only hardened the man’s resolve, and brought out a few more wrinkles in his great character and unmatched skill and passion. Eventually, after many years and many, many brutal battles, the man’s enemies achieved greatness in their own right and learned to respect and even revere the man. All told, the kingdom reached a level of prosperity under the man’s reign that would never be replicated in the years following his departure.
Yes, this man was Michael Jordan, and his kingdom was the NBA. When someone says “Michael Jordan is a sports legend,” it might be tempting to disregard such a statement as being overly grandiose or nostalgia-tainted, but that would be foolish – Michael Jordan’s combination of on-the-court heroics, infallible work ethic and water-tight public persona most certainly cemented his place as one of the sports world’s greats. Naturally, when 2K Sports announced that NBA 2K11 would feature a heavy focus on His Airness, there was plenty reason for sports fans to get excited. But the question remained: would 2K11 just be given a superficial infusion of Jordan, or would 2K Sports actually take the time to capture MJ in all his tongue-protruding, from-the-free-throw-line-dunking glory? Well hoop fans, fear not – this game is not only the best recreation of Jordan and the Golden Age of Hoops ever, but it’s also one of the most engaging, well-rounded sports titles ever made.
NBA 2K11 shows its incredible polish right from the get-go. After firing up the game, you are greeted to a dramatic intro sequence of MJ coming out of the tunnel at Chicago Stadium during the 1991 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. The atmosphere is incredible in both its raw energy and impeccable attention to authenticity. Dramatic pregame music plays as the stadium announcer calls the starting line-ups, with a thunderous roar erupting from the crowd as MJ’s name is called. Analysts Clark Kelogg and Kevin Harlan actually toss information back and forth as if they were in a time warp, discussing things such as James Worthy’s nagging injury from the previous series, or a memorable Scottie Pippen quote from a recent postgame interview.
And then the tip-off happens and it quickly becomes apparent that everything from a gameplay standpoint just feels right. When you get the ball in MJ’s hands, it feels as if you really are able to perform anything His Airness could have pulled off back in his heyday. Slashing attacks to the basket, hanging jumpers, insane reverse lay-ups – all of MJ’s classic repertoire is there and relatively easily executable right away. That said, there is definitely a learning curve to the game’s control scheme, especially for some of the more complex dribbling maneuvers, and not everyone has the ability to take over a game like MJ can (obviously), but this is classic 2K Sports basketball gameplay, refined to such a point that it’s hard to imagine a more genuine and organic-playing basketball game ever being released.
And just because the game is intuitive to pick up and play doesn’t mean you’ll be steamrolling the AI. Even on the lower difficulty settings, the computer-controlled players will work hard on both offensive and defensive ends of the court and scoring exploits that mar the realism of many other sports games seem very few and far between. The number of adjustable sliders is quite impressive as well, so even if you can’t find a general difficulty setting that strikes your own perfect balance between challenge and fun, you’ll eventually be able to tweak the game exactly to your liking.
Of course, 2K11 offers meaty game modes like Association (take control of an NBA team at the GM level) and My Player (create a player from the ground up and try out for the NBA) that have the depth to keep most basketball fans engaged for months, if not years. My Player is especially addictive due to the fact that you start out pretty terrible and have to actually put in time as a bench-warming scrub before moving into a team’s starting lineup, and even potentially onto the league’s All-Star squad or better (the sense of accomplishment here is fantastic). To top things off, you can also bring your personalized player online and compete in pick-up games with friends over PSN. Combine all of this with the ability to play as Michael Jordan in key games throughout his career (The Flu Game, The Shrug Game, etc) and even use His Airness in a robust, Jordan-centric My Player career (MJ on the Trailblazers…wha…?!), and you have a suite of game modes that will surely satisfy even pickiest of roundball aficionados.
Despite the overall greatness of NBA 2K11, there are a few blemishes that keep the game from being truly legendary. First, the game’s menu system is a bit unintuitive. On occasion, it can be hard to tell what option is located where, or even if the game has recorded everything that you want saved when playing in any particular game mode. Also, 2K Sports’ choice of music is solid, but the soundtrack is definitely a little uninspired. This flaw is easily remedied by using your own music, but it would have been nice to have had some classic, early 90s hip-hop to go along with the whole semi-retro theme. Load times can also be a intrusive (in terms of both frequency and length), and the player is generally offered nothing to do while waiting (a FIFA-like practice session while loading would have been nice). The good thing about all of these blemishes is that they are only blemishes and not severe flaws that strip away the fun or hurt the fluidity of 2K11‘s incredible gameplay.
In the end, here is what all of this boils down to: if you are a basketball fan, get this game. If you are a basketball fan and used to enjoy watching MJ back in his prime, driving to the basket and flipping up gravity defying reverse lay-ups, his tongue wagging the whole way (yes, his tongue waggle is in the game), then this just might be the best sports game you’ll ever purchase. It’s no wonder that EA pulled the plug on their big NBA Elite unveiling, just days before 2K11 hit stores. Anything less than perfection would have seen EA’s re-branded basketball franchise crumpled on the floor like Craig Ehlo in the 1989 NBA Playoffs after The Shot:
“Here’s Michael at the foul line, the shot on Ehlo…GOOD! The Bulls win! They win! They beat the Cleveland Cavaliers! Michael Jordan hits at the foul line!”