It's fitting that NBA 2K11 prominently features Michael Jordan. After all, His Airness is the greatest basketball player of all time and NBA 2K11 has the greatest feature set of any basketball game ever made. Note that I didn't call this the best basketball game of all time. That's because the PC version wasn't optimized and, frankly, runs poorly marring what should be basketball perfection.
The amount of work put into the features of 2K11 is staggering -- perfect recreations of Jordan's historic games, streamlined controls, NBA teams that play and feel like their real-life counterparts, a franchise mode that includes sensible GM logic and intelligent team building. But little time was spent making sure the PC version ran smoothly. And no matter how cool your presentation and feature set, if the framerate isn't solid, it's tough to keep playing.
I tried out 2K11 on both a mid-range and a high-range PC set-up, used both the auto-adjusted settings and lower ones and never got a completely smooth experience. To be clear, the framerate stuttering isn't usually inhibitive to gameplay. It's very subtle, but enough to be continually distracting. It's too bad, because PC gamers could stand to have an awesome hoops title.
When you first start NBA 2K11, you get a slick visual treat hyping the greatness of Michael Jordan. And then the game transports you into the tunnel of Chicago Stadium for Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Championship. Jordan turns to look into the camera, right at you, and asks, "Are you ready?" Then he turns, runs out onto the court and the magic of NBA 2K11 begins. Before you ever see a menu, ever create a franchise, ever even get a whiff of all that 2K11 has to offer, you're playing in the finals with the Bulls, battling Magic Johnson and ushering in a new era in NBA history.
Unquestionably, the highlight of NBA 2K11 are the Jordan Challenges. MJ's greatest games are legendary and you get to relive them, tasked with equaling his stat lines. Can you average 11 assists in the '91 series against the Lakers? Or drop six treys and score at least 35 points in the first half against Drexler and the Trail Blazers to earn the famous Jordan shrug? Or light up the Knicks for 55 points in Jordan's return from retirement?
2K Sports created each of these 10 memorable moments with a surprising level of detail. The commentary for every game is custom-fitted with discussions on Jordan's potential in "The Arrival" game and talk of how much John Starks has frustrated Jordan in the "Double Nickel" game in Madison Square Garden. Each game is a window into NBA history and won't just give you an appreciation for No. 23's greatness but the quality of teams he went up against. Magic, Ewing, Dominque -- they play as they did in their prime. No opponent is a chump, even if Michael is destined to beat them all.
Complete all 10 Jordan Challenges and you can play a special version of the My Player career mode, bringing a rookie Michael Jordan into the current League to develop his talent and see how he stacks up against today's greats. Put him on the Heat if you want to be really unfair to the rest of the League.
The quality presentation continues outside of the Jordan-specific elements. There's a slick half-time show that accurately sums up the game and a really hot Player of the Game presentation when the final buzzer sounds. My favorite, though, is a fairly hidden (but awesome) feature you can find at the end of games called Pressbook. This is a slideshow gallery of photos (usually around 50) from the game. These snapshots often pick the best moments at compelling angles and can be uploaded for others to see. Posterize someone online? You've got a snapshot of it waiting for you at the end of the game.
More importantly, most of the NBA has been accurately captured. There are hundreds of unique animations for players tons of nice little touches. I was playing against the Lakers, and Kobe threw down a slam but landed off-balance. As he regained his balance, he extended his arms and did his little airplane move he throws out on very rare occasions. I watched Greg Oden shuffle down the court like an old man who'd lost his cane. I'm not trying to knock on Oden, but that's exactly how he checks out of plays when he's crashed the boards on the other end!
This isn't the first hoops game to throw in some flair on marquee players, but the unique traits extend to the bench. I know we toss around the phrase, "It looks like a real game" too often, but this time I mean it -- I watch probably a hundred NBA regular-season games a year (I'm hardcore, baby), and 2K Sports got this right.
Sure, there are a few mishaps along the way. Don Nelson looks like a melted marshmallow and Kobe looks like an alien, but the good far outpaces the bad. Add to the mix dynamic crowds that slowly fill in during the first quarter or don't even show for a Bobcat's game and you have the most accurate portrait of the NBA to date. And that 2K Sports got not only the current era but a decade's worth of MJ's history right is pretty impressive.
Of course, none of this means squat if NBA 2K11 plays like crap. Presentation and a cool Jordan mode didn't absorb all of 2K Sports' time. Plenty was done to refine and improve the gameplay. I have to imagine the goal was to fool you into thinking you were actually playing in the NBA. Mission accomplished.
If you've played past NBA 2K games, you're in for a shock when you first play NBA 2K11. This game is no joke. The AI has been upgraded even on the lower difficulties to keep you on your toes. These guys are ball hawks and will snatch errant outlet passes, clog the passing lanes, and make it tough to get the ball inside. And if your defense isn't solid? You're gonna get destroyed.
Some of this is a bit artificial. Unless I missed it in the Hornets' media guide, Peja Stojakovic is not psychic. So it's probably impossible for him to have his back to a passer, running full speed across midcourt and know instinctively to stick out his arm and grab a well-thrown outlet pass -- and yet he can in 2K11. If there's anything that frustrates me about 2K11, it is these few little moments when the game is clearly overcompensating for the way people want to play. Yes, people throw long passes. But, you know what? So do some fastbreak teams. Denying that part of the game, making it too easy to snatch balls going through the lane, breaks the beautifully crafted realism of 2K11. It's cheap, and it makes the game harder than it should be.
That said, once I got myself in the mindset of playing a bit less up-tempo and a bit more under control, the rest of the NBA 2K11 experience is something special. The level of challenge (which extends far beyond pass-snatching defenses) is necessary in order for NBA 2K11 to pull off its greatest feat -- making a game play exactly like the real thing. Players make proper defensive switches, key on mismatches on offense, and generally bring it all four quarters.
Switching (when two defensive players swap who they're guarding to gain better defensive positioning) has long been the Achilles heel of basketball sims. No one has done it right (most don't do it at all), but 2K11 does. And if you aren't active with this when you're controlling the defense, you can get burned. The AI takes advantage of defensive mismatches with regularity. When Steph Curry accidentally ends up face guarding Dwight Howard, it's a scary moment as a player. I actually said, "Oh s---" right before Howard plowed over me for the dunk, the foul and the Pressbook screenshot.
Playing against the Lakers feels different than playing against the Mavericks, not just because of the personnel, but because of the way these two teams play. Because of their coaches. Because of the way they sub and how they set up their offenses. Last year's NBA 2K10 did a solid job of getting the individual players right. This year, 2K11 got the teams right.
Also improved are the control mechanics. Be sure to play with a controller -- basketball is no fun with a keyboard and moust. There have been a ton of tweaks and a simplification of things like IsoMotion -- for breaking ankles -- but the basic gist is that you now have 1-to-1 control over every movement and you won't find yourself making moves you didn't intend to make. The days of easily shaking a defender out of his shoes and dunking on every play are gone, but the level of control is outstanding. And most of the time, when I screw up, it's because I made the wrong choice, not because the game boned me.
The one exception is the stick passing mechanic. Selecting a target and passing works well, but it's a bit loose. Sometimes I think I'm aimed at the player I want and then, because of the slight movement of my thumb against the stick, I veer off and throw the pass to someone else. When you mix in the ridiculous ball-hawking nature of the AI, well, I got hosed a few times. Fortunately, you can also use icon-passing for better accuracy, which helps a lot when using the easy (and great) play-calling system.
I'll also warn that there are still a few bugs out there and times when the AI will do weird things, but these are pretty rare. Dominique caught a pass at the arc, then took two steps back and shot one of the dumbest three's in history for no apparent reason. On a fast break, Tony Parker stopped at the foul line to shoot a jumper (that he missed) even though no one pursued him past mid-court. NBA 2K11 plays like a dream 99 percent of the time. But there's still that 1 percent when things go sideways.
But, again, the real issue is the performance. I had no issues pulling off the different moves with the games framerate stuttering, but it's just so distracting. It's hard to see anyone playing more than a few games before getting too annoyed to continue.
This "real NBA" feel carries over into the other modes. The Association mode has a stylish new look and, more importantly, working trade AI. The virtual GMs build teams based on their coach's style and are smart enough not to trade their best player for some scrub. The Heat won't trade D Wade just because you throw some draft picks and some random talent their way. But the Trail Blazers will gladly give up Oden or a pick if you can offer them a player they feel is the missing piece that can make them true contenders. Three team trades are in and free agents have different motivations for signing -- so you can't just throw money at everyone and expect to earn their John Hancock.
I've gone through a few different seasons with different teams and tested the smarts of a number of GMs. I have to say, I got swindled once on a draft-day deal by the AI. Usually in NBA 2K games, the League looks like a joke by year three, but not this time. No team had five starting point guards. The Nets didn't suddenly win the Championship and the Heat didn't trade LeBron to Minnesota for Wesley Johnson, Michael Beasley, and the rights to Paul Bunyan. This is as good a franchise mode as I've played, even though there's little recognition by the commentators to previous NBA champs or MVP winners as the years go by.
As for online play, well, the performance issues carry over there. And there's some lag on top of that, making things no fun.
Lastly, there's My Player. And I say lastly because it's really the only mode that isn't up to snuff. There have been a number of improvements this year, including tracking of fan support for your created player, but there's a lot of work to be done to make My Player great. It takes far too long to get your player to the NBA and even longer still to get him some decent skills. I want to play as a young stud in the NBA, not as a desperate D-Leaguer hoping for a shot. The path should not be getting to the NBA, but where I take my career from there.
I doubt many will bother to stick it out with the slow-paced My Player mode. It's too bad, because once you do make it, a lot of cool things happen. You get press conferences where reporters ask valid questions like "How do you feel about Kobe taking the last shot?" or asking you to comment on rumors that you demanded a trade. You choose the type of response you want to give and that affects how your teammates feel about you, how the fans around the League view you, and if your home crowd supports you. This can lead to teammates refusing to pass you the ball if you're a jerk and fans chanting "Trade him!" if you seem ungrateful.
As your star rises, you earn spots on posters and billboards. You can even be handed a shoe contract by Michael Jordan who allows you to create your own custom kicks. Continue to rise as a star and you'll see other players wearing your Jordans on the court. And to think, you'll probably miss it because the lead-in to the NBA is just so slow, dry, and boring.