NBA 2K11 arrives with the usual fanfare you'd expect to surround the latest outing of this highly-acclaimed series, but this time there’s a huge, unmissable feather in its cap. Michael Jordan, the titular “greatest of all time”, appears in the game, but we’re not just talking his likeness. This is Jordan’s career: his moves, his moments, his career, and his presence all elevate NBA 2K11 even higher than its predecessors.
Right from the first button press, it’s clear this game was built around Jordan. There are no training modes or easy introductions here: you take to the court as the famous number 23 in one of his many classic performances.
From these opening moments the game’s presentation shines. The new side-by-side commentary is exceptional; always flowing, rarely inaccurate and contributing a huge amount of atmosphere to every game, whether an exhibition or the play-off finals. It’s a rare achievement for commentary to feel live, but 2K11’s commentators bounce off and talk over each other, pulling up statistics, player performances, team histories and more, creating one of the strongest and most cohesive commentary systems yet witnessed in a sports game.
As good as the audio side of NBA 2K11 is, it's outdone by the game’s visuals, which feature some of the finest animation we’ve seen in years. Jordan’s signature drive and dunks are all here – yes, he sticks out his tongue – but it’s not just his mannerisms captured: the game replicates thousands of players, with the stars of the NBA rendered astonishingly lifelike fashion. From the waxed court to the players’ sweat-coated foreheads, the visuals shine with attention to detail.
That eye for the fine points drives the game’s design as well, which encompasses so many enormous play modes each could easily support an individual release on its own. Association Mode is 2K11’s team management game, starting you off in charge of any one of the NBA’s teams and giving you complete control over everything: scouting, drafting and salaries all play important roles, but you can hand many of the micromanagement elements over to the CPU if you just want to concentrate on the court. The integration with NBA Today means real world NBA news and statistics sit alongside stories from your association team: trades, reports, gossip. It’s a deep, addictive and versatile mode; one of many.
If you want something a bit less all-encompassing, My Player puts you in the shoes of a rookie at the start of his career. Once you’ve decided his statistics and signature moves you can beef them up by passing drills and completing matches, with the idea being to rise to prominence through the usual route: the draft, becoming a key player and eventually winning the NBA finals for your team. There are certain challenges that net you bonus skill points, and these can be anything from maintaining a particular field goal percentage in one game to being the most valuable player of the season, offering something to shoot for in every game other than just playing to win.
This depth runs through the game, and is best exemplified in the Jordan Challenge. Here you play Michael Jordan in ten of his most famous games, aiming to match his achievements and prove yourself worthy. The atmosphere and detail in the recreation of these games is incredible, not just in Jordan himself but the surrounding players, advertisements and context of each match. Keeping this mode to ten matches proves a wise choice: although these challenges can be difficult and the matches long (though there is a resume and save feature) they’re just a prelude for the MJ: Creating a Legend mode.
In this mode you only play the great one himself, with every other player controlled by the CPU. Beginning as a rookie in the modern NBA, you can assign him to any team you choose and develop him in your own way. It’s a nice twist on the standard career mode, and for gamers who don’t have the time or patience to create their own baller in My Player it’s certainly a fun alternative.
Online play is similarly deep, letting you organise tournaments and leagues as well as create a "crew" (FPS fans, think of a clan), share game sliders, videos and even scout out your opponent's favourite teams and plays. Even if you never step foot in the offline game, there's enough content online to last you for months.
NBA 2K11 focuses mainly on simulation modes, but there are some attractions for more casual fans too. The Blacktop modes are simple challenges that vary from 21 to two-on-two and the excellent dunk contests, where you face off against an AI or friend to create the most outlandish dunks possible.
Those with only a passing interest in the sport may also be interested that the game offers sliders governing everything from shot and steal success ratios to how often fouls are committed, with preset “Casual” and “Simulation” modes making the game more or less forgiving, depending on your taste. Newcomers are likely to find the game extremely punishing at first as even lowly teams sink shot after shot, but tweaking the sliders can make the game infinitely more rookie-friendly.
NBA 2K11 is an extremely polished, passionate ode to basketball: every facet of its presentation drips with detail and care about the sport, which is why it’s such a shame the PlayStation Move controls jar with the rest of the game.
There is a Move-specific training mode to help you get to grips with your controller, and you can easily swap between control methods, though it’s worth bearing in mind that the Move controls are only available in offline play.
Using the DualShock 3 controller to move your players, the Move wand is used for shooting, stealing, dribbling and blocking. To shoot, you simply tilt the controller back as if preparing a shot, and flick forward at the right time for a good release, but there’s next-to no control over power or direction with your shot, making it disappointingly inaccurate. Flicking the controller in certain directions under particular conditions will perform specific lay-ups and dunks, though there’s little correlation between the movements and their on-screen portrayal.
Move is also used for dribbling, though it’s only a matter of holding L2 and waving the controller from side to side to bounce the ball, hardly the kind of motion control we were hoping for. Stealing is performed in a similar manner, with only shooting and blocking requiring any other kind of motion than waving Move around. Whereas the standard DualShock 3 controls offer complete control over dribbling with the new IsoMotion feature, the Move controls feel inaccurate and overly simplistic. It may be that the Move controls are an attempt to get non-gamers and passing fans of the sport involved, but the implementation is disappointing, leaving us hoping for more in next year's edition.
NBA 2K11 lives up to its billing as “the greatest”, being one of the finest representations of any sport seen on a console. The level of detail, incredible graphical refinement, wealth of gameplay options and the inclusion of Michael Jordan himself mark it out as an exceptional basketball game. That said, the PlayStation Move controls aren’t great, and if you’re considering buying this one just for Move you might be disappointed by the controller’s implementation. Move support aside, this is one fantastic game and an all-but essential purchase for fans of the sport.