Yearly sports game updates; you either love them or loathe their very existence. Incremental changes hocked as must-buy boxes of software by a swarmy marketing team sat in the bowels of a random corporate HQ; the kind that gets around the same score every year on your go-to gaming website. Granted there is a fair argument for buying them, which begrudgingly, I have to admit to doing on occasion. The incremental upgrades most often change the way the game plays and how you play the game, and that, for a sports title, is the most crucial measure of a successful digital translation.
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Gameplay aside, the real problem with incremental improvements from a marketing perspective is how you spin them as killer apps. This is especially pertinent for gamers who aren’t dedicated (or bonkers) enough to notice an extra dribble animation or improved ball physics. These are the people the marketing trolls want to net, and you’ve got to give them more than minor changes to get them to buy into your schtick. You would ordinarily think the answer to this problem would be some sort of freebie or exclusive DLC. It’s a good thing 2K went one better, and instead put together a very solid package that has something (or someone) no other publisher or developer in the business can give you – Michael Jordan. More specifically, a whole mode revolving around Jordan’s best games on the road to winning multiple NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls.
Anyone with even a perfunctory knowledge of basketball would know Jordan and his number 23 jersey. Way back during the golden age of basketball (alright, so it was the 90s), you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing a raft of Chicago Bulls jackets or baseball caps. While it wouldn’t be fair to say Jordan single-handedly carried the Bulls and the NBA, he certainly had a very big part to play in an era that the NBA has no hope of ever reliving, right up there with everyone from Karl Malone to Gary Payton.
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Even before you hit the menus, you are dropped into a full-length playoff game with the Bulls playing the Lakers in the 1991 finals (yes, Magic Johnson is in it). The game starts with a sequence where you’re looking over Michael’s shoulder in the tunnels under the Chicago Stadium; Michael then breaks the fourth wall and calmly strolls on court to The Alan Parsons Project’s Sirius. The crowd roars, the arena announcer calls the stars out, the stadium effects are close to how you remember them (or how you imagine they’d be) and Scottie Pippen looks like Scottie Pippen. If you’re at all nostalgic, the intro sequence will have your hair standing on end.
Now keep in mind that since these games are from various points in Michael’s career, you’ll get to play as a handful of Jordans from the 80s and the 90s. The different Jordans are unique enough to never feel like reskins, and you will notice new moves and flourishes being added to his move set as you start playing games closer to the end of his career. While this mode may be good, I can see a few immediate issues that stop me from gushing over it like other reviews have. For one, the focus is squarely on Jordan. This may not sound like a bad thing, except that you unlock classic games almost purely based on your performance as His Airness. This makes you stick to playing him as much as possible throughout the mode in terms of possession, which seems like such a wasted opportunity when you have the likes of Steve Kerr and Tony Kukoc on your team. Regardless, getting to play some of the best teams and players in basketball history with authentic appearances and move sets for each player is not an opportunity you should ignore despite this and other minor issues.
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Niggles such as anachronistic television overlays and stadium advertising and even random little things such as the officials and their uniforms completely draw you out of the period experience. What’s here is very high quality, but I can’t help but feel that they could have pushed both the presentation and the gameplay goals towards greater authenticity and team-based play. On the flipside, the commentary team steals the show with some great stories, and player and era-specific back-and-forth.
The AI, to its credit, certainly has got game, which may explain why Visual Concepts have outed an unlock code that gives you access to the Creating a Legend mode that is only supposed to open up on completing all 10 challenge games. This mode lets you drop a young Jordan into any team in the current league and play through a career as him, watching him age and evolve in the process. As much as all this sounds like its own game, your tried and tested NBA 2KX game is in there as well. Visual Concepts tries new menu systems every year, but this one isn’t a keeper either. The right analog stick triggers the main menu no matter which submenu you are in. Unfortunately, you will still have the submenu overlay in the background to confuse you. It just does not feel like the best way to move backwards and forwards between menu screens, especially on a stat and mode-heavy game such as this.
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The Association mode is back and is customizable enough to let you control as much or as little of your chosen franchise’s functioning as you want. Drafts are handled by the AI or by way of user created files that are downloadable from inside the game. Living rosters are another wonderful feature and it syncs your game with the very latest rosters from the actual league. My Player, the other lynchpin mode from last year, also returns with its quasi-RPG-esque character creation and journey from college gyms to the big leagues. You’ll travel between cities in buses, play to half empty stadiums, win endorsements, take part in post game pressers, and repeat drills over and over to increase your ratings.
Taking all three of these modes into account, you have enough content to last you a year, if not more. There’s also a wonderfully peaceful practice arena where I found that getting to listen to the wonderful soundtrack was as much a draw as marveling at the animations or the character and stadium models. The Blacktop mode lets you play games on a street court after dusk and also take part in a 3-point and dunk contest. Real world locations from previous games like Rucker Park are missing, and it would be have been awesome if we could swap out street clothing or have more props to use in the dunk contest. Still, it would be slightly prudish to complain considering the amount of content and modes this game packs in.
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The game plays as good as it ever has. The transitions have been cleaned up and added-on so much so that the game looks near-broadcast quality. There are still minor issues that haven’t changed over the years though, such as shots coming in from behind the backboard and an abnormally low success rate when shooting from the paint. The AI however, is much improved. Players cut off reckless passes and the man-marking, play calling and off-the-ball movement are almost uncanny in how it mimics the real thing. The controls have been streamlined enough that the once complex isomotion moves are now mapped with the left analog stick allowing you to pull off nifty crossovers, dribbles and post moves with ease. The right stick feels completely natural when used to time your shots and you have the added option of making accuracy rating-based or shot-stick timing-based.
This year’s game looks nearly the same as it always has. The broadcast graphics have been ramped up with everything from the halftime report and replays to the pre and post-game segments looking extra polished. The commentary from Kellogg and Harlan is adaptive and will make references to both real life as well as virtual performances of teams and athletes. The sheer amount of team specific recording made is testament to Visual Concepts’ dedication to recreating the sport as is. However, issues from games long past see a return here as well. While the game looks stunning during gameplay, close-ups of character models between gameplay look almost zombie-like. The animation doesn’t hold up either, with jarring and jittery movement and transitions. These are long standing issues and ones that Visual Concepts needs to deal with sooner rather than later. The crowd, on the other hand, is much more varied in terms of ethnicities and clothing choices.
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Even with the issues highlighted in this review, there’s absolutely no reason why you should not pick up NBA 2K11 if you like basketball at all. The addition of The Jordan Challenge and the sheer amount of content and modes will ensure that you don’t regret your purchase. This is the (current) be all and end all of basketball video gaming. EA, I hope you’re taking notes.