Video games and basketball have often been a less than sweet science. Ever since NBA Jam changed the way we viewed video game basketball forever, many basketball games have fallen prey to providing an unrealistic game with glitchy sprites, impossible passes and dunks from areas of the court no player could realistically hit. NBA Live and the 2K series games honestly had become nothing but yearly farces of the sport with easy to obtain achievement score. This year, 2K Sports decided to tinker with things a bit, and distribute a more realistic experience while announcing that Michael Jordan would grace their cover, and much of the game would celebrate his career with the Bulls, and create an additional gameplay arc between yesterday's superstars and today's. Not to sound like a skeptic, but is it really a good marketing ploy to build a game showcasing today's stars focused around Michael Jordan? I mean, granted, he is arguably the best player of all time, and he's owed at least one good real basketball game dedicated to him in his lifetime (says an owner of Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City from 1995-onward,) so onward goes the journey to quickly erase Jordan vs. Bird: 1 on 1 as the best MJ focused basketball game of all time.
Upon loading the game, you are quickly treated to a quick Michael Jordan visual followed by a loading screen with a familiar note. Suddenly, you are transported from 2010 into the entrance tunnel of Chicago Stadium behind Jordan as he runs into the arena. Following a quick runout, you exchange high fives with...Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen? Rather than being taken to the main menu, you are thrown directly into June 2nd, 1991: The night of Game 1 of the '91 NBA Finals between the LA Lakers and the Chicago Bulls. Waiting for you to pick your surprised jaw up off the floor are extremely close recreations of both rosters. Some of the Lakers squad is missing, for example, but all the key players they could get are faithfully restored in all their glory. Pumping into the game is commentary by Kevin Harlan and Clark Kellogg, along with sideline reporting from Doris Burke. You get quickly wrapped up in realtime stats, and case reporting of the previous series and what brought you to tonight's matchup.
I assume the purpose of this portion of the game was to introduce you to NBA 2K11. The controls, if you have not encountered them before (I admit that I have not played the 2K series since a brief encounter with NBA 2K7, and so I do not know if this has been the control scheme for quite a while,) they are confusing. Most basketball games have made the shoot button on offence and the jump/block button on defence the same. This game, however, does not. The same button used to shoot on offence is used to intentionally foul on defence, which I quickly found out. A second quick intentional foul then caused the game to glitch and stop functioning. Players continued to move and jockey for position, but James Worthy couldn't retrieve the ball from the referee for a throw-in. After having to restart the system, I had to start again, but less majestically this time. I may never know whether the game was rigged to play out like this, but much like the Chicago Bulls in the real game, I also lost by 2 points following a clutch shot with seconds to go by "Big Smooth" Sam Perkins. The loss was eerie in how similar it was to the real game 1, down to the size of Sam Perkins' gargantuan lips.
Odd controls aside, you begin to quickly see how intuitive the gameplay engine really is. Coaching timeouts are done in real time, and give you the ability to substitute players, shift the focus of your gameplay and check the energy ratings of your players without going to the pause menu. Those players then collide and contact with each other realistically without the sprites going through each other, which you feel on your controller with every push and juke. Smart AI dictates your every move, and you can no longer get away with 20 fast break slam dunks a quarter. Most importantly, the game does not play host to any sort of computer assistance feature. Unlike most games in the post-NBA Jam era, there is no hidden helper computer assistance that would allow you to make desperation shots and create large openings leading to easy points. Like a real game of basketball, you need to adapt your game because your 12 point deficit could easily be 20 points if you play under the belief that the CPU will let you back into the game. After years of playing sports game after sports game with rubber band physics, easy goals, turbo powerups and game changers, it is refreshing to see one that will punish me for my stupidity rather than enable it.
The basketball product itself, however, is not without its flaws. Earlier on, I had mentioned the game crashed approximately 5 minutes into my first play. The game lags and suffers through in-game presentation features, especially around free throws and timeouts. In the first hour of playing, the referee held the ball for at least 30 seconds prior to free throws more than once, and the game itself hung during a timeout until repeated pausing and unpausing fixed it. Granted, this could be a possibility with my disc itself, but I had no other problems elsewhere. The controls themselves (an aforementioned problem) prove unresponsive once in a while, and some of the defensive mechanisms prioritize one type of motion over another. It is not uncommon to see a block attempt never happen despite the fact that the button is hit, instead choosing to box out into double coverage while your opponent dribbles around you and shoots an open jumper.
Going back to the earlier point about Harlan, Kellogg and Burke, they encompass what may be NBA 2K11's calling card for years to come: Presentation. If presentation was something that was commonly scored, this would get 11,000 out of 10. Everything this game does about presentation is right. You become quickly wrapped up in the perfectly done play by play, down to its stats and realtime adjustment. A sideline reporter in a video game is usually useless, but they've captured the essence of the sidelines perfectly through Doris Burke's dialogue. The commentary is so intuitive and game-specific that if a player from each team appears anywhere in the top 5 of most stats, the commentators take a moment out to recognize them and speak about them in the same breath without missing a beat.
The camera angles all over the place, and the mascots and dance teams that abound make you feel like you're watching the NBA on NBC back in the mid-90s, or something similar. This TV experience is even pushed forth in the season mode (dubbed "The Association,") which does previews to games ahead, using correct calendar dates, rosters and the current in-game record (ie. a preview of Saturday, November 24th when Andrew Bogut and the 1-1 Bucks take on Dwight Howard and the 2-1 Magic.) Even cooler, the game follows the in-game date and the time of day on your XBox to welcome you to the game. One game I played in the Association wished me a happy Veterans Day, and then told me to add extra milk to my cereal for a morning game (it was 2 AM.) While the time and date have played a role in games before, I don't believe I've ever had it come up in a sports game.
Moving past the in-game experience, you'll find a wealth of game modes, from the standard exhibition games to a career mode and situation play. New to the game is Blacktop Mode, sponsored by Sprite. While obeying your thirst (is that still their slogan?) you are free to play a small cache of playground games. There's the 3 point contest, 21, and of course, the most popular game we grew up with - The Slam Dunk Contest, complete with the ability to jump everything from a bench, to a Sprite Green colored car. Most of the games are pretty straight forward, however, the slam dunk contest has a pretty high learning curve, and you may get really frustrated before you get any good. Rather than the Jordan vs. Bird slam dunk contest which involved you picking a dunk and then hitting it from the side of the screen, this one suffers from the "WWF Warzone" effect; that is; you have to hit about 478 buttons before you have the chance to dunk, and then you have to make sure your measurement is right to complete the dunk. As I mentioned, it can be extremely frustrating, and I gave up on it before I figured out how to do anything but standard dunks (as a reference point for my patience, I beat WWF Warzone -- many times.) If you would like to take your frustrations out on non-NBA stars, a bevy of celebrities are included as well. Channeling the memories of Rapjam Volume 1, this game includes musicians like Snoop Dogg, and ; like Drake.
Naturally, the cover boy Michael Jordan has not been forgotten. There is an entire Michael Jordan challenge mode where you must mirror or beat tasks his Airness accomplished, along with a gallery of obtainable Air Jordans, and upon completion of those, an Ultimate Greatness mode. Something that long term basketball fans will dig is the fact that they have attemped to carry over some of the best rival rosters the Bulls faced in those days, from the 89-90 Cavs, to the 85-86 Celtics and the 97-98 Jazz. Included too are the accompanying Bulls rosters. In all cases, they have attempted to transition over as many players as possible, but understandably, it's tough to gather permission from retired players when they are no longer in the spotlight, or an active part of the NBA Player's Association.
In many cases, that era's uniforms were not carried over either, so if you were eager to see 2010 gaming Michael Jordan dressed like a 1985 Bull, you'll be disappointed. However, if you were interested in seeing Kyle Macy outfitted like today's Chicago Bulls, I've got good news for you. This is deterring as much as it is benefitting toward the game. In a business sense, this is a poor advertisement for today's NBA if you think about it. None of the current stars have been a part of the marketing materials, and the only interaction I had with the current generation of the NBA was an image of Lebron James in the pause menu of the '91 finals. Even when you get to the main menus, it is heavily Michael Jordan focused, and his name appears at the top of the list of selectable players in many of the mini games, with some of the other Legends included afterward. Granted, if the NBAPA has received a handsome royalty from 2K to create the game, what would it matter to them? However, if the NBAPA is giving 2K Royalty kickbacks with the expectation that this marketing tool will help continue to build a business based on a sport rapidly falling behind the others, David Stern must be sorely disappointed.
Still, with everything rolled in, this is going to be one of the hardest basketball games to pass up, even in future years. NBA Live/Elite has always been a very arcade-focused title with simulation and strategy secondary. This game almost seems to be an opposite. There are so many different ways to formulate your on-court performance that you could easily spend hours unleashing your inner Zen Master Phil Jackson before you even touch the court fulltime.
Some reviewers have called this the best basketball game of all time, and some the best of its generation. I agree with the latter, but to give it the title of best of all time might be overdoing it. It might be the best PURE basketball game of all time, and certainly, EA has got to put out a massive answer to 2K whenever NBA Elite 11 comes out, because in this day and age of fly by night success with a "What have you done for me lately?" attitude, 2K has pulled so far ahead of its comparable competition that there may be no coming back for Electronic Arts this year. No matter how good Elite is when it gets released, it may not be good enough to keep up with this one. This is truly the year of the sports game, and with gem after gem hitting the market, we may be spoiled with the best sports gaming annual harvest of all time. Word to the wise though? Make sure you remember to save at every corner. This game suffers from selective autosave, where it will autosave in some places and not in others. I lost my Association and Air Jordan data more than once forgetting to do this.
Graphics: 7.5/10. The graphics of this game, while pretty, are by no means perfect. Player digitization and motion capture are perfect. Some of the court textures, however overpower the images of the players themselves to the point of distraction. NPC animation during things like motion capturing are awkward. Body types and body models in the mini games and during standstills (like timeouts) look like they came straight out of NBA In the Zone 2 for PS1. These can be forgiven, however, since the finished in-game animations are fluid, and the players look about as good as you can get them.
Sound: 10/10. The sound transcends just your regular on-court exploits and noises. The Play by Play is maybe the best ever. Most games gear play by play and dialogue toward the game at hand, and this one caters to the game beyond. Doris Burke will speak to you about a recent timeout on the coach's strategy, and the play by play team will look forward to games ahead while discussing the current action. This game has set the benchmark for the way all play by play should be done in a sports game, and kudos to 2K for thinking outside the box when figuring out the logistics of the game this year.
Gameplay and Controls: 8.5/10. So much is right, yet so much is wrong. Playing the main game is pretty well done with the exception of the couple different hangups I mentioned above. The Sprite Blacktop mode, however, is a waste of time for the most part. The slam dunk contest needs heavy improvements, and the 3 point shootout, 21 and the other modes are basically half-cast mini games that were given very little attention in the grand scheme of things. The various season and career modes are not bad, though the "My Player" created star mode is too difficult for a beginner to pick up and go with unless they have logged hours of gameplay before.
The Controls, while simple and quick to pick up, may provide frustration, especially when they are game specific (like the slam dunk contest) and are prone to a bit of unresponsiveness at times. There is no in-between in my saying that you will either come back and play this game time and again, or you will not. If you do not enjoy this game in the first hour, there is no sense coming back to it because you will have experienced its bread and butter, and if it does not appeal to you, then this game is not for you. This could realistically be said about any game, I suppose, but everything falls into each other somehow. If you didn't like the opening game against the Lakers, you may not like the Michael Jordan mode. If you don't like My Player, you probably won't like the Blacktop Mode. If you don't like the Association, you probably won't like the game at all.
This game definitely does not have the unabashed "Must keep playing" sense of 2K's last lights out title (The Bigs 2), nor does it carry the replay oomph the EA titles have to date, but there is more than enough to keep the avid sports gamer busy, and pure basketball fans and gamers likely will not see a better game this year. I do hate to write a game off before it has been released, but as I had mentioned earlier, NBA Elite will have to do a lot to even match everything this game puts forth into the market.
Suggestions: You could just fix everything that's wrong with this game, market it around someone current next year and it would still be one of the greatest basketball games of all time. Ditch Blacktop Mode and make it an All Star Game thing instead. Dunk contests deserve a bit more flash than on an outside court in the dark. I look forward to seeing how the in-game experience next year tries to top this one because it will be difficult.