Who could have ever imagined that Michael Jordan would be the weak link on the basketball court? The six-time NBA champion makes his surprising return to the virtual court in NBA 2K11, but his presence is overshadowed by improvements in just about every other facet of this great round-ball simulator. Impressive artificial intelligence makes you work for every scoring opportunity and punishes you for every blown defensive assignment, and nuanced controls give you an unprecedented level of say in how your player shoots and dribbles. Upon first and even second glance, it's easy to confuse NBA 2K11's stunningly lifelike presentation with the real thing, but not every shot can be a swish. There are still troubling issues with online play and players often exhibit the court awareness of a disinterested J.R. Smith, but not even His Airness could be great all the time. NBA 2K11 is the most realistic and in-depth basketball simulator around.
Even though Michael Jordan is no better than a benchwarmer in NBA 2K11, it's impossible to ignore his presence. Upon starting up the game for the first time, you're introduced to #23 as he walks onto the court for the player introductions to the 1991 NBA Finals. It's odd that the first time you take control of Jordan in NBA 2K11 is in a game he lost in real life, but there's a nostalgic tingle to see these classic Lakers and Bulls teams re-created. This blast from the past extends much further than the opening tip. There's an entire mode devoted to replaying Jordan's most memorable games, and seeing those hallowed Knicks, Hawks, and Celtics teams in 2010 is a welcome reminder of the NBA's glorious past. Unfortunately, The Jordan Challenge mode isn't much fun. To come out victorious in each of the 10 games, you have to reach a certain statistical milestones. For instance, against the Jazz in The Flu Game, you have to put up at least 38 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists and win the game. If you come up short in any area, you have to restart from the first quarter. By forcing players to conform to specific statistical goals instead of greatness that extends beyond the box score, it devalues Jordan's achievements and forces you to play like a selfish ball hog.
Stumbling down memory lane may lead you to believe that NBA 2K11 falters in other key areas as well, but the on-court action is a realistic and satisfying representation of the real thing. Defense has been drastically overhauled from last year's edition. In NBA 2K10, guards could penetrate to the basket with such stunning ease that it stripped away any semblance of strategy. But this game steps up its defensive presence to such a high degree that newcomers will suffer through Dikembe Mutombo-like rejections until they finally adjust their style. You have to run your offense intelligently to score. Pick-and-rolls are a breeze to pull off, but you have to utilize your entire playbook if you're going to keep your opponents on their toes and take high-percentage shots. The lock-down defense can be frustrating at first, and the computer does occasionally cheat to thwart your success. For instance, long passes are frequently intercepted even when defenders aren't looking. But, by and large, the improved AI works great and forces you to approach every possession with the strategic care of a real player.
Thankfully, NBA 2K11 gives you all the tools you need to overcome this swarming defense. A new control scheme gives you a huge array of different shots, post-up moves, and dribbling techniques in which to gain the upper hand against your defenders. Using the right stick along with the triggers allows you to lean in specific directions, so you can duck under an opponent's arms to swoop in for a layup or fade away to give you the extra inch you need to get a shot off. Dribbling is just as diverse. You can go behind your back, through your legs, or pull off an ankle-breaking crossover with ease. But the biggest improvement comes in the post-up game. In real life, most offenses are run through a big man in the post, but this aspect of the game was often ignored in the digital re-creations. In NBA 2K11, however, everything starts on the block. There is real weight to your movements, so you can slowly back your opponent down, square up for a short jumper, or quickly pass out of a double team. The nuanced controls make this feel just like the real sport and give you a huge number of ways to score.
Unfortunately, there are a number of online issues that can derail your fun. Lag is present in every mode. When you challenge just one other player for basketball supremacy, the occasional hiccup can be annoying, but it won't impede your chance for success. But things become problematic when you try to take on more than one other player. In Team-Up mode, which can be played with up to nine other players, NBA 2K11 sputters and stops with such frequency that it destroys any chance of being precise. Trying to hoist a game-tying free throw when your player is stuttering is nearly impossible, and this issue crops up in a number of matches. There are also a few odd quirks that hurt the impression that this is the real thing. Players move with intelligence away from the ball and even understand how to switch and rotate on defense, but they are clueless in loose ball situations. On long rebounds or steal attempts, they will frequently stand idly by while the ball rolls away from them. Also, layups and point-blank shots are still too easy to miss. These small issues don't crop up too often, but they can be maddening in critical moments.
Even though the gameplay in NBA 2K11 doesn't always mirror the real thing, the excellent presentation is close to what you get watching a game on your television. From the chilling moment when Michael Jordan is introduced with his raucous fans to the joyous celebration when you win the big game, NBA 2K11 exudes the excitement and energy of the NBA. There are tons of little touches throughout the game that engender this feeling. For instance, sideline reporter Doris Burke loves dropping inconsequential stories in the middle of games that have little to do with basketball, and though it's just as pointless here as it is in real life, it adds a layer of authenticity. The play-by-play commentators are spot-on with their calls and do a good job of setting up the action while providing the occasional insight to make them sound believable. Rafters shake, buzzers blare, and players show the wide range of emotions you would expect. This is an impressive-looking game that does an incredible job of bringing the highs and lows of the sport into the virtual world.
NBA 2K11 is a huge improvement over last year's edition. Just about every facet has been improved or overhauled, which makes this a richly rewarding experience with enough depth to make even diehard NBA fans feel like rookies. It's easy to lose dozens of hours improving your game in practice, working your way through the ranks in My Player mode, or creating a dynasty in franchise play. It's a shame there are still some hiccups that prevent this from truly soaring, and the online inconsistencies are downright crushing when you want to show off your skills to the world. But the core mechanics are so well realized and the presentation so lifelike that it's hard to keep away once you get sucked into the tantalizing ebb and flow of an NBA game. NBA 2K11 is a great realization of the sport that makes the hard work it takes to succeed well worth the commitment.