Developer Visual Concepts has had a stranglehold on the best NBA game going back to its days being published by Sega on the Dreamcast. But last year's annual showdown with Electronic Arts came down to a buzzer beater in terms of aggregate review scores, with 2K pulling out an 82-80 win on Xbox 360 as measured by Metacritic.
EA chose to rebrand its game from "NBA Live" to "NBA Elite," hoping to spark a rally and an end to its losing streak. It didn't work for the Washington franchise, but then again, NBA Live was never as cool a name as the Bullets. 2K countered with arguably the ultimate free agent acquisition for NBA 2K11, Michael Jordan, and took advantage of #23's likeness and exploits in every manner short of a gambling simulation.
Jordan is on the game's front cover (twice), the back cover, the title screen, and posters and standees in every game store. But most importantly, he's in an all-new and exclusive game mode somewhat predictably called "MJ: Creating a Legend." Adding some longevity to the single-player game is the fact that this mode is not available at first play. Instead, ten challenges need to be completed based on critical games in Jordan's career, including the 1991 NBA Finals against the Lakers, led by Magic Johnson.
IsoMotion is the best use of the left trigger since braking in racing games.
The initially striking features of the game are in its graphics. The player models are simply stunning, even for the throwback players. Scottie Pippen's 'fro from his younger days might as well have been a time machine. The nice thing about NBA games (for gamers) is that there are no helmets or facemasks behind which players hide. This must represent a sizeable challenge - and opportunity - for developers, however, and Visual Concepts really nailed it.
But a game is not a canvas, and pretty pictures do not equal success. Animation is a key part of the visual fidelity of sports games, and NBA 2K11 is absolutely believable. Crossover dribbles powered by the new IsoMotion controls are fluid and lifelike, as is everything down to circus layups.
IsoMotion is the best use of the left trigger since braking in racing games. It initiates several subtle but important moves, including a size-up, hesitation, spin, and behind-back. For example, when performing a standing dribble, the player can tap LT and then move the left stick toward the basket to execute a "Hesitation and Go," as well as the unsuspecting defender.
When added to the already hefty set of controls at the players' finger tips, IsoMotion makes for a very flexible but perhaps complicated game of roundball. Those casual fans who lean more toward the NBA Jam or Double Dribble style may find themselves lost at first - though there is a large payoff at the end of the learning curve, as almost literally the entire game is within the players control, down to which player breaks which direction when away from the ball.
Wrapped around the technically impressive visuals and gameplay is a presentation that really completes the package. At the forefront of its features is the commentary. Play-by-play is extremely detailed and, most impressively, natural in terms of tone and timing. Add in color commentary by Clark Kellogg and sideline reporting from Doris Burke, and the experience grows beyond what one would expect from a game and toward a broadcast. Furthering the lifelike experience is 2K's NBA Today 2.0. Players with internet connected consoles will receive a halftime show featuring streams of statistics and NBA news.
Sports fans typically need one key piece of information to make a purchase decision: Is the game a large enough improvement over last year's to warrant an additional purchase? With NBA 2K11, there is very little question. The additions of Michael Jordan, with all the extra content his likeness brings, and the expanded control options really make this a unique experience. For NBA fans, it's a no-brainer. For more generalist sports fans, this is a perfect title to expand your library to include an NBA game.