Though 2K's latest basketball game is ostensibly about the world's professional roundball league and the players who inhabit it, the game might as well be titled Michael Jordan Presents: The NBA. This year's entry into 2K's storied NBA franchise is all about His Airness, but that's an undeniably good thing. The focus on the mythical, larger-than-life Jordan makes this title stand out from others and adds some drama and pizzazz into what might be an otherwise ho-hum annual release. Fans of Number 23 are going to be in heaven, and this may well be the last basketball game they ever need.
It isn't enough to put Michael Jordan on the cover and make him playable in the game; the 14-time all-star and six-time champion gets an entire mode devoted exclusively to his most historic moments. The Jordan Challenge takes players through 10 of MJ's most memorable performances and asks them to re-create his amazing feats. In "The Arrival," the first challenge, players must take the reins as Jordan leads the Bulls in Game 2 of the Bulls series against Larry Bird's '86 Celtics. In order to complete the challenge successfully, Jordan must score at least 63 points and six assists while shooting no worse than 50 percent from the field. Other trials include "The Flu Game," when Jordan won Game 5 of the NBA Finals in spite of being terribly ill, or "The Shrug," when he hit six three-pointers in the first half.
Making the historic games feel even more special is the attention to detail paid to each broadcast. Kevin Harlan and Clark Kellogg already do amazing work in commentary in standard matchups, but they truly shine in the Jordan Challenges. Special dialogue was recorded for each game, and as MJ approaches the benchmarks required to pass each milestone, Harlan and Kellogg begin getting more and more excited and injecting relevant banter. Their commentary, coupled with 2K's devotion to providing some of the best game presentation seen in any sports series, might trick friends in the other room into believing you're watching a rebroadcast of the old game until the come in and see the controller in your hands. It's a wonderful touch that really adds a lot of character to an already outstanding game.
Each game in the Jordan Challenge requires players to match Michael's point total while also tallying other statistics, like pulling down a certain number of rebounds or holding an opposing team's star player under a specific number of points. The tricky bit comes in the fact that for some inexplicable reason, every Jordan Challenge game is restricted to eight-minute quarters, which create an even greater sense of urgency than already exists. Scoring 69 points while dishing six assists is hard enough when playing full 12-minute quarters, but when you cut it down to eight, things get darn near impossible. Unfortunately, this major development oversight means that the only way to pass some of the tougher challenges is to turn down the difficulty all the way, which saps a lot of the fun from the proceedings. If you're a supreme player and able to beat the entire Jordan Challenge on the toughest difficulty with the shortened quarters, then my congratulations; you are a far superior player than I.
Gamers will want to power through the Jordan Challenge, though, as finishing it unlocks NBA 2K11's other new mode, MJ: Creating a Legend. This mode follows the traditional model of the series' "My Player," but with one distinct difference: You take control of a 21-year-old version of MJ and mold him into the legend he will eventually become. For all those fans who dream of creating their own version of Jordan who eventually comes to dominate the league, 2K has sped up the process, giving you everything you want in half the time. While young Jordan doesn't arrive with fully maxed-out stats, he still starts out head and shoulders beyond the standard created player, and it doesn't take long to turn him into an unstoppable force.
Though the 2K team put a ton of effort into creating the ultimate Michael Jordan fan service, they didn't spend quite as much time balancing the game and making sure that everything was tuned properly before release. The biggest issue this year comes in the form of passing, which has gone from afterthought to the single biggest thorn in many players' sides. While previous NBA 2K titles allowed you to move the ball around the court easily, only punishing ballers for ill-advised cross-court passes or constantly forcing the ball into traffic, this year's game makes things much more difficult. Nearly any pass that's not being thrown to a player standing within a foot or two of the ballhandler will be batted loose or outright stolen, and such occasions usually translate into easy dunks and layups for the opposing team. While hardcore players may enjoy the ratcheted-up defense, most folks will find it frustrating and troublesome.
The other big sticking point comes with ballhandling, which seems to be a perennial franchise issue. Though 2K has slightly streamlined the IsoMotion dribbling system, it's still far too complex for its own good, and trying to pull off specific moves is, as always, a hit-and-miss affair. Normally players can abandon ball strategy in favor of holding down the left trigger and then wiggling the control stick around until the defender is caught out of position. The whole thing needs to continue to be refined until players can have the control they need in a manner that is accessible. Right now, IsoMotion offers neither.
Though there are some technical flaws, NBA 2K11 remains an exceptional basketball game and an absolute must-buy for lifelong MJ fans. Booting up the game and instantly being thrust into the 1991 NBA Finals against Magic Johnson's Lakers will give almost any fan goose bumps, as will a number of other moments that pop up throughout the game. There may never be another Michael Jordan, but that shouldn't matter because now you can relive his greatest moments again and again. If you miss that bald head and wagging tongue, then this is the game you've been waiting a long time to play.
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