The Chicago Stadium is dark. Strobes light up five players, then four, three, two. In the tunnel, you see Michael Jordan’s silhouette. He glances back at you and asks, “Are you ready?” Are you ready for a complete basketball simulation? Are you ready for a lovingly crafted homage to NBA history and the impact of its signature player of the 20th century? Are you ready to dominate the Lakers in Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals? The answer is yes. Or in parlance of our time, Hells yeah.

NBA 2K11 is not for the casual fan of professional basketball. This is not an arcade, on-fire, “boom shaka-laka” dunkfest. Even playing with Jordan, arguably the best player ever, you will miss contested shots and have your passes stolen frequently. You have to deal with smart double-teams, and sag when switching around picks on defense to prevent the roll to the basket. In short, NBA 2K11 plays exactly how the real sport does, with accurate representations of players, team strategy, announcer analysis and commercial placement. Such realism is a feat that most sports games can only dream of and NBA 2K11 does it flawlessly.

The problem is that you don’t always want to play a videogame that is exactly like the real sport. The tempo of games matches real NBA, but that includes lots of downtime between foul shots and frequent timeouts. There is no one button to press that allows you to cycle through notifications of substitutions or the Hewlett Packard Halftime graphic. Yes, I realize that such advertisements are present in real sports, but I just want to play basketball, not see the Gatorade logo during every substitution.

The Jordan Challenges are like playing inside an ESPN Classic documentary. You must equal or surpass Jordan’s stats in ten games throughout his career from his “Arrival” against Larry Bird’s Celtics in 1986, to when he dropped 6 threes on Clyde Drexler and shrugged, to his “Flu Game” in 1997 when he scored 38 while sick as a dog. The challenges are as tough as they must have been for Jordan and each is lovingly recreated with accurate commentary and likenesses. I thought Drexler’s creepy moustache was spot on, and I actually cheered when Kevin McHale nailed a fadeaway 17-footer against me. The attention paid to details sets these games apart.

There are almost too many other modes to mention them all. The My Player mode allows you to create a player from scratch and perform drills and scrimmages with certain goals, not unlike the Jordan Challenges. Some people might complain that it takes a long time to make it to the NBA, but I appreciated the momentousness of such an accomplishment. You want it all handed to you? Go play NBA Jam. The career mode is called the Association and the AI here got a huge boost this year, especially when it comes to trading. The GMs of other teams will no longer gift you their best players and five draft picks for that guy sitting on your bench. You have to consider team chemistry and unselfishness, what Bill Simmons’ calls “The Secret,” if you want to assemble a Championship team.

As I will never make it to the NBA, and most of my time playing basketball nowadays is in pickup games at the gym, I dug the NBA Blacktop sub-section of NBA 2K11. The dunk contest is a lot of fun, once you learn the timing, but it was more enjoyable pitting random NBA stars against each other, or even rap stars. Snoop Dogg and Bill Laimbeer playing 2 on 2 vs. Bow Wow and Rajon Rondo was unthinkably mind-bending. Who knew that Snoop had a nasty jumpshot? You can even play 21, a FFA game where the first player to score 21 points wins. 2K11‘s representation of 21 feels just like it did in the gym for me last week.

I played the 2K11 on the PS3 and the controls were not exactly easy to pick up. You can shoot using the right stick and that allows a fine-tuned alteration to the direction of the ball. Setting picks and calling plays takes far too many button presses, though. To just set a pick, you have to tap L1, then hold the button associated with each player, then know when to let go to have the other player roll to the basket. Yes, you can also just hold L1 for a random player to set a pick, but when you have five left on the shot clock, the pick takes too long to develop. Passing is a pain in the ass. I like that the game punishes you for stupid long passes down the court (the opposing team will steal it every time), but that means you will throw the ball away a lot. It doesn’t help that the direction which you throw the ball is also controlled by the left stick, which is the same stick that moves your player across the floor. As with any sports game, there is a point where you forget all of this and you just play, but it takes playing through ten or fifteen games in NBA 2K11 before it clicks.

Playing with the Move was a joy in comparison. In a strange configuration, your left hand holds the left side of the controller and you move the player with the left stick. In your right hand is the Move, and you handle shooting and all other actions with it. You will not get all of the finely tuned control and play-calling, but dribbling, juking and doing post-up moves is all controlled with a wag of the Move. It’s a more intuitive control scheme; you defend by holding the Move up or to the side depending on how your opponent moves. Perhaps the game compensates for the casual player, but I honestly had a lot more fun, and was more successful, playing with the Move. If you’re interested in NBA 2K11 but are a little cautious of the difficulty, playing with the Move is a nice compromise.

NBA 2K11 is the most accurate basketball simulation that I’ve ever played. All of the players and teams, from 1986 to the present day, look and feel like real basketball. It’s also as difficult as playing real basketball, with a steep curve against those who have never played an NBA 2K game. For the less-learned sports fans, I could have done with better designed tutorials or practice modes, but I guess that’s asking too much. 2K Sports did an excellent job with the Jordan Challenges, and a slick presentation pervades the whole game. If you’ve always wanted an accurate basketball simulation videogame, you have it in NBA 2K11.

Bottom Line: NBA fans will appreciate the accurate nuances and historical details of 2K11 while those less hardcore might be put off by the difficulty. Those people should play it with the Move.

Recommendation: Buy it if you love basketball and want to start a league with your buddies or get to the NBA with My Player. Even if you only have a passing interest, NBA 2K11 is worth a rent just to play the Jordan Challenges and experience the intro.

[rating=5]

What our review scores mean.

This review was based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game.

As a lifelong Boston fan, playing as Jordan dropping 63 points on the Celtics felt so wrong and so right at the same time.

Game: NBA 2K11
Genre: Sports
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Release Date: October 5th, 2010
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Available from: Amazon (360), Amazon (PS3)

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