Developing exciting marketing angles for the new edition of a sports game can't be the easiest thing in the world. It’s not like the major yearly titles change that much is it?
Graphics and gameplay are tweaked a little (normally, if not always, for the better) and the new season’s team rosters are included. So established is the pattern that there's not really much to be done on the marketing front beyond throwing together a catchy slogan, putting the reigning NFL MVP or World Player of the Year on the front cover and assuming enough people will bite. Simple. Effective. Boring.
Still, at least things were easier for the folks at 2K this year. With EA Sports' NBA Elite 11 delayed and unprecedented interest in the Miami Heat’s new dream-team, they could just throw Lebron, Wade and Bosh on the cover of NBA 2K11 and start making money. Thankfully for all of us, however, someone at 2K has obviously decided that, this year at least, the same old same old wouldn't cut it.
Enter Michael Jordan.
Other than Tiger Woods (before the groupies and porn stars) no American sportsman has been held in higher esteem internationally than Michael Jordan, and certainly no name looms larger in basketball than his. So far beyond his peers was Jordan that his name was seldom linked to regular games and for years playing against the Bulls on your console meant an unsatisfying match-up against 'Player 23'.
As such, the presence of Jordan in a major game for the first time in several years and the promise of all manner of Jordan-specific gameplay already makes NBA2K11 the most intriguing sports title of the year. The game itself plays this up excellently upon loading, as five silhouetted figures slowly diminish to one and the man himself turns to ask the player if they're ready before taking to the court for his classic Chicago Bulls intro and launching straight into game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals against the LA Lakers. It's an attention grabbing start in a genre of gaming where atmosphere and tension are normally an after-thought.
At the end of the day though, as exciting as the inclusion of Jordan is, it's still the game that counts (particularly, one suspects, for younger players and New York Knicks fans).
So does NBA 2K11 live up to the hype generated by its cover-star? In short, yes.
In a genre of games, NBA 2K11 is as close to a basketball simulation as has been created. Player motion is incredibly fluid, with the personal moves and styles of individual stars captured in amazing detail. My well-worn copy of NBA Live 2010 now looks distinctly like yesterday’s game.
Beyond looking great, it plays superbly well. Defences are tough, and the AI intuitive enough to shut down most things that wouldn't work in a real game. Gone are the days of driving to the hoop time and again with whoever happens to have the ball at the half-court, kicking it out for endless threes or blithely passing in the rough direction of a team-mate. Do any of those things too regularly and you'll be deep in a hole before you know where you are. At times things get a little too tricky, with some pretty infeasible interceptions awaiting anyone who dares to throw too many long-passes, but take a smart, realistic approach to game-play utilising your whole team and you will find the game replicating that NBA buzz better than any before it.
The 'My Player' mode has moved another step closer to reality too. You will be tested pretty thoroughly in the lead-up to the draft and through the Summer-League before taking your player into an NBA career complete with post-game interviews that add a real depth to the feature. Sure, it takes a while to become a world-beater when compared to equivalent options in many other games, but it's made well worth the effort.
And then there's Jordan. Along with a host of old Bulls teams (and their famous rivals of the 90s) to stir nostalgia, NBA2K11 presents an array of Jordan-specific gameplay. Players can take the 'Jordan Challenge' and seek to replicate 10 of Jordan's greatest feats, from dropping 63 on the Celtics in 1986 to the Bulls' game 6 triumph against the Jazz in the 1998 finals. I must admit, I'm a little torn on this feature. While these challenges will give players a new appreciation for Jordan's greatness, the whole exercise feels a little like its primary purpose is to stroke Jordan's ego into a licensing deal, sell some Air Jordans and allow him to reassert himself in the Bryant/James era.
Having said this though, complete the challenges and you'll have the unique opportunity to insert Jordan into a Modern NBA franchise (perhaps the only thing that could save this season's Cavaliers?).
Besides, in light of the overall quality of gameplay, this is a small quibble, and one of few to be had with this title. Other problems revolve around the occasionally implausible defence and some inexplicably fumbling and bumbling loose ball play and a choppy online experience (for me at least, on what has always been a fairly solid connection). There are also the occasional rendering disasters - Kobe Bryant looks mildly disturbed, Doc Rivers looks like a Star Wars extra, and Dennis Rodman appears to some sort of demented, neon-haired... Okay, bad example. Throw all of these things together and you have an excellent game that falls just a little short of perfect.
However, as you stop to watch replays of one of the greatest athletes of all time float from the free-throw line to the rim and unleash inimitable dunks on all and sundry, it's clear enough that, for this year at least, it's Michael Jordan's world and you, me and Lebron all just live in it.