Preview: NBA 2K11's Jordan Challenge mode

NBA 2K11 has everything to lose this year. As the top-selling basketball title of last year, and with EA rebuilding and re-branding its own basketball experience as NBA Elite 11, you might think 2K Games could probably coast for the next few years, sit back and count the dough. But if there's one phrase I've heard plenty of times from 2K reps during my visit, it's "The Pepsi Challenge."

2K is putting its money where its mouth is, investing in real improvements to its yearly franchise. The first (and perhaps most important to longtime fans) is the online play. Right away I threw the question at them (it's a hot topic in the community and something I bring up every time I talk to these guys -- we've gotta be sure!): "Are you going to fix the online experience this year?" I was told it was a big focus for 2K -- the other, obviously, being Michael Jordan.
The crux of my visit with 2K was to check out the Jordan Challenge mode, which puts players in the shoes of Michael Jordan and his teammates during 10 of Jumpman 23's most illustrious games. But it isn't enough just to win those games -- a subset of challenges task players with repeating certain historical elements of each showdown, like scoring a certain amount of points, holding opposing players to a certain amount of points and even achieving certain field goal percentages. As I clumsily made my way through a few of these games, it became apparent that, damn, it musta been hard to be MJ.

Being my first time going hands-on with NBA 2K11, I was shocked at how skilled the CPU players were. Make a bad pass and you'll pay for it; linger too long on a jump shot and watch it get swatted -- starting to sense a theme here? Aimlessly playing was kind of like being slapped across the face with a limp, wet fish: painful, humiliating and just a tad bit slimy. The awareness of these players was startling.

But they were the best of the best in their day -- classic teams who had made it to the world's stage, ready to take on MJ and his Bulls -- and it'd been a while since I dished the virtual rock. I screwed up passes, charged guys like crazy and pulled lay-ups with the kind of grace ... well, with the kind of grace you'd expect from somebody who got slapped in the face by a wet fish. And even through all of that, through all of the flubs and embarrassing mistakes in front of the 2K reps who looked on as I played, no doubt wondering how I got this job, I had fun.

It's in large part due to the controls, which admittedly didn't feel as intuitive as when I played NBA Elite 11 but were streamlined and easy to grasp in their own right. Holding the left trigger, I was able to use the left analog stick to do cross-ups and maneuver around the court -- for the most part, what I had in my head wasn't too hard to realize on the hardwood. Hitting the right trigger turned on the turbo juice. Using the right analog stick as the shot stick, it wasn't long before I was awkwardly faking out guys mid lay-up and pulling no-look passes. My game may not have been the prettiest, but I'll be damned if it wasn't technical.

After spending some time in a few of the Jordan Challenge games, I was shown the ultimate reward: drafting MJ into today's NBA. Upon completion of Jordan Challenge, players will be able to place MJ on the team of their choosing (I went with the 76ers, to rep my hometown) as a rookie. In this mode, you can only play as MJ -- when he's subbed out, you can sim the game until he comes back in -- and you're given a live grade on how he's clicking with the team. If you're a ball hog, you'll get a poor score, and you won't get many points to dump into his attributes (said points effectively letting you shape Jordan into the type of player you want him to be).

Stepping away from my session, it was obvious that NBA 2K fans will have a lot to excite them here -- the Jordan Challenge mode is just that: a challenge. The replay value is there, and thanks to better contextual animations and improved presentation (thanks in no small part to that ex-TNT producer they brought on), it would seem NBA 2K11 isn't going to simply sit in the corner and watch NBA Elite 11 prance around the ring. If they follow through on the promise to address server instability, it's going to be hard to usurp NBA 2K11 as the premiere basketball game this year. EA, ball's in your court now.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.