NBA Ballers Review

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Publisher: Midway
Developer: Midway

Platforms: Xbox, PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

NBA Ballers continues a proud videogame tradition of one-on-one basketball that dates from Jordan vs. Bird – but it offers significantly more flavor. From the gritty hardtops of street courts like New York City's Rucker Park, to the glitzy settings of scenic outdoor courts like Miami Beach, you'll need to bring your A-game's skill and style to get through the contests. In addition to paying your dues on the playground, you'll have the opportunity to lace up your sneakers against NBA stars past and present. Play your way to the top through competitions, earning new gear, skills, accessories, even new home courts.

Solomon Dirigible

Midway's NBA Ballers is a new entry into "street" sports – think of it as the Def Jam Vendetta of basketball games. In the game's story mode, you can create a player, choosing his attributes, such as defensive ability, shooting touch, and dunking ability, as well as his looks. The options for creating your player's image are unique, to say the least. You can opt to have him decked out in doo-rags and baggy jeans, or pair the more standard gym shorts with something as out of place as a bright white fedora. The creative control you have over your character is the first thing you'll notice and appreciate about the game.

The player models are fantastic. All the NBA players, past and present, are instantly recognizable if you're a hoops fan. You'll notice things like Walt "Clyde" Frazier's trademark mutton chops and the cornrows on NBA rookie Carmelo Anthony. What's impressive is that the players are recognizable not only in the selection screen, but also during the game on the court, in both the standard camera view and the cut scenes, during which they posture and pose after a made basket.

There are a number of game modes to choose from, ranging from the quick-play option, which lets you just choose a couple of players and head to the court for a quick game of hoops, to the story mode, which is called "rags-to-riches." The premise of the story (one of the better ones in any sports game) is that a TV executive has decided that the way to make money for his network is to get into a reality TV show, capitalizing on the rising popularity of street hoops. The show will focus on one player and his weekly competitions against NBA talent. When you first start your journey, you'll have to customize your baller, and then play the first episode. The "pilot," for lack of a better term, begins at Rucker Park, which some gamers may know for its annual summer league that draws both street and NBA talent from all over the country. You'll go up against a group of fellow ballers, all looking to star in this TV show. Win this tournament, and you'll advance to the next week, when you'll start going up against some NBA talent. The idea is that you earn credits as you win tournaments, which can be used to increase your abilities or buy clothes, friends, or accessories for your crib, and if you can defeat all your opponents, you'll get to keep the rewards. As far as the story goes, if you lose out, you'll lose everything. Each tournament, or "episode," is recounted with a voice-over set against still images from the tournament, which is one of the few complaints about this game mode. It would have been much more engaging to see the episodes recalled in audio and video form, rather than just the voice-over and stills. To actually see your character interact, even in a cut scene, would have done a lot for it. Still, you have to give the developers credit for an intriguing concept.

Play With Style

If you want to rack up credits, it's not enough to win games and tournaments – you need style. You can break out a number of playground moves during the game, each with a measure of risk. For ball-handling maneuvers, you can bounce the ball off your opponent's head, stunning and embarrassing him, or you can rebound the ball off the backboard to yourself, as your opponent clutches for it helplessly. Each of these moves will give earn you credits, but the point value halves each time you repeat one. If you want to earn a lot of points, you'll have to piece together various moves in combinations. Your juice meter (similar to the turbo meter in other sports games) will help. If you run out of juice, you won't be able to do anything fancy until you give your meter a chance to refill. The goal of winning with style is true to the street baller mentality, and lends an air of authenticity to the game.

The gameplay itself (button combinations especially) takes a little getting used to. However, the developers wisely incorporated the right analog stick to handle some of the more mundane juke moves, which lets you keep the defender at a distance while you're preparing to execute something spectacular. It happens frustratingly often, though, that at the moment when you seem to have the game in hand, the ball is suddenly whisked away by your opponent on successive possessions, thus you lose it all. Still, you're able to instantly replay any of the match-ups in the rags-to-riches mode, so, while it may be frustrating to go up against an opponent in a best-of-3 scenario time after time until you can eek out a victory, the games are fast-paced and fun to get through.

Long Loads, But Clever Cheats

The major drawback to the game is the nearly unbearable load time. When you begin a tournament or other game mode, the load process drags on for as long as any game, sports or otherwise, on the market. While this may scare off some gamers, it's not meant to be damning. The initial load time is agonizing, but once your selected game mode has begun, the load times for each match-up aren't so bad. Further, when you consider the amount of information that needs to be loaded when you start up (generating the list of opponents, the court itself, your own created character, etc.), the wait time is more tolerable. And, of course, any game whose major drawback doesn't have to do with the gameplay is doing many things right.

NBA Ballers adopts a clever method to enter cheats. Cheats are a celebrated part of arcade-style sports games, and it was always fun in the old SNES days of NBA Jam that you could occasionally guess a hidden character by entering a word, and it wasn't all "up-up-down-down-Bx3-Ax3-turn around 5 times-point towards the North Pole, etc." NBA Ballers recalls those days with its "Phraseology" system. The concept is simple – there are a large number of words, which can be combined to form phrases that any marginally educated basketball fan will recognize. I won't give anything away, but there are words such as "Wilt," "Pete," "Pistol," and "Stilt." Trying to guess phrases to enter can be an entertaining game in and of itself, and the developers are to be commended for including it.

Manage Your Crib

"Inside Stuff" is where you can unlock still photos from actual NBA Games or real covers of Hoop Magazine, and manage cribs and accessories. You'll also be able to manage your player's appearance and profile here. If you decide that the fedora look is too plain, you can give him a massive Afro or grow a beard. The options for outfitting your baller are many and varied, and you can tweak any of them in order to get the look you're going for.

The presentation is impressive, with music to match the atmosphere and a TV-style presentation, complete with cameras and colorful commentary. There are other game modes you can check out, like a simple versus mode, or a more in-depth TV tournament, where you can earn credits by beating a set of opponents. It's worth noting that in these game modes, you can customize the rules of the game, so if you want to allow goal-tending, or not have to clear the ball behind the three-point line after your opponent misses, you can adjust those settings. But it's the rags-to-riches idea that really pushes NBA Ballers over the top, and in that mode, the rules are fixed (though they may alter from one match to the next). All in all, NBA Ballers does a great job of bringing street flavor to the videogame world, presenting an engaging – and fun – experience. There is no question – the game is sequel-worthy.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on April 27, 2004 5:44 PM.

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