Reviewed: May 21, 2008
Released: April 21, 2008
When the first NBA Ballers hit the scene back in 2004, it left many of us wondering if the folks at Midway were completely out of their gourds – what company in their right mind would go up against street sports stalwart EA Big, and their keystone NBA Street series? True, EA’s series had been losing steam in gaming circles as the new-series buzz began to fade – but even that should have raised concern of any company looking to release a similarly NBA-Jam inspired title, that maybe the over-the-top sports genre had run its course.
Regardless of the myriad red flags, Midway decided to give the go-ahead to NBA Ballers – blending the 1-on-1 play of Atari’s Dr. J vs. Larry Bird, the over-the-top basketball antics of NBA Jam, and the nauseatingly gratuitous and materialistic world of MTV Cribs, into a half-baked half court gloatfest with questionable physics and misguided intentions.
Compared to EA’s NBA Street series, NBA Ballers fell flat – winding up in bargain bins and buyback racks everywhere. You would think a fate like that would mark the end of NBA Ballers, but Midway has recently decided to release a sequel titled NBA Ballers: Chosen One.
Chosen One definitely improves on some of the original title’s shortcomings, but a handful of problematic gameplay issues and irritating presentation choices continue keep the game from matching the quality of NBA Street’s most recent Homecourt release.
OK, first things first – half court 1-on-1 NBA Jam style videogame basketball in 2008 is an all-around bad idea. It was a different world back in the 1980s, when we were playing our Coleco handheld basketball and Bird vs. Dr. J game on our old Atari – but our expectations were low and 1-on-1 with a squarish blip of a ball and characters that looked like the letter “K” provided months of enjoyment. But to take the NBA Jam style of over-the-top streetball play it with one player is like taking three wheels off a racecar; you just keep driving around in the same old circle and it isn’t a whole lot of fun.
The hook to the NBA Jam, NBA Street, and even Street Hoops for that matter, has been the full court breaks, high flying alley-oops and other passing-based team moves – which are considerably less enjoyable when the only passing support is supplied by unpredictable spectators or from the top of your opponents’ heads.
That’s not to say that Chosen One doesn’t throw in a two-on-two game here or there – and even works in a very effective control scheme that allows simultaneous control of both players (giving complete control of the player’s character, and limited passing and shooting control of the CPU) – but the game just doesn’t have the energy and excitement of the competition.
Maybe it is because the ball physics are so unrealistic – if any true baller missed even half of the close-up shots that regularly escape the net in Chosen One he wouldn’t make it on a high school team, much less the NBA. And even the misses might not have been so bad if the balls would simply rebound in a natural fashion, rather than bouncing around the rim for three or four seconds before making the decision of whether or not to sink, in some contrived scenario apparently meant to add a level of anticipation to the game.
Speaking of scenes, the Show Stopper special moves (think NBA Street’s “Gamebreakers”) come in two with 20 to 30 second non-skippable cutscenes that replay the move over and over, from a handful of different camera angles. At first, each of these scenes is mildly entertaining – but by the third or fourth run through most gamers will find themselves utilizing the dead time for grabbing a snack or sprinting to the bathroom.
But even for all my complaining, NBA Ballers: Chosen One is not a total loss – by introducing a handful truly creative gameplay variations the developers have still been able to salvage an enjoyable experience out of the poor physics.
There are variants that have players lining up against two other opponents in 1-on-1-on-1 matches, variants that forego the half court clearing rules resulting in rebounding slamfests, and variants where buckets pay off in more or less points based on the moving shooting targets projected onto the court. These variants (and more) are then mixed-and-matched in the game setup options, resulting in some truly innovative gameplay combinations.
While the game does feature a standard free play option, it is the Storyline mode that really shines – letting gamers create a custom baller from a rudimentary character palette, and then work his way up through a series of film-themed scenarios. Each scenario has a handful of challenge matches, each made of three or more rounds, that must be completed before progressing – and in the course of the gameplay, players will be introduced to all of the interesting gameplay variants. If only the game would do a better job of explaining the rules the first time (or repeat them in the pause menu) things might not seem so ambiguous at times.
The AI is fairly solid, although it does employ annoying catch-up logic in which AI characters perform superhuman feats forcing nearly every match to last to its full number of rounds. So, if you happen to beat the AI characters 11-to-0 in the first round of a best-of-three match, you can almost guarantee the AI to wipe the court with you in the second round, just to drag it out to three the full three. When “Tie” and “Draw” rounds basically force a restart, matches can easily be drawn out to ten or twenty minutes.
On the other hand, there are times where rounds last less than a minute – especially in the “no clear” variants, where a good rebounding rhythm can lead to an 11 point score in 6 presses of a button. And while the game tries hard to capture individual gameplay styles of characters – this simply means that with a few trial runs, gamers can usually find a money combo that will garner and nice grip of points before the AI catches on – usually when it is too late. Just remember that the AI will generally make up for it in the following round.
NBA Ballers: Chosen One looks absolutely outstanding on the Xbox 360, especially in all of its HD glory. For a lowly 1-on-1 hoops game, Chosen One has all the flash and flare of the acclaimed Dead Or Alive series – with beautifully constructed backgrounds that appear to be living, breathing worlds, and some of the best visual effects on the market.
The player models look absolutely fantastic, and capture a realistic look to the faces without looking too waxy or superimposed. The animations could use a bit of work, and players often seem too hunched over, and their running just does not look all that natural.
The between-game presentation is carried out with FMV-style clips of Public Enemy’s Chuck D playing sportscaster to the underground Ballers tournament. I have a hard time calling it FMV, as it is more like playing DVD clips between scenarios – but it does look professionally done, and save for a few moments of feigned excitement; Chuck D looks good in the announcer’s seat.
While NBA Ballers is visually impressive, it leaves a bit to be desired in the sound area. The sound effects are all quite generic, and the constant heckling from the crowd quickly begins repeating itself. The music sticks to a traditional Rap and R&B soundtrack, but none of the songs were catchy enough to draw much attention.
As mentioned earlier, Chuck D is in the game – and although I am not sure how Chuck D’s outspoken political commentary jives with the wanton materialism being pimped by NBA Ballers, but he does a fine job calling the shots.
The Storyline mode is always a nice addition to a sports game – especially when laid out in ever-changing challenges like NBA Ballers. Most players will jam through the Storyline mode in a matter of hours – but with free play and online play modes available, the game has some real lasting power. If only there were more ballers to meet up with online as there were only a handful at the time of this writing.
Compared to the likes of NBA Street or the highly underrated Street Hoops, NBA Ballers: Chosen One seems sluggish and contrived. Trying to bury questionable gameplay beneath flashy presentation and snazzy visuals only lasts for so long. Adding some cool variants on 1-on-1 does make things a bit more interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that I would still rather be hooping it up with Homecourt.