Reviewed: November 2, 2006
Released: October 2, 2006
When Sony first returned with its newly revamped NBA franchise featuring a unique story mode called The Life, it was like a breath of fresh air for a stagnant genre. It may seem a bit ironic calling basketball stagnant considering that in the world of gaming, basketball franchises historically led the pack with gimmicks, hooks, and variations on the traditional game of b-ball; the over-the-top court action of NBA Jam, the over-the-top street action of NBA Street, the realistic street action of Street Hoops, and the one-on-one half-court action of NBA Ballers.
So, when adding a simple story mode catches the critics’ eyes, it is a pretty good indication that people are getting tired of the same-old innovation; and many of those people are willing look beyond gaming guffaws and glitches in lieu of playing something new. But after a few years the newness starts to wear off and the gameplay flaws become all the more evident.
Such is the case with NBA 08, presumably Sony’s final installment of the series for the PS2, which does a fine job continuing along with its unique The Life mode, but stumbles over its own sub-par gameplay and lack of refinement.
Did any of you read my review for last year’s release of NBA 07 Featuring the Life Vol.2? Well, if you did read that review, you might as well stop reading now – because other than adding a third sequel to the fairly innovative and interesting The Life story mode, NBA 08’s gameplay is remains largely unchanged from last year’s lackluster iteration.
This time around, gamers take the role of The Youngblood, who has come to the team to replace the recently traded Big W, the recently injured The Kid, and to help Coach T ride off into sunset in this, his last year at the helms. And if you felt (like I did) that last NBA 07 lacked a certain sense of emotional focus, well, NBA 08 features even less – but in a good way.
You see, rather than overload the game with a sappy storyline of an aging superstar, a sick kid, and a slick up-and-comer, NBA 08 tries to make it more of a team sport; with the whole team rallying for the pride of their beloved coach. Sure, this time around there is a bit more focus place on the newbie named The Youngblood, but the focus is much less on his personal struggle as it is on the team as a whole.
The actual on the court gameplay is still as broken as it ever was; with the same recurring issues from last year’s model rearing their ugly heads. The same defensive issues, the same AI issues, even the same money plays seem to make a return appearance – making it ever so easy to cheat against the competition, and making it even easier for the competition to cheat back on you. The result is an unrewarding gameplay experience, regardless of the story.
As with the previous release, the only real difficulty comes in trying to meet the time constraints and often-nebulous regulations of the situational challenges; which might place the gamer in the final minutes of a game, down a few points, and make silly requirements for how and by who the final win should be obtained. While this initially was a nice alternative to the standard Season or Dynasty modes of the competition, the feeling of déjà vu is getting a bit too familiar in this, the third installment of the series.
The once-fun mini-games are all back, but even those feel stale – and with virtually no new games added, they are hardly worth playing through if you have already worn yourself out on NBA 07.
NBA 08’s graphics have not improved a bit, and in fact may actually be a bit worse than they were in last year’s installment. There is always the argument that we are growing more and more jaded by the high definition visuals of our Xbox 360s and PS3s, but I swear that NBA 08 takes a definite step back. The character models are choppy and robotic, the crowd is about as lifeless as a deck of playing cards, and the jaggies are prominent enough to be considered a problem.
The unique lighting, shadowing, and reflections somewhat make up for the game’s otherwise dismal visual package – but not being able to determine specific players because of the poor detail does not help a bit in accomplishing story-mode challenges and tasks.
NBA 08’s sound quality is the high point of the presentation, beginning with the play-by-play from the likes of ESPN’s Mark Jackson and Seattle Supersonic’s announcer Kevin Calabro, which does a good job capturing the movement, even if it is a step or two behind the action. NBA 08 also features solid voice acting within The Life mode, especially the ever-bellowing Coach T who often sounds like he’s about ready to bust out with a brain aneurysm on the spot.
As for the sound effects, the crowd swells are impressive, and all the squeaks and squawks of the freshly waxed court really drive home the feeling of being in a huge stadium –then again, there is nothing that really stands out to differentiate these sound clips and samples from any of the other b-ball game on the market, so that can be taken with a grain of salt.
The third version of The Life definitely offers an experience continuing the previous two iterations, and does assist in maintaining the lifespan of the generally-focused experience that most sports titles provide. And due to the slightly tweaked difficulty balance of the goals and challenges, The Life – in and of itself – does seem to be becoming more and more for the everyday gamer. It is only that much more of a bummer then, that the actual gameplay on the court is still so darn weak - especially compared to the competition from 2K and EA.
And although the PS2 was never lauded for its online play (as compared to the Xbox and it’s Live service), it is still a bit of a surprise to see NBA 08’s online lobbies are all but empty this close to release. It is most likely the case that more and more gamers are finally shelving their last-gen consoles to make room for their new game boxes, but you would expect at least a little bit of interest from the incredibly large install base the PS2 has enjoyed over the recent years.
Sony did a good thing a few years back when they halted production on their faltering NBA Shootout series, and resurrected it with the unique The Life. And with the past two iterations of the series, we have been trying to overlook many of the court-based issues in lieu of the interesting storyline and challenge structure. But now that the series is fully established, the gameplay seriously needs to do some catching up to the competition.