Reviewed: April 18, 2006
Released: March 30, 2006
I took a lot of flak for my high-scoring review for the original NBA Ballers but that was two years ago and I still stand by my review and my score. At the time, it was the most original and clever non-traditional basketball game going. But now it’s time for the inevitable sequel. Can NBA Ballers: Phenom fill those size 14 high tops left behind by the original?
Well, the answer is a bit complicated, but you certainly can’t fault Midway for at least trying to up the ante. Phenom expands upon the core hoops action of the original by including an exploratory story mode full of interactive citizens, secrets, mini-games, and of course, all the great hoops action, now cleverly integrated into the living and breathing world of L.A.
There is even a pretty clever story that kicks off the game and carries throughout the 15-20 hours of solo play. In Phenom you will go up against a former friend turned superstar. It turns out he screwed you out of a major deal and stole your girlfriend, leaving you to live in your car, until it gets towed. You are left to roam the streets of L.A., but thankfully, it just so happens to be NBA Finals week.
The roster has been expanded with more than 120 professional players and all-new legends. There are even mascots and celebrities giving you plenty of choices when it comes to choosing your challengers. Of course you’ll ultimately go in with your own character and slowly build him up using the ingenious stat system that is borderline RPG in nature.
The RPG flavor of the game is apparent from the onset as you immediately create your baller and pick a sidekick who will support you from the sidelines when possible. With a large map of the L.A. area that includes landmark locations like Hollywood, Venice Beach, Beverly Hills, and LAX, you explore all sorts of creative environments seeking out fame and fortune.
Phenom offers a great sense of freedom by abandoning the linear tournament structure of the original game and allowing you to pick and choose your games by finding them in the open world. Along the way you will pick up random odd jobs like putting up posters, or engage in DDR-style mini-games like dancing with the Laker Girls at a car wash or busting some mad rhymes in a rapping contest. There are trivia contests, NBA spelling bees, and even a clever photo op mode where you must try to embarrass your rival players during a game and snap their picture.
There are also hidden diamonds scattered everywhere so you’ll want to dribble and bounce your trusty ball off every object in the game. Even if a diamond doesn’t turn up there are plenty of humorous results for bouncing your ball off certain objects.
There are two underlying concepts at work throughout the story mode and various tournament games. Your baller will increase in two areas, NBA and Entertainment level, depending on the type of tournament you play in. Some games will get you noticed by NBA recruiters while others will get you noticed by Ludacris, who is more interested in the business side of the sport.
The economic system is also crucial to the story mode. You will earn cash for doing odd jobs and winning games, and you can spend this cash on tickets to get you into the various events around town or purchase all sorts of clothing and accessories, and even food which will improve your public appeal and possibly boost your game performance. Of course, you’ll always want to hold some cash back for those stat bonuses.
The scale of Phenom is impressive with more than 30 locations to play ball. And really, once you get past all of the exploring and mini-games, that is what Phenom is really about. In fact, you can probably ignore a lot of the “fluff” and motor right through the story mode in 10-12 hours if you tried, but you’d be missing out on a huge portion of the game. Any NBA fan worth their salt will certainly want to test their basketball trivia knowledge and spelling prowess.
The actual mechanics of playing basketball haven’t changed that much since the original. There are a handful of new moves, but for the most part the game looks and plays identical to the first when on the court. The game is still all about the combos and building up the juice meter before slamming the ball through the hoop. One new feature is the ability for 2-on-2 games in the story mode.
Along with the story mode are you quick game options as well as various multiplayer game modes for up to four players. These are just as fun as you might expect, but for me, this game seemed heavily targeted toward the lone gamer. Multiplayer aficionados are going to be playing something more “official” when it comes to NBA offerings.
Phenom’s graphics range from good to great. The menus, map screen, and splash screens look fantastic with digitized photos of real-life players and 3D icons of real L.A. locations. Presentation-wise, this game rivals any of the official NBA offerings when it comes to the interface.
The in-game character models look freakishly like their real-life counterparts and you have unprecedented freedom to create your own unique baller. There is great character animation that includes walking, running, dribbling, and impromptu dancing on the street. There are also flashy effects like sparkles and fancy lighting.
The action on the court is still intense and often quite humorous, but I was a bit surprised that even after two years the game still exhibited numerous collision problems and graphical glitches, including some funky camera issues. None of these ever impacted the actual gameplay, but they did take away from the overall polished feel of the other parts of the game.
I suspected the game might have a good soundtrack when I found the 18-song bonus disc included with the game. Fact is, if you like contemporary hip-hop and rap then you will love the music in Phenom. I’m not the biggest fan of this genre but I have to admit that many of the songs were quite good. I was particularly fond of the Car Wash tune for the Laker Girl dancing game and found myself replaying that section multiple times.
The rest of the game is pretty much the same as the original, at least on the court. All of the sounds like sneakers squeaking, balls dribbling or smashing off backboards or swishing through nets is all pretty standard stuff. The exploration parts all have nice ambient effects with crowd noises and off-camera traffic. You can talk to almost everybody, even if it’s just bumping into them as you run by.
If you really immerse yourself into Phenom you can easily get 15-20 hours of rags to riches action, but if you merely focus on the tournaments and ignore the fluff you can finish the game in half that time. There is a substantial multiplayer component for local players and online support for Xbox Live complete with scoreboards, friends and voice support.
There is a nice unlockable bonus system in place but it’s not nearly as large as the first game. So while the game got bigger, it also got a bit less complicated.
Once again, I really enjoyed NBA Ballers: Phenom, probably more than a lot of people, especially finicky critics, but from a gamer perspective, this game is a blast covering numerous genres like basketball, adventure, educational, and even rhythm games. There is so much to see and do and you’ll have a great time doing it all.