I have a lot of fond memories playing NBA Jam. My friends and I used to love heading over to the local nickel arcade for hours straight, wowing onlookers with our mad skillz as we performed jaw dropping triple ally-oop passes and sick blocks that quickly transitioned into thunderous dunks. More than one time the word ìBoomshakalaka!î was triumphantly cried out as an especially demoralizing dunk was hammered down on one of our poor competitors. Yeah, those were the days alright…
Nowadays, Midwayís NBA Jam series has lost much of its appeal, largely because it simply hasnít progressed with the industry while maintaining its fan base. NBA Showtime and NBA Hangtime were the last great games in the series, only because they provided the same pure two-on-two excitement that made the original so fun. Midway tried to rejuvenate the series by adding one more player per team in NBA Hoopz, but the resulting gameplay was far too chaotic and the game never gained much of a following. With NBA Ballers, Midway is again trying to go in a new direction, this time by limiting the gameplay to one-on-one. The result is game that deviates a bit too much from the original formula for my liking, but still remains entertaining when played in short spurts.
By going with one-on-one basketball, NBA Ballers really tries to bring out each NBA playerís personality and balling style, and for the most part it succeeds in doing this. Youíll be hooping it up on the personal courts of over a dozen of actual NBA players, from Kobe Bryantís vacation villa in Italy, to Vince Carterís rooftop penthouse in Toronto. Playing basketball on the personal courts of star NBA players is a nice treat, especially the first few times you get to play at each location. Another reason the NBA playersí personalities are more fully fleshed out here than in other basketball games is because they are so incredibly well modeled. Midway spent a good deal of time getting the player faces just right and result is the most realistic looking depictions of actual NBA players ever seen in videogame. The first time you see Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury or Reggie Millerís mug in the character selection screen, youíll swear youíre looking at an actual photo. 95% of the players look this fantastic, but there are few (oddly enough, many of the white guys) that donít look quite as good.
The entire single player experience consists of playing in one-on-one ladders against a group of NBA ballers (or sometimes fictional street ballers), and the realistic player models make this limited gameplay more entertaining than it otherwise could have been. Itís especially cool when you stumble across a ìretro tournamentî which places you up against old time hoopsters like Magic, Bird, Dr. J and Wilt Chamberlain, complete with short shorts, retro hairdos and all. The AI also helps infuse each player with an on-court style that you would expect from each individual baller; Shaq will repeatedly try to back you down in the paint and Larry Legend will relentlessly rain threes if you give him the chance (and, many times, even if you donít). The main goal of playing through the ladder matches is to earn cash, which can later be used to ìpurchaseî (i.e. ñ unlock) new NBA players and courts. You can also create a baller and then use any money youíve earned to buy better stats, rides (that will appear parked courtside), threads and even ìfriendsî (guys or girlies that will stand courtside and cheer you on). Unlocking friends is probably the most poorly implemented option of the bunch, because when you ìbuyî them in the selection screen, they are photos of real people, but when viewed courtside they are low polygon, palette swaps of each other (I can almost hear Midwayís mocking laugh as that gorgeous blonde-haired supermodel you unlocked is transformed into a ponderous, angular monstrosity when viewed courtside).
The main single player game mode is called Rags to Riches, and basically consists of you creating a baller and taking him (you can only create guys) through a series of tournaments and facing off against just about every NBA player included in the game. This mode is unique because your stats are raised depending on how much you use that particular attribute; shoot a bunch of three pointers and your three point stat will go up, get a bunch of steals and your steal rating will rise and so on. The main problem with this mode is the story is just boring. Itís told through a series of in-game stills and never really goes anywhere. You just churn through match after match and often your only reward, story-wise, is a weak cut scene that looks like the one you just watched. I know, itís a basketball game so you canít really expect Shakespeare, but it would have been nice if it had been at least somewhat interesting. At least after beating Rags to Riches you get to use your beefed up created player in all the other game modes.
So now the million-dollar question: does the one-on-one gameplay actually work? Well, yes and no. The good news is you have plenty of offensive options at your disposal. You can perform all sorts of dribble maneuvers, ally-oops to your self, tip dunks and more, and chain them all together like you can in NBA Street. You even have the ability to toss the ball over to a buddy in the crowd and have him throw you up ally-oops. NBA Jam vets will be happy to know that the ball still clangs around on the rim with the same great randomness (in a realistic sort of way) that has always been a trademark of the series. One of the cooler things you can do in the game is perform a Juice House dunk that will tear down the entire backboard, thus immediately ending the game and giving you a victory. This is similar to the Gamebreaker meter in NBA Street, in that you must string combos together in order to build up the Juice House meter. Sort of like a demoralizing game ending fatality in a fighting game, the Juice House feature adds a good amount of depth and strategy to the traditional basketball formula.
The bad news is when on defense you are definitely at a disadvantage. I found that even guys with incredible shot blocking will arbitrarily jump away from the offensive player when attempting a swat, and missing a steal attempt virtually guarantees an uncontested score because you have nobody to back you up. And, unlike past NBA Jam games, you canít keep shoving your opponent because after five ìfoulsî they are allowed to shoot a free throw (which is worth three points) and keep possession. Another problem is the rebounding. Like with shot blocking, many times you have position for the ball, leap up to grab it, and watch in shock as your player randomly jumps away from the ball. Itís just plain stupid and will frustrate you to no end, especially when it happens at a crucial moment in the game.
Also, the game doesnít support analog movement of any kind. Because your player is perpetually in a headlong sprint, stopping directly behind the three point line is a bit of a crapshoot. And even when you do manage to stop just behind the line and nail a three, the game will sometimes decide to reward you with only two points, even when, by reviewing the replay, you can plainly see that your player is completely behind the arc. Possibly the most annoying of all the gameís flaws are the atrociously long load times. Both the PS2 and Xbox versions load for about seven to eight second between each simple menu selection, and you can end up waiting over five minutes just to get a game started. This type of thing is a little more acceptable on the PS2, but it is completely inexcusable for an Xbox game and is a sure sign of lazy programming.
On a more positive note, the gameís character models look fantastic, mostly due to the very accurate faces. Another great touch, and something Iíve been looking for a basketball game to finally get right, is the way the playersí shorts flow and sway like they should in real life. There is even a cool animation to show this off where a player will get down in the defensive position and pull up his shorts so they donít restrict movement. The courts all look fairly good, if a bit too similar in nature, and the surrounding crowds are the usual mix of rough polygonal people and cardboard cutouts. Definitely the best graphical touch in the game is the shimmering heatwave that surrounds a player after he catches fire (like how asphalt looks from a distance on a humid day). Overall, Ballers looks quite good ñ certainly the best looking Midway basketball title to be released thus far.
Audio wise, the game stays fairly true to its roots. All the grunts, clangs and squeaks of Jam basketball are there and accounted for, though the old school ìBoomshakalakaî announcer has been replaced by MC Supernatural and his street ball DJ-esque antics. As you would expect, after extended play youíll likely be taking advantage of the option to turn him off. The game soundtrack features a wide selection of hip-hop artists including: Raskal, Phife Dawg, Kenny Knox and 4pound. Not exactly a platinum bunch, but they accentuate the gameís atmosphere well enough. Sadly, like with the long load times, Midway has chosen to treat Xbox owners like redheaded stepchildren and not include custom soundtrack support. Bad, bad, bad.
As far as online goes: the PS2 version supports it, the Xbox version does not. This is a slap in the face to Xbox owners, especially since Xbox Live is much superior when compared to Midwayís clunky online implementation for the PS2. There have been rampant problems with headset functionality and lag when playing the game online, though it seems that some of these problems have been ironed out as of late. Probably the coolest thing about the PS2ís online play is the ability to bet cribs and players with other gamers.
I have quite a few small nitpicks with NBA Ballers, but the biggest issue I have with the game lies with the one-on-one gameplay in general. One of the best things about NBA Jam was playing cooperatively with a buddy. Teamwork was always essential on both offense and defense and playing well together was the difference between winning and losing. This is completely absent from NBA Ballers. Why couldnít Midway just have added the option to play full court two-on-two as well as the one-on-one? It just doesnít make sense. You can do one-on-one-on-one, but this mode just doesnít offer the same longevity as co-op. As it stands, Ballers is a decent b-ball game with plenty of unlockable goodies and pretty graphics, but itís decidedly lacking when it comes to gameplay. Maybe Midway will release a follow up with the same graphic engine, but with cleaned up gameplay and some two-on-two action. If that happens, I could definitely see my friends and I spending hours upon hours reliving all our old NBA Jam memories. Itís just up to Midway to deliver the goods.