NBA Jam 2004
NBA Jam 2004 is the latest update of a long-running basketball game franchise. The series first debuted back in the arcades and stood out from other sporting games by having a distinctly over-the-top nature nature. Players could catch fire and become awesomely unstoppable, huge super-dunks could be performed and the digitised player graphics and manic commentary impressed many people. It was then carried onto various 16bit consoles and is fondly remembered. Although it started out owned by Midway, the license to use the name NBA Jam was acquired by Acclaim. The series then split into several different variations during the 32bit years – for example NBA Jam Extreme and NBA Tournament – and then seemed to fade away somewhat. After resting the franchise for a couple of years, Acclaim have brought the NBA Jam name and distinctive style back into the public consciousness with this brand new edition – NBA Jam 2004.
This game is certainly packed full of things for the avid basketball fan to enjoy. Pretty much every player of note appears, including the current 29 NBA Team and arenas which are all to be found in the Jam Tournament Mode, while classic players from the past appear in Jam Legends mode. The Jam Legends has nice touches like being able to view the action in black and white and retro music playing when a dunk is successful. The only player missing is Michael Jordan, who it appears was never licensed to appear in any of the older games and this seems to still be true in the current one. However there is also a Create A Player mode in the game, which is pretty much mandatory these days. I’m sure more creative types can build any players they feel have been unjustly left out.
The basic game sees you play through Jam Tournament, matching your team against the other real-life teams. The on-court action is limited to three players on each side, and if you are playing alone (although more can join in as the game is multi-tap compatible), you must switch from one active player to another, while the AI takes care of the other two players’ decisions. You basically have to score more baskets than the other team, but extra points are accrued for doing it in a stylish way. So you can perform alley-oops, special poses in mid-air, use hotspots to score spectacular baskets and if a player manages to score three consecutive baskets without the other side scoring in-between he catches fire, and becomes almost unstoppable at offence and defence for 60 seconds, or until the other side score. The controls are simple, with a turbo for running faster, passing, some basic “juking” and blocking moves and of course the shooting and alley-oops. During the game you can score Jam points which fill up a meter at the top of the screen, the more flashy you are the faster this meter fills. Once full you can press R3 to lay a “hotspot” and perform a spectacular dunk. There are no rules enforced during the game either (except for Goaltending), so you can knock players down and snatch the ball with impunity. The better you do, the more Jam Points you get to spend in the Jam Store, where you can purchase extra things like special play areas.
Graphically this game is rather poor for a supposed next generation title. The character models are exaggerated with huge “clown feet” and big bulbous heads, which makes the gargoyle like nature of the players face photographs pasted on the heads even more noticeable. To be honest they looked and moved liked something you would find in an N64 game. Twitchy and all jostling around what, to my untutored eye looked like a court the size of a tea tray. Each time you perform some special move or do an “alley oop”” your player leaps in the air without bending at the knee first making the whole thing look like its being played in zero gravity. The commentary also seemed uninspired and just consisted of the man saying “so-and-so scored, yah!”. The uninspiring graphics and sound were not the only problems I had with the game. I don’t think it’s unfair of me to have a critical opinion of a game when I am unfamiliar with the sport upon which it is based. In the past I have played several sports games based on Tennis, Soccer, Golf and Snooker when in real life I find these sports about as interesting as visiting the launderette. In fact stripped of any nostalgia and expectations for the series, I think I can judge it purely on its gameplay merits, and to be frank I wasn’t very impressed.
Now I guess the “JAM” style is all about being fast and furious, but it seemed to diminish the game as much of the time I felt I was scoring not by skill, but by chance. The whole game seemed to feel like you were just racking up the baskets and waiting for those special metres to fill up. The huge players with their big feet suddenly “boinging” into the air looks quite frankly, lame and silly, and the AI can be very unforgiving. Many times the pad was downed in frustration as the AI opponents powered up, set themselves on fire and just became impossible to beat. They also play very roughly, knocking your players down and going super-offensive. With the game seemingly more designed towards offence than defence it becomes much trickier to form any kind defensive strategy. If the AI is controlling your other two players as well (i.e. you are playing single player), your team-mates seem to have a hard time spotting the best moment to knock in a basket when yours has rebounded off the hoop and are reluctant to dish out the same kind of violence the other team is merrily inflicting on you.
Each Quarter last three minutes and the shallowness of the gameplay really begins to drag as you realise you have pretty much been doing the same identical moves over and over, grab the ball, turbo up the baseline and dunk. The extra stuff like the hotspots and players on fire become very old and annoying quickly and the game really hurts for lack of available moves and any type of proper defensive play. Especially against the cheapness of the oppositions AI. Even played with human opponents the repetitiveness hurts the game. The players all seem to play pretty much identically so making a measured decision on how you construct your team becomes rather pointless. I have a hard time seeing the appeal of this game, for casual gamers like myself and my friends we found it to be boring and silly after a while. Perhaps a real Basketball nut would get a lot more out of the game than we did, but I would have thought that a fan of the game would prefer a more tactical and accurate representation of the sport, rather than this three-on-three joke that appears to take places on a trampoline.