The NBA may feature the best basketball in the world, but it’s certainly not the only game of hoops worth watching. Far beyond the bright lights of NBA arenas in various public street courts across America, a much grittier version of roundball is being played. Though not having multi-million dollar contracts or lucrative endorsement deals, players who take part in this ‘underground’ basketball movement still play with a passion and talent that often rivals what is seen in pro hoops. Famous street ballers like Hot Sauce, AO and Headache are at the heart of this movement, traveling across the country with the And 1 Mix Tape Tour and wowing people with their incredible roundball skills. In an effort to capture the spirit of this unglamorous, yet highly entertaining brand of basketball in a videogame, Activision hired Black Ops to develop Street Hoops for all three next gen systems. While a solid effort that does many things right, Black Ops’ b-ball game trips up in a few key areas and fails to surpass the great NBA Street 2 in graphical polish and gameplay depth.
If you’ve seen an And 1 Mix Tape video, you know that street ball is all about style. Whether it be dribbling between an opponent’s legs, performing a kick pass or tossing a half court alley-oop to your teammate, the goal in street hoops is always the same: humiliate your defender while giving the crowd something to marvel at. The gameplay engine in Street Hoops manages to capture this quite well. When on offense you have the typical shoot, pass, crossover and spin move control scheme, but by depressing the R trigger you enter Mad Skillz mode and all those face buttons suddenly perform crazy dribbling techniques, wicked passes and other flashy moves. The control setup is easily learned, so in no time flat you will be breaking ankles, cutting to the rim and posterizing (ie – dunking viciously over) your opponents like they didn’t exist.
If you want to step outside the three point line and drop a few treys on the opposition, you’ll find it somewhat tougher than taking it to the rim, as even skilled shooters will seem to miss a bit too often. But, after some practice with shot release timing and using Mad Skillz moves to get some separation from your defender, you’ll be draining threes with good consistency. Dishing the rock can be done with the traditional ‘point towards the nearest teammate and push the pass button’ method, or you may use the right analog stick for on the fly directional passes if you are so inclined. It’s good that Black Ops included both passing mechanics for gamers to choose; the more options, the better. In general, the offensive gameplay mechanics in Street Hoops are handled very well and rival those found in Electronic Arts’ excellent NBA Street.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the defense. Or should I say, lack of defense. Stopping somebody (either the computer or a human player) from dunking on you every time down the court is an exercise in extreme frustration. Blocking is especially hard to do. Even if you wait underneath the basket with a tall player and time your block attempt perfectly, 90% of the time you will miss the ball and get slammed on. This is intensely frustrating for me, as I pride myself in being an excellent shot blocker (in b-ball videogames and in real life). Besides blocking, you always have the option of swiping at the ball or performing a brutal hand check, but neither of these maneuvers is a match for the vast number of Mad Skillz moves that the offense has at their disposal. It really is a shame that defense is handled so poorly in Street Hoops, as it sullies the positive points of the game’s offensive gameplay mechanics.
There are three main game modes in Street Hoops: World Tournament, Lord of the Court and Pick Up Game. World Tournament plays out similarly to the real life And 1 Mix Tape Tour, allowing you to travel the country and hoop it up at various famous street venues in major cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. The Lord of the Court mode is similar to the survival mode found in many fighting games; you simply try to win as many consecutive games as you can against a variety of different challengers. Both of these game modes allow you to earn cash and unlock miscellaneous goodies, such as new players and courts. The Pick Up Game mode is Street Hoops’ exhibition mode, where you play full or half court games with 5 on 5, 3 on 3 or 1 on 1 player match-ups.
One of the most unique things about the game is the number of activities that can be done off the basketball court. In each of Street Hoops’ three modes, before you start a match you are given the option to explore (via menu) a virtual ‘street,’ complete with a pawn shop, Foot Action, barber shop, check cashing store and tattoo parlor. At these various shops you can spend your hard-earned cash on superficial items like new hairdos, tattoos, jewelry (a true street balla’s gotta have some bling bling), shoes and clothes. In a nice touch of realism, the Foot Action store actually carries clothing and kicks from major manufacturers such as Ecko, And 1, Triple Five Soul, Snoop Dogg Clothing Co. and Fila. Undoubtedly, the most useful place to visit is the Check Cashing joint, as there you can bet money on various aspects (like who will win, have the lead at halftime, hit the most three pointers, etc.) of your upcoming game and hopefully earn some extra scrilla. Exploring this stereotypical street is actually more entertaining than it sounds, as buying various gear for your team allows you to add a nice touch of personalization to your street ballers.
Graphically, Street Hoops is just slightly better than average. It’s wholly obvious that Black Ops developed the game for the lowest common denominator amongst next gen systems (ie – the PlayStation 2), so the texture quality for the characters and courts is muddled and unimpressive. The polygonal count for the character models is not nearly as high as in NBA Street 2, but the players are covered with a good number of details like caps, bandanas, jewelry, tattoos, etc. Real life street ballers like Booger, Half Man Half Amazing and Main Event are represented well in the game, so you’ll be able to quickly recognize them during gameplay. Easily the strongest asset of the game’s player models is their animations. Shooting, dunking, dribbling and other maneuvers are very smooth and multiple trick moves string together with convincing fluidity.
The courts themselves feature a wide range of actual locations, including Rucker Park, Venice Beach, Mosswood and Jackson Park (among others), and are modeled accurately, if mundanely. The sparse crowds, cars, trees, buildings and other background elements are textured in the same blurry style seen in the player models and courts. Overall, there really isn’t one area in the game where visuals truly stand out. It would have been nice to see at least some of the Xbox’s hardware muscle used in the game’s development, and maybe Black Ops will do so with the recently announced sequel – Street Hoops 2.
Thankfully, the audio presentation in the game is much more impressive than the visuals. Activision acquired the rights to a number of famous hip-hop artists, such as Cypress Hill, Method Man/Redman, Master P, Ludacris, DMX and Xzibit, and the soundtrack complements the attitude of the game perfectly. There are even multiple music videos included from the afore mentioned artists, so when you get tired of hooping it up you can sit back and pretend you’re tuned into MTV or BET. Of course, no matter how good the music is it will always grow old after extensive replay, so luckily Black Ops decided to throw in custom soundtrack support. There’s nothing quite like balling with three friends as G Love and Special Sauce’s “Shooting Hoops” plays in the background. It reminds me of summer days spent with buddies down at the local park, sipping Mike’s Hard Lemonade and running the courts for hours straight…
Where was I? Oh yes, the audio. The announcing in the game is typical for a street ball game – loud and obnoxious. It will grate on the nerves after a while, but you can turn it off if it becomes too much of an annoyance. Crowd cheers, traffic passing by, player chatter and other ambient noise is all good quality and keeps you immersed in the gritty street atmosphere of the game. The actual basketball sound effects are spot on and do their job admirably.
In the end, Steet Hoops is a decent game that handles the abrasive, urban atmosphere of street ball well, but doesn’t quite match up to the likes of NBA Street 2 when it comes to gameplay or visuals. Fans of the And 1 Mix Tapes will likely have a blast playing with real street hoopsters like Hot Sauce and The Main Event, but casual basketball fans will probably find the lack of defense too big a flaw to overlook. Street Hoops does do quite a few things right and there is much hope for the sequel, but until then I would strongly advise giving the game a trial rental before shelling out any more than ten or fifteen dollars on its purchase.