When Sony took a year off from its NBA Shootout series, they tried to redesign the focus of the title to center around the gameplay and the flow of the sport. It’s an admirable decision; For the most part, sports franchises get a yearly installment that’s little more than a roster update or a moderate adjustment to gameplay. Instead of trotting out the standard features that you’d come to expect from other sports titles, Sony’s redesigned NBA game throws many of these out of the window in favor of funneling you towards their main experience: trying to give you a taste of NBA superstardom. Break out your bling and step onto the court, we’re going to experience the life of a basketball player with NBA 06: The Life Vol. 1.
As I mentioned, NBA 06 focuses upon three primary modes: NBA, The Life and Online. While the other features are ones that you might typically expect, The Life is the main thrust of this year’s game, placing you in the shoes of an up and coming basketball star fresh out of junior college. You’ll design the look of your star, known as the “Junco Kid,” with just about every single facet of their appearance before throwing them into the tryouts with your favorite team. Here, you’ll learn the basics of the game, such as performing crossovers, spins and other moves via the analog sticks, along with other steps. These are taught to you via drills and other exercises under the tutoring of your favorite team’s coaches, who run you through your paces before draft day when your character is finally selected. From there, your character tries to lead your squad to victory across an entire season, while attempting to secure endorsements, fight injuries and other cinematic moments.
Outside of the storyline presented in The Life, you’ll run into the other two game modes. NBA is the standard set of gameplay features that you expect in any sports title, where you can set up exhibition games, play a season or playoff games, among other features, although there’s no franchise mode to take on multiple seasons. You can also take on any one of the numerous mini-games featured in NBA 06, such as 21, Own The Court (which gives you points based on where you shoot the ball on the court) and the PlayStation Skills Challenge (a mix of shooting and ball handling skills). You also have the option to enter one of ten drills that emphasize your game skills as well, such as free throw shooting, three point drills, alley oops and defense. Many of the mini-games can be taken online, where you can challenge other players to matches. You can also enter tournaments and play against other teams, enter chat rooms or download updated rosters, amongst other features.
Apart from the storyline in The Life, there are two gameplay mechanics that take center stage in every single match. The first is the colored shot timer whenever your players take a shot on the goal. Many other basketball titles let you assume when the best time is to release the ball and take a shot based on character animation. NBA 06 highlights the ball with a red, yellow or green halo to give you an idea of when to fire off your shot, with green giving you the best chance of success. This indicator changes with distance (lay-ups and short range shots are always easier than three pointers) and the position of the player taking the shot (centers aren’t going to knock down nearly as many threes as point guards, if any).
The other feature is known as Showtime, and centers around both team play and high risk/high excitement maneuvers. Unlike other sports titles, NBA 06 places a premium on teamwork and making sure that other members of your squad get a chance to touch the ball. By spreading shooting opportunities around and passing the ball to other members of your team, the overall morale of the group goes up and your squadmates play the game much harder. By contrast, if you start hogging the ball, your teammates start to lose interest with what’s happening on the court, and they’ll start playing poorly. The other part of Showtime are those plays that constantly show up on the news and get people in the stands on their feet. By triggering no look passes or alley oops, you can boost the energy of your team significantly, making their next few trips up and down the court a bit stronger than the last. However, if your timing is off, either the ball will sail out of bounds or into the hands of the opposing team, so you have to pick the best time to try these moves.
While the game has been redesigned from the ground up, there are a couple of questionable touches that complicate the gameplay. While the game uses the haloing system for jump shots and other attempts on the basket, you’re not guaranteed success with a green-lit shot or even close up. I can’t count the number of lay-ups that I attempted that managed to fall short or even radically miss on fast breaks. Even shots that should be automatic for certain players, like Steve Nash with short range jump shots or Amare Stoudamire and dunks are guaranteed to brick more than once in a game. What’s more, why does it take an additional three seconds or so to have a player respond once they’ve tried to make a lay-up? They’re not throwing themselves out of the play, so why aren’t they able to make a play for the rebound? Similarly, you’ll notice a real issue with defense. Not only will your players have an extremely hard time performing defense, but also steals and other maneuvers are practically impossible to pull off. You can spend practically every second that the opposing squad has the ball pounding the steal button and not come close to having a successful attempt. Whether this is because the game disregards all of these presses or decides that you’re not in the proper location to pull of the move is unclear, but what is certain is that you’ll be frustrated more than once. This extends to other defensive plays also, so if you’re trying to put some pressure on a defender or block a shot, you’ll find that the responsiveness of the game is much less that what you’d like.
This wouldn’t seem like much of a problem until you realize how much it can affect gameplay in The Life storyline. Much of this mode plays out like a sequence of mini-games where you’re tasked with fulfilling a certain amount of goals to continue. While achieving more than your allotted goals unlocks jerseys, attribute points or other features, failing one of these items will require you to start a section all over again. Just imagine how long it might take you to pass a section requiring you to score 8 points, make two assists, steal a ball and win the game in 45 seconds…What’s more, once you finally pass this section, you’ll wind up back in another mini-game that might be as complicated as the last, if not more. Believe me, there will be a number of times that you’ll probably wind up walking away from this game for more than an hour or so because you’ll become extremely frustrated with the objectives of this mode. It’s a shame too, because the storyline and the concept behind The Life is actually pretty good – maybe next year’s version will carry out the gameplay and the story much better. Then again, maybe it’ll also give you the option to be more than just a point guard that is funneled towards a specific outcome.
The presentation of NBA 06 is somewhat of a mixed bag; some of the game animations can be iffy, while the cinematics and the cutscene presentation of some moves are quite nice. For instance, in the midst of a game, you’ll run into some pretty ugly moves when you try to steal the ball – flailing arms from a defender into an opposing squad that don’t seem to draw a foul or make contact with the ball itself. You’ll also notice balls that seem to get sucked to a player’s hand or players that seems to skate across the floor instead of run. On the other hand, a number of the special moves, such as the jukes and spins look extremely nice, and performing dunks lead to cinematic framing of the event so you can rub it in your friend’s face (or simply talk smack to the screen if you’re playing the computer). Many of The Life’s cinematics are as impressive, and fortunately there are a lot of them in between mini-games to extend the story. Unfortunately, the cutscenes have rather long load times, and there are a couple of sequences where you’ll go through one scene only to run into another loading screen before leaping into the next cutscene. This interrupts the flow of the game significantly. While the sound effects of the game, particularly the voice acting, are pretty good, the lack of play by play and the drowning in repetitious song play back can be somewhat disappointing.
In the year that it was away, NBA 06 included a new story mode that’s rather engaging, but hampered by the mini-game presentation that advances the plot of the game. Along with odd gameplay glitches and a less than effective shooting mechanic, NBA 06 is a good starting place for the franchise to expand from, but this year’s title is best for hardcore basketball fans only.