The PSP is no stranger to the yearly sports update cycle; just over six months have passed since the handheld launched in the U.S., and the unit has already received its second basketball update for the start of the season. Much like its console brethren, this updated version features a number of formula changes, including tweaks to the gameplay, added features and improved graphics. But is this a slam dunk, or a brick from downtown? Lace up your high tops and get ready to step on the portable court as we check out NBA ’06 from Sony.
Like most sports games, NBA ’06 gives you a number of game modes to jump into, such as quick play of online games against opponents, all-star matches and exhibition games. While these are designed to get you into faster games, some of the other modes are designed with length in mind, allowing you to set up ladder matches or tournaments to pit your team against. Of course, this is somewhat similar to the option to play games in the playoffs mode, which give you the option of best of 3, 5 or 7 games or single elimination matches. Of course, the primary thrust behind the game itself is in the season mode, which gives you the chance to adjust the number of games a franchise will play, the potential players you’ll have on a squad, and number of matches you’ll simulate or take over.
Perhaps you’re not looking to leap onto the court right away. You’ll have the option to mess around in the five mini-games, many of which return from the previous game. Players will have the option to take on the 3-Point Contest or the Skills Challenge like the ones during the All-Star Game weekend, or play Own the Court where a successful shot will shade a section of the court in your color. There are two new games this time around which are just as addictive and are exactly what they sound like: Horse and Dodgeball. Horse is an accurate recreation of that classic game where you have to make the exact shot that your opponent has made or you gain a letter. Of course, the first one to Horse loses. Dodgeball, on the other hand, sections the court up with a few players on either side of a dividing line. Your objective is to literally tag all of the opponent’s players out with the basketball just like you would in a Phys. Ed. class. I’m sure you can imagine just how painful that must feel to have a basketball to the head.
Visually, NBA ’06 is a lot slicker. There are many more animations that flow from one move to the next, and you get a sense that the teams on the court are playing a game of basketball naturally rather than stick figures that move rigidly. This is particularly true with the animated dunks, which feel powerful and energetic as they sweep towards the basket. You’ll also notice that there are a number of additional shooting animations for fadeaways, turnaround jumpers and other shots. The trading card system in the previous game has also been tweaked to provide a more “action-oriented” sense to the feature. Now, if you perform certain moves, such as monster slams or key three-pointers, you’ll trigger the card system, which will automatically be saved to the memory stick. While it’s a visually intriguing concept, it doesn’t work as well as it should. First of all, the character models don’t look as great as they need to be to make the cards worthwhile. Second, the cards themselves wind up slowing down the game as it breaks up the action on the court, as well as sucking up a ton of memory as each card loads onto the disk. Third, there’s really nothing that the cards are used for. If you could use them to unlock something, that’d be a reason to keep the system. Unfortunately, this is simply for show.
At least there’s an improvement in the sound. NBA ’06 hosts play-by play from Ian Eagle, who does his best to follow the on-court action. This is a significant improvement from the previous title, which simply provided arena announcements as to fouls and free throws. Now the game feels more cohesive thanks to Eagle’s commentary. Apart from that, you’re facing a number of standard basketball sounds, such as shoe squeaks and the echo of the basketball as it bounces along the floor or bounces off the rim. The soundtrack is somewhat shallow though, so you’ll probably find yourself getting tired of listening to the same songs over and over again. I’d love to see next year’s version include custom soundtracks from your memory stick to vary these songs up.
Gameplay has been tweaked as well, with the most significant change coming in the shooting mechanic. Thankfully dismissed is the multiple button press mechanic from the launch title. Instead, players are presented with the hold and release system that most console players have come to expect. This is matched up with the previous game’s halo system to indicate the chance of success with that particular shot: Green for good to perfect timing, yellow is a 50/50 chance and red for bad or off timing. While this is a pretty decent gauge of whether or not a basket will count, it’s not infallible. You’ll still have moments where the game will disregard well timed shots in favor of screwy off balance jumpers.
The game itself moves at a much faster pace considering thanks to minor tweaks to the AI and the play calling system. The previous title had 8 possible plays that could be called with a number of complex button presses that weren’t necessarily worth the time or the energy to call. NBA ’06 simplifies this by limiting the number of plays to 4 specific calls during certain situations, leaving the rest of the burden in the hands of the AI itself. These plays are relatively straightforward, directing players to run baseline for a pass or a shot, post up, set a pick or send a cutter into the lane. All of these are accessible via the directional pad, and are much easier to trigger.
While this is a significant improvement to play, the game seems to have slid backwards in other areas. For instance, I’d really like to know why these professionals randomly stop dribbling the ball, typically in the most inopportune moments. You’ll try to set up a play, only to watch your point guards travel because no one is available for a pass and you’re too far away to shoot the ball reasonably. Similarly, juke moves have somehow become relatively ineffective in the game, with the defense somehow able to pick up on them every single time, and defensive swats at the ball result in fouls much more than they would in a real game.
However, the one that really takes the cake is the lack of recognition by your teammates of what the other team is doing, such as an opponent driving to the basket or cutting around a teammate to get open. Most of the time, these players will simply stand still, watching your opponent score on you. Unfortunately, all of this conspires to force you to manually switch between every single player on the court so you can try to make every single play, using icon passing to attempt to get out of trouble when your athletes pick up the ball and switching furiously to try to block every shot. This is exhausting, unrealistic, and merely a sample of the ridiculous activity happening on the court. In fact, problems like this literally will send you towards playing the mini-games more, because you’re not saddled with these problems. Finally, I’m still looking for the elimination of stupid trades in seasonal play. I see no reason for the game to allow me to build up a team of Yankee-like superstars for my franchise without any other team objecting or refusing these trades, or the deals of the contracts being so exorbitant that my budget implodes. It’s completely unbelievable.
NBA ’06 is definitely improved over the launch title, with a number of smoother animations, two new mini-games and simpler gameplay mechanics. However, the sometimes idiotic AI on your team and nonsensical limitations on jukes or cleanly driving to the lane without picking up the ball will make any basketball fan call for a technical foul on this title.