As just about every gamer knows, basketball games are an inevitable part of any hardware launch. Not only is it a competitive sport that appeals to casual and hardcore gamers alike, it’s a relatively easy game that can demonstrate the capabilities of a new system. So it’s no surprise that one of the launch titles for Sony’s PSP would focus on hoops. 989 Studios took on the task of miniaturizing its B-Ball franchise onto the newly launched handheld. Now stepping onto the PSP courts, a rookie from 989 Studios is NBA.
If you’ve played one of the NBA Shootout titles on the PS2, you’re probably accustomed to the initial setup presented in the PSP version. NBA offers four game modes that console players will recognize: Practice, which gives you a chance to hone your shooting skills with your team. Exhibition pits two teams against each other in a no stakes contest. Playoffs focuses specifically on bracket play at the end of a sports year to determine a champion, and Season play gives you the opportunity to choose a number of games to play through, up to and including all 82 games of a normal season. Apart from these standard options, players can choose Quick Match, which randomly selects two teams to play with, Online play via Ad Hoc or Infrastructure Wi-Fi modes, or Mini-Games.
The Mini-Games act both as a diversionary feature and a skill training mode, giving you unorthodox ways to sharpen your ball skills without constantly battling in the paint. The first one is a Three-Point Shootout, where up to eight players can fight it out to knock down as many threes as possible in sixty seconds. This continues until the most successful player is crowned. Next comes a game called Paint, where the court is divided into sections worth one, two or three points. Players have one minute to take a shot from any one of these areas: knocking down a shot earns you the point from that area and colors that part of the hardwood red or blue. Whoever has the most points at the end wins. Finally, there’s the 989 Skills challenge, which measures a player’s dribbling, passing and shooting skills around an obstacle course. The player with the fastest time wins the challenge.
During a match, players will have access to a playbook hosting 8 different plays from a number of floor locations. This gives you a chance to set up your offense exactly the way you want it so you can score from any spot on the court. One thing that is radically different from other basketball titles is the shooting mechanic. Unlike other games, players will have to press the shooting button twice: Once to set up the shot, and again to release the ball from your player’s hands. While other titles emphasize releasing the ball at the apex of a jump, NBA focuses upon a timing system. As you line up a shot, an indicator above your athlete’s head changed from red to yellow to green and back again. Releasing the ball when it’s green gives you the best chance at making a shot, while firing during red is almost a guaranteed miss.
At least, that’s the initial concept of how the game is supposed to work. In reality, the shooting mechanic is highly flawed. First of all, the two-button press mechanic, one that has essentially been retired from basketball games for a number of years, didn’t need to be engaged for this game. Secondly, while the color mechanic should give gamers a good indication as to when they should fire the ball, it isn’t always accurate. In fact, it’s more than possible to completely miss perfectly timed shots and make red-marked attempts. Thirdly, you’re not constantly going to see this indicator during every attempted basket. Players with defenders jumping in their face or players driving the lane won’t even have this meter show up, so you won’t really know whether or not your on target or radically off until the ball bounces off the rim (if that).
Speaking of driving the lane, the animation and the decision to make a lay up or a dunk feels so arbitrary that it’s practically impossible to tell which one you’re going to attempt until the character is up in the air. Even when a player has left the floor, you’re not guaranteed to make the basket, a particularly infuriating situation on fast breaks. This is something that can happen quite frequently, as there are practically no advantages for the game defensively. Not only are there no plays designed for the defense, but players will also often notice that athletes will stand still without moving to intercept an opposing player, leaving the basket completely open to be scored on.
The AI is truly abominable in this respect, with a number of glitchy responses taking the place of actual full court presses, double teams or other maneuvers. Apart from these gameplay issues, there are other issues with NBA, most specifically with the season mode. To be specific, the mode doesn’t truly do justice to other sports titles. Injuries and trades are handled, albeit weakly, and a lot of the other facets of seasonal play that have been included in sports games, like managing your franchise are woefully absent. What’s more, injuries and trades make no sense whatsoever. A player will go down with an injury for no apparent reason, which can be really confusing when you’re in the stretch of a season. Even wilder, you can trade average or bad players for stars without the opposing team even batting an eye, which is unrealistic and unpractical.
During play, you’ll pick up on an interesting contradiction of the game presentation. Closeups, primarily those during lay ups, dunks or specific moves that highlight special aspects of play, show off a good attention to detail with capturing the NBA player’s faces. However, during gameplay, it’s practically impossible to tell the difference between some athletes on the floor, resulting in a jumbled mess. In fact, it’s pretty typical to find your players often getting stuck on each other or meshing together, not giving you a chance to accurately pass or shoot in any way because the animations collapse into a bug-ridden mess.
Sound really isn’t any better, unfortunately; in fact, it’s almost non-existent in the game. Sure, there’s squeaks of sneakers on the hardwood floor, the clang of the ball as it bounces off the rim, and the echo of the ball hitting the court, but apart from that, there’s relatively little sound included in the game. You’ll detect a couple of crowd sounds, like cheering and some arena music, but for the most part, you’re playing in silence. Hell, there isn’t even play-by-play – essentially, you’re only getting possession calls.
Considering that this is the first basketball title on the PSP, you’d really hope that the sport came out with a slam dunk. Unfortunately, NBA comes across more like an air ball or a hard brick off the backboard. A limited seasonal play, shoddy AI and an inaccurate shooting mechanic has NBA riding the pine instead of charging the court. Definitely for the fanatical B-Ball player only.