If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a huge sports fan. Typically, if I’m not sitting down playing a game or writing a review, you’ll often find me in a gym or a field competing against friends in some team based activity. Now that Winter is starting to come on stronger (and football season is starting to wind down to the all-important post season race), I’ve found myself moving away from turf and more towards the court, where I can use my jump shot both on and off the court. (Plus there’s still a ton of B-Ball left to go in this season.) Trying to provide a nice fix for basketball addicts like myself, Konami tips off with their release of NBA Starting Five.
Konami took a different tack on basketball games, attempting to emphasize the game rather than on extras or other features. To this end, you’ll discover the gameplay options kept to the basics. Aside from the Exhibition mode and Quick Start for fast gameplay, there’s the standard Season mode for the full experience of the NBA, or Playoff mode for people who want the challenge of post-season play. There are two other modes, both of which incorporate elements of the behind the scenes action into gameplay. Front Office mode allows you to check on team rosters, sign and trade players, or create your own players to ball with. Franchise mode takes this a little bit further, giving you up to 25 years to establish a dynasty with a team of your choosing.
Visually, Starting Five is adequate for a next-generation basketball game, but not outstanding. The character models are all very large, and animate decently based upon onscreen action. Similarly, stadium and court representations are rather nice, such as plenty of sliding courtside ads along the scoring table. However, there are some hang-ups that cast a few shadows upon the play. But many of the players look absolutely nothing like their real-life counterparts. It might not seem to be a major problem for some of the lesser-known players on teams, but when you notice that some of the stars of the league don’t resemble themselves, it’s rather distracting.
There’s a definite quirk to the backboards as well, because every slam seems to have a seam from the San Andreas Faultline running underneath it. A finesse dunk from Tracy McGrady, for example, should not have the same power as a two-handed power slam from Shaquille O’Neal, yet every dunk looks like a player is going to rip a backboard down to the ground. Additionally, you’ll find that the crowd animations seem way too robotic and lifeless, something that can catch your eye and stand out as a glaring issue. With all of these issues, it’s interesting that the camera and camera angles for replays are actually rather good, providing just enough coverage for current action while rapidly providing good tracking for fast breaks.
Starting Five also comes with the (seemingly) pre-requisite hip hop soundtrack that every recent basketball game has come with, but it, and many of the other sounds are of such minor consequence that you really won’t pay any attention to it whatsoever. The most prevalent sound, outside of the squeaks of sneakers, bouncing of balls or bricking of shots, is the two-man commentary, which, similar to the graphics, is adequate. The commentators do a decent job of following along with the action, throwing out quips and statements here and there. However, with a ton of repetition from these observers, you’ll probably tune them out and try to focus on gameplay.
That is, what little gameplay there is to accurately focus upon. Control and gameplay are rather poor within this title, with tons of problems rife throughout the entire game. Let’s first look at the Franchise and Front Office Modes. Having the Front Office Mode is basically unnecessary, because any drafts, trades or signings you’re going to do in-game can be taken care of during Franchise or even Season mode (which doesn’t end once the season is over, but practically continues as a de facto Franchise mode setting). Secondly, trades within the game are typically way too farfetched for anyone with any common sense to take rationally. No one would trade A-list talent, or, for that matter, any starters for random, unworthy, or computer generated players. I don’t care how good he might have been, I’d never trade a Jason Kidd or Allen Iverson for Vlade Divac in a million years. Come to think of it, the way he’s attacking the boards, I wouldn’t trade Vlade at all. But you’ll have nonsensical deals like these offered to you all the time. It may be said that the largest reason to have the Front Office Mode is for the Create-A-Player option, but that could’ve been separated out as its own feature. As it is currently, it’s way too slow and full of non-effective stats and skills to be a contribution to play.
During games, the fast-paced action that you’ll find in the NBA gets dragged to a halt as soon as a ball handler touches another character. Without fail, any momentum that you might have had is immediately lost as players pull up from their positions and essentially get stuck on each other before movement continues. This often forces you to continually pass the ball around to someone that you hope has the least amount of coverage so you can progress further towards your basket.
The low post position is practically a joke for three reasons. First, passing into the lane usually isn’t as effective at drawing players to your centers so you can pop a pass back to the perimeter for a jump shot. While there are numerous offensive and defensive plays that you can call, the momentum problem that I spoke of earlier renders them practically useless. Second, players can remain in the lane for more than three seconds, forcing an actual violation call to seem to be a miracle. Often, your largest player can remain in the lane so long, an arena can charge him rent. Third, rebounding is ineffective and unbalanced to where your players will rarely manage to get their hands on the ball, even if they’ve got a prime position to grab a loose ball.
The computer, for some reason, doesn’t have this problem, and can often vacuum up most balls from errant shots. I say most because there are a few that fall through the cracks here and there, but because both computer and human controlled players will often stand around looking at a free ball from an errant pass or shot instead of going after it, the imbalance really stands out. Shooting jump shots, or lay-ups seems to be locked in at a solid 50% accuracy rate no matter who the player is or even, at times, where they are on the court. Certain NBA players (and I won’t mention names) couldn’t hit a three pointer if the basket was as big as the Pacific Ocean, and yet somehow in Starting Five, they’ll randomly pull one out of thin air. You might actually want to mark those times down, because 3 point specialists won’t even hit from downtown, no matter how open they are. You might as well get used to keeping the game down to lay-ups and jump shots.
Overall, if you’re looking for the worthy successor to Konami’s venerated Double Dribble, NBA Starting Five isn’t a worthy heir. It really isn’t even a bastard child. With basic options and glaring gameplay flaws, players would be hard pressed to go out and pick up Starting Five, especially with much better titles such as NBA Shootout, NBA Live and NBA 2K3 on the market.