With EA’s high octane NBA Street series taking a breather this season, the court was wide open for Midway’s NBA Ballers to not only make its Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 debut, but steal impatient Street fans away from their beloved Gamebreakers. If Midway needed a free throw to ensure raising the 2008 arcade basketball game banner, they opted for a mid-court three instead and clanged the iron as time expired.
Tracing the history of Ballers to the glorious NBA Jam days brings back the novelty and excitement of playing fast-paced up and down arcade basketball. Somewhere between then and now the simplicity of pickup basketball games has become bogged down in complex controls, bling and flashy style. Nowhere is this transformation more evident than in Midway’s misguided attempt to be “hip” with NBA Ballers: Chosen One.
Mentioning “hip” and “sports” in the same sentence describes news coverage at ESPN, which Midway has emulated to guide the Chosen One story mode through a fictitious NBA summer league. None other than Public Enemy’s Chuck D takes a seat on an ESPN-inspired set to narrate a young unknown baller’s (you) progress through the league’s six chapters a.k.a. tournaments in hopes of cracking the NBA ranks. The whole HD presentation is flashy and remarkably polished, leaving you wondering how much money it sucked out from the game development budget.
“Hip” design infiltrates gameplay as well where the art of scoring baskets has been overrun by the necessity to perform jazzy combos in hopes of building up the Super Move meter. Once the first tier of this meter is reached, you can activate one of approximately 30 unlockable Super Move and enjoy a roughly 10-second movie of your player break dancing or performing some other ludicrous contortion which you can’t interact with or interrupt.
At the completion of a Super Move, you’ll come barreling out of the cut-scene back into the gameplay screen with no idea of your player’s orientation to the hoop. The dizzying effect coming out of a Super Move is exacerbated on defense where it’s near impossible to get your bearings before the offensive player is celebrating a dunk.
What ends up happening game after game is to beat the harder pros and chapter bosses in the later chapters, you find yourself doing nothing but combos in hopes of reaching the third and final tier of the Super Move meter that, when activated, will all but win the game for you. The desire to shoot three’s, post up or attempt fancy passes is all thrown out the window, replaced with context-sensitive button sequences to perform combos bringing the game to a halt each time. At least in NBA Street the combos required to build up to a Gamebreaker were part of the game and not a sideshow mini-game with no relevance to basketball.
Even if you chose to shun combos and remain true to arcade basketball’s roots playing against someone willing to do the same, the rebounding mechanics will launch your blood pressure into the stratosphere. Not only is rebounding difficult to time or get in proper position for, but the inclusion of no ball checks will seriously result in a CPU player or aggressive human opponent dunking from under the basket, catching his own dunk, dunking again, and repeating until he’s won the game. Unless he blows the dunk, there’s nothing you can do except jump around him like a crazed monkey trying to grab an out-of-reach banana.
Many of the visuals sure feel ripped out of a Playstation 2 build for a game designed exclusively for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Player face likenesses are relatively spot-on as screenshots had previously confirmed. Anything beyond a face reeks of having been rendered on a last-gen gaming console. Player’s jerseys are as stiff and lifeless as a corpse in a morgue. Imaginative and creative court design is let down by a lack texturing, detail and realistic coloring; all areas NBA Street Homecourt shines in. In fact, the visual disparity between the two rivals is so vast there’s no foundation from which to build a comparison.
EA is just as guilty for steering arcade basketball games into the age of “hip” as much as Midway is. While EA continues to improve the NBA Street series despite the ongoing inclusion of Gamebreakers, Midway further distances itself from the fundamentals of arcade basketball that made NBA Jam so fun to begin with.
– Dan Bradley