I haven’t had this much fun with an NBA pseudo-franchise game since the glory days of NBA Jam on my SNES. Where NBA JAM allowed for 2-on-2 on a regular arena court, NBA Ballers takes it to the street, with playground courts and novelty game areas featured within the residences of some of the NBA’s most ostentatiously glamorous players. Within this premise of over-the-top glitz and backyard, backboard showboating, NBA Ballers lives up to its namesake definition in a light but effective materialistic press into the aspiring b-boy lifestyle.
One of the things that turns Ballers into the layman’s game of basketball is the pervasive one-on-one matchup in nearly every play selection. You’ve got your practice area, which allows for much-needed familiarization with the move buttons, combo scoring, and power-up augmenters. If you’ve got a few buddies to head up against, you can hit the Versus mode, or the 1v1v1 mode for a chaotic mixer with three players if you’re one of the rare possessors of a PS2 multi-tap. Aside from the quick pickup and play modes, there are two different sections that feature a progressive theme: TV Tournament, and Rags to Riches.
TV Tournament is almost what you’d expect from any other laddered competition. Start off with an NBA all-star of your choice, which includes a pre-determined skill set, in order to defeat your constituent NBA opponents in best-of-three matches. As you move forward in victory, you will open up small rewards for your successes, such as magazine covers featuring famous faces, or a strange selection of tawdry trinkets (my favorite was a 3-D rendered robot that transformed into a backboard and hoop). Rags to Riches has a more storied edge to it. The premise is a faux reality TV show, following the rise to fame and riches from a street hoop junkie to parcade floor player. The game is more flexible in this mode, allowing for the creation of your very own character (and all the hideous, aesthetic mutations you want to inflict on him) and strength stats. In both the Tournament and Rags to Riches corners, you’ll be tested to come up with some bank, filling a jackpot by completing various moves and combos and following them with a successful basket. Rack up enough cash, and you can buy yourself into sheik-dom with multi-million dollar penthouses and tricked-out big bodies.
Play selection seems a little light so far, right? Well that’s where watching the player moves, handling, and smack-talking body language come into play. There’s nothing so self-aggrandizing as lone hoopster trying to deke out his singular opponent. After all, it’s all about showing them up. Many of these back-spinning glides and fake-outs are not just a means to the net, but score valuable points in a jackpot that sits unclaimed until someone sinks the rock. There’s even a collection of versatile, time-slowing “Act A Fool” moves that create a diversionary moment for your player by utilizing the ball to confuse the defender. Once you’re finished amassing those combos, you can take it to the hole in any number of different ways. Lay-ups are a proud norm, but should you want to exercise a bit more flair, there are also swank dunks and ally oops (the process of tossing the ball ahead of yourself and flowing up behind it for a classy dunk). There’s even a curbside homage to the get-and-go maneuver, but instead of passing to a teammate in order to have them pass it back, a sideline friend will call out to assist and either clear the ball for you, or even set up a very scenic ally-oop from the outside. Now if only the many, many load times could be as smooth and unobtrusive...
The move set works very well and there is quite the breadth in diversity. The actual controls seem to stumble a bit on themselves though, despite the clever antics they manipulate on-screen. First off, nothing bothers me more than transitional inaccuracy – that is, the movement of a character model from one position to the next. Whether it’s a simple stand-to-run, or the speed with which the character responds, it all determines, in relatively large gradients, the quality of the play experience. For instance, when my character would get into a flashy move or was trying to steal the ball, the follow-through and inexact motions would only make me vulnerable and prime pickin’ for the near-flawless AI (no matter the game’s difficulty setting, I might add). I also had a bit of a problem with the inflexible controller layout. Many of the button configurations were awkward at best when trying to execute fancy combos, and certainly did not lend themselves to intuitiveness – a sad fact considering that you’re encouraged to experiment with button combinations to find new hidden moves, and very few are actually handed to you as a reward for advancement.
While you’re taking on the difficulty in managing the controller layout, you can gaze upon a very competent usage of the Renderware engine. For all that actually getting the characters on-screen to do what you want them to is a job-and-a-half, movement is as fluid as in real life and carries an appropriate weight. The body mapping in particular is impressive. No cookie-cutter mustaches or muscle structures here. It seems as if every featured NBA rock star in Ballers was given the loving attention they would demand anyway, as there’s no mistaking the squinted eyes of Dajuan Wagner or the ambiguous whiteness of Jason Kidd.
Part of the playful goofiness of NBA Ballers comes out in the announcers’ account of court circumstance. There’s a gray-haired pompadour with a lounge-singer complex smarming up the round openings, and MC Supernatural lends his hip-hop distinction to the b-ball ambience. He even does a half-hearted music video when the game is turned on, but it does warm the blood to a money-laced hoop frenzy. Alongside the background noises and audience response, there’s a pretty good collection of rap artists and DJ mixes, all of which are NBA Baller-exclusive, which span the talent listing from Phife Dawg (a member of the woefully disbanded Tribe Called Quest) to one of my all-time faves, Jurassic 5. Planting these poetic naturals in the midst of a street ball game was as classy a touch as could be included.
This is, without a doubt, a very slick game. There’s plenty to like in the long game with tournament matches taking great stretches of time in short segments, as well as keeping it entertaining within a quick start-up game. The questionable control scheme, coupled with some cheap AI catch-up, doesn’t hamper the play experience enough to bring it down. Figuring out a player’s moves is definitely a challenge, and if the time is put into it, the consequential familiarity and skill will pay out in set after winning set. The online capabilities (broadband only) present very little deviation from the home-play design, in that you’re still only challenging one other person – it’s just that they’re many miles away. Still, sitting around at home by yourself or with friends, you won’t need too much more than a couple different forums in which to compete, and some down-and-dirty jive moves to heckle the opposition. In the colorful vein of basketball novelties, Midway has put together a cleverly executed, entertaining, and even garishly fashionable sprint through the playground court.