Sony Computer Entertainment built a solid foundation in NBA 07 on PlayStation 3 last year, most notably with the innovative all-new Game of the Week mode and stunning, albeit squeaky clean, 1080p visuals. This year, expectations ran high for all-around improvements in the sophomore entry, NBA 08. Some of those expectations were met, but most missed the memo and failed to show at the arena.
Some of the subtle adjustments in NBA 08 have been applied to gameplay, an area needing it most. The opposing team’s AI is now much quicker to react to the ball and other players’ positions, making it more difficult to pass the ball around or to gain a good post-up position. Sometimes this relentless pursuit is on par with how real NBA players shadow their opponents, while at other times it can be unrealistically impossible to reach certain areas on the court with match-ups that statistically call for a different result. The AI’s new quicker reaction to players’ movements also boosts the number of steals into unrealistic territory.
Animations like fast breaks and taking charges have also been tweaked; for better or for worse. Unlike in NBA 07, taking a charge leaves the defender frozen for a solid 2-3 seconds. If the opponent runs into him and takes the charge, great! If the defender goes into a charge position too early, the offensive player has time to go completely around before the defender is freed from the animation. This works as it makes defenders think twice rather than relying on abusing charges. Fast breaks, on the other hand, are a complete mess. Players in transition enter an overly complicated, almost slow-motion animation to catch a lead pass while running, breaking their forward momentum. Running at a breakneck pace, crucial to teams like the Phoenix Suns, is handled far better in NBA 2K8 and NBA Live.
Sixaxis controls have returned from NBA 07 and been expanded into new Free6 controls. Rather than limiting Sixaxis use to a couple offensive jukes and fakes, the tilt-controls can now be used defensively to raise a player’s hands up or down, and offensively to fake forward and backwards. Like last year, there’s still some struggle with the controller to pull the move off on the first attempt each time, though not as bad. To pull off a Free6 move takes additional concentration and attention off of what the opponents are doing, leading to turnovers that may not have occurred had Free6 not been utilized. Ultimately, the implementation of Sixaxis, while improved, is just as gimmicky as it was last year.
This year’s real gameplay innovation comes from Key Control; an extension of play calling that allows any player on the court to be assigned the go-to guy. Using the Phoenix Suns again as an example again, suppose center Amare Stoudamire is being guarded by a physically inferior defender. Key Control allows Amare to be set as the lone go-to guy, so any alley-op or cut to the basket called from the directional pad will be run through him. This mode was made for one-man teams like the “Los Angeles Kobe Bryant.”
Key Control and other improvements cannot overcome NBA 08’s Achilles Heel, which ironically plagued last year’s version as well. The core gameplay such as shooting and shot blocking is still decidedly skewed towards arcade play, despite the game’s other enhancements geared towards pure simulation. Aforementioned Amare Stoudamire should not be able to knock down turkey threes from a few feet beyond the stripe, yet he does by simply nailing the green area of the shooting meter. That’s a shame as the meter is a wonderfully smooth way to gauge a shot, if only the results were more realistic. Amare also shouldn’t be able to rack up double-digit blocked shots game in and game out — regardless of difficulty level — but he does, because blocking shots is insanely easy. These gameplay blows, combined with atrocious fast break animations, suck all the fun and realism out of NBA 08.
At least NBA 08 looks fantastic running in true HD 1080p at 60 frames per second, right? Well, sort of. The colors and squeaky clean look are back from last year and in that respect, the game looks fantastic when clipping isn’t interfering, as it often does. Beyond that is a lifeless mesh of emotionless players and stale arenas with no character. Where are the cheerleaders, mascots, and stadium diversity? Equally unexciting is the TNT play-by-play and color commentary with Kevin Calabro and NBA veteran Mark Jackson. This pair struggles to capture the feel of a professional NBA presentation with vague remarks and repetitive phrases. It’s painful to hear Steve Nash called “Captain Canada” every time he touches the ball.
NBA Replay Mode and Games of the Week are back in a similar package as featured in NBA 07. Games of the Week challenges based on real NBA player achievements for this season will still be available on a weekly basis. New to this year’s version is an instant catalog of weekly challenges from last year to tackle. Two challenges are available for each week which must be beaten order from week one before subsequent weeks is available. The only letdown is pre-determined goals required to beat the challenges that are usually a fraction of what the real player accomplished during the game. Some are as simple as hitting two shots and one assist in with a player in a short time span.
Other diversions come in the form of a trio of mini-games. The first, Own the Court, operates like an advanced game of H-O-R-S-E. Players have to score shots at designated locations before their opponent to earn the spot, but at the same time, spots can be stolen if a player makes a shot on a spot already claimed by their opponent. This timed frenetic mini-game is in many respects more enjoyable than the main event, but unfortunately is not available for online play. Also included are a customary 3-point challenge, and an unexpected and quite challenging skills competition with dribbling, shooting and completing a series of tricky bounce passes.
The Life structure hasn’t completely vacated Sony’s NBA series yet, even if its name has evolved into Upside Progression mode. Upon booting up NBA 08 for the first time, players are required to create a custom player before advancing any further. As they play games and rack up accolades, whether using this created player or not, points are earned which can be used to purchase skill upgrades for the created player. Over time, the created player can earn game balls and eventually a trophy room to show off collected bling. Points are collected relatively quickly because gameplay is heavily skewed towards high shooting percentages, further proof NBA 08 is geared more towards an arcade experience than the competition.
As in the past, Sony appears content in NBA 08 to not match the deep simulation efforts of the 2K and Live series like franchise mode and realism, instead opting to concentrate on custom player statistics and Replay mode. With NBA Replay and Games of the Week no longer a novelty, hopes for giant strides past last year’s solid foundation have given way to small baby steps. This franchise needs some major gameplay renovations if Sony hopes to continue playing with the big boys.
- Score: 6.7
- Last year’s strong foundation has apparently crumbled, as the gameplay and audio just have too many miscues to make this year’s outing all that enjoyable.