Run-and-gun videogame basketball really got its start in the arcades, when NBA Jam introduced its over-the-top style and mixed NBA all-stars with, if you knew the codes, a handful of unlockable players like Bill Clinton and “Air Dog.” In the years since, Midway and EA have traded shots with their NBA Ballers and NBA Street franchises, respectively, both of which have brought the arcade action home with a bit more hip-hop flair. Midway’s latest arcade offering, NBA Ballers: Chosen One, is now available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but while the subtitle may say “Chosen One,” the game itself surely doesn’t live up to that billing.
Technically speaking, the subtitle refers to the plot, in which the NBA’s elite players are taking time from their post-season vacation to host a televised tournament to find the “next big thing,” so to speak. Hosted by Chuck D., the frontman for Public Enemy, the fictional but incredibly well-produced series feels much like an ESPN broadcast in tone, and it does a good job setting the stage for players to enter the game as one of the hopeful participants.
Trying to end up as the next “Chosen One,” players progress through six chapters with a custom-created baller whose skills are initially determined by the player him or herself. From then on out, the created baller’s skills are assigned not by the player deciding which categories they want to improve, but by the way the player actually played the game (a la Oblivion or Fable. This theoretically sounds great, but for some reason the point assignments don’t always seem accurate, which makes player “upgrades” feel somewhat arbitrary. Apparently practice doesn’t always make perfect.
The chapters are essentially tournaments that include game types ranging from one-on-one games to three-point shootouts to two-on-two games. Although most of these chapters end up feeling remarkably similar to one another, the variety of options still makes NBA Ballers: Chosen One feel an awful lot like its arcade kin, the NBA Street series. This similarity is augmented by the introduction of a souped-up combo system, which players can use to earn point multipliers for making fancy dunks and doing “act a fool” moves on their opponents. The problem is, the actual trick mechanics aren’t nearly as smooth as they are in NBA Street, and they even delve into timed button-press tedium.
Whereas the NBA Street games have players moving the thumbsticks to pull off moves in mid-air and to juke the other team, the combo and act-a-fool system in NBA Ballers: Chosen One involves pressing the left shoulder button and X to activate a button-pressing sequence. Think of God of War, only on a basketball court and with much less blood. Press the on-screen button before your opponent, and you’ll do a fancy move, then be prompted with another timed button press that offers the same potential reward. This button-mashing madness really pulls players from the game, because it removes your attention from what’s happening on the court and instead focuses it on button prompts.
Just as bad, if you’re able to pull off a triple combo, you’re “rewarded” with a dunk that lets you win a game outright — even if you were getting absolutely smoked — simply by pulling off three combos in a row without your opponent scoring a point. I’m a big fan of the old-school NBA Jam, in which players could catch “on fire” by scoring three times in a row before their opponent, but getting a temporary skill boost is a lot different than actually being able to end the game on a single dunk. Needless to say, this isn’t a fun experience if you’re on the losing end of one of these combos, nor is it fun knowing that, nine times out of 10, you won’t be on the losing end.
Ironically, for all this arcade action and over-the-top combos, the game still insists on including fouls. Generally arcade basketball games forgo fouls altogether, and just make players who would have fouled lose out by stumbling or losing a step instead. Not NBA Ballers: Chosen One. In this game, the first four times a foul occurs, play simply stops, but on the fifth foul, the fouled player gets a free throw — which is worth three points, by the way — and retains possession. What?
The confusion continues in the graphics department, where the animations are awkward and jilted, players look overly shiny and plastic, and the game generally looks like the first Xbox 360 basketball games we saw from EA and 2K Sports. Now, it’s tempting to give Midway the same leeway we gave those other publishers, as this is Midway’s first next-gen basketball game. But the fact of the matter is, we’re now several years into the Xbox 360’s and PS3’s lifecycle, so these graphical issues should have been resolved by now.
If there’s some redeeming grace in NBA Ballers: Chosen One, it’s that the game still manages to be fun when played with other people, either online or with three other friends on the same console. When you’re playing two-on-two with three friends, somehow the crazy moves and crutch-like gameplay tricks don’t seem quite as harsh, nor are they tolerated as often. But because the meat of Chosen One really lies in the story/career mode, even this multiplayer support isn’t enough to rescue an otherwise trying game.
- Score: 6
- NBA Ballers: Chosen One tries to do too many things at once, never really succeeded at any of them. You’re probably better off buying last year’s NBA Street in the bargain bin; it’s much more fun.
— Jonas Allen