You got your Crib, your Cadillac Escalade, your girls who look like hookers, your bad reality TV show and of course, the ever important “bling.” No, you aren’t watching MTV; you’re playing Midway’s latest arcade basketball game, NBA Ballers, which lets you live the life of an NBA superstar.
NBA Ballers is typical for any urban-style basketball game, complete with all the outrageous show-off moves and dunks. The game is essentially along the same lines as NBA Street Vol. 2, with the fundamental difference between the two being that Ballers is a one-on-one game while Street is three-on-three. And this is one key element that keeps Ballers just shy of being a great game.
Ballers enters the sports arena with a unique take on the typical arcade-style b-ball game, offering players a career mode that allows gamers to create a player and take him through the ranks from rookie to star. This is a fairly new trend in sports games, especially when it comes to more traditional sports such as basketball or football. But while most sports games, including EA’s Madden and FIFA franchises and Sega’s NBA 2K series, allow you to play through an entire season with in-depth team-management mode, there are few games that let you really experience the sport from the ground up like Ballers does.
The career mode is presented in the form of a reality show called “Rags to Riches.” The network execs are looking for a fresh show, and they come up with the idea of taking a talented and unknown baller – that’s you – off the streets and pitting him against various opponents, ranging from other street ball players to some of the top names from past and present NBA rosters. As you play through tournaments, you will gain skills and various “loot,” ranging from new clothes to pieces of your crib. That’s right, you earn your mansion one piece at a time, from the landscape to the horizon.
Yet the problem with this career mode is that it doesn’t fully commit. It seems like it was added as an afterthought, especially since you can open up most of the same things in the game’s other modes. There are a ton of goodies to open in Ballers, from NBA players and their mansions to magazine covers and Midway artwork. The career mode just tries to make a story out of it, giving context to your winnings. The story is told through narrated, still-frame cut scenes and starts with the search for the unknown talent before working its way into corporate corruption. The tournaments also start without much fanfare, just more voiceovers from MC Supernatural, and the only reason you know you’re on a reality show is because they keep telling you. And the tournaments listings themselves are set up on a screen resembling a TV Guide listing. It really seems like more effort could have been put into this aspect of the game, since it’s supposedly what distinguishes it from the likes of NBA Street.
Presentation snafus aside, the career mode is also far too linear. Once you create your player and enter the realm of “Rags to Riches,” prepare for a very repetitive game. Each episode of the show sets you in a new tournament against four or five guys. Even though there may be more than one tournament open at a time, the only difference between them is the payoff at the end. Other than that, each round is the same formula, play the same guy until you win, then move on to the next opponent. Each tournament is setup in a best-of-three-rounds format, with games going to 11 and ballers needing to win by two. Every now and again, a round will pop up with special rules, such as fouls not being recorded, or the match will be only one round played to 30 points. These help to break up the monotony, but they don’t come up often enough.
One way to get through the redundancy of career mode is to mix it up with the one-on-one-on-one mode. This gives you the chance to take on two separate opponents at the same time, either CPU, human or a combination of both. This is a nice addition to the game, giving it an added dimension and a break from the tedium of the career mode.
Your opponents will differ from round to round, depending on their skills and style of play. Some will be aggressive, literally grabbing you and throwing you off of the ball to draw the foul, while others will be content to use jukes to get free for the outside shot. Most, though, will just grab the ball and drive straight to the hoop after having bounced the ball off your head. That’s “off the hizzle,” if you’re down with it.
Even though you will be playing some of the biggest names in NBA history, it sometimes feels like you’re cycling through the same set of players. There doesn’t seem to be enough variety in the competition you will face, and their moves are somewhat predictable. It’s very easy to get a feel for how your AI opponent will play within the first minute, and this takes some of the challenge away, making it too easy to determine gameplay patterns and react accordingly. For example, some players will automatically go for the special “act a fool” move right away. He will spin around you and dunk the ball every time. To avoid this “certain” fate, all you need to do is counteract his special move or foul him by throwing him off of the ball.
What Ballers lacks in variety it makes up for in spades with graphics. The character modeling is as realistic as it gets, finely detailing everything from hairdos to facial hair to pores. The motion is fairly fluid as well, but most of the reactions are recycled throughout the game. It seems that the reactions can double for victory or defeat, seeing as my guy will clap when he scores but clap just as enthusiastically when his opponent scores. I’ve decided he’s just really supportive.
The courts you will play on span the globe, from Karl Malone’s Chalet in Salt Lake City to Steve Francis’ Houston Estate to Kobe Bryant’s Italian Villa. You can even play in Shanghai at Yao Ming’s Preparatory Academy. These beautifully detailed courts and fantastic character models lead to long load times, so be prepared to wait for extended periods at various points throughout the game.
As is true with most sports games, the commentary is repetitive and as nicely as the hip-hop soundtrack fits with the game, it won’t be for everyone. And Ballers doesn’t support custom soundtracks. There also isn’t a lot of ambient noise, other than the swish of the ball and the cheers from the small courtside crowd, but hearing snippets of random conversations between spectators is surprisingly amusing.
All in all, NBA Ballers is a solid title. It’s fun enough to hold your interest for a little while, but the repetitive play will cut that time far shorter than the game’s excruciatingly long load times. The career mode is an interesting addition, but it lacks the depth from other sports titles and needs to be fleshed out a bit more to really contribute to the overall product. NBA Ballers was a great idea with amazing technical detail, but it just doesn’t put you in the game to the extent that it should.
- Gameplay: 7.8
- Graphics: 9
- Sound: 6.5
- Replay: 6
- Overall: 7.5
- Midway’s attempt at a long-distance three falls short.
— J. Paradise