If you can immediately tell someone what Bill Clinton, George Clinton and a 12-year-old named Air Dog have in common, you already know that NBA Street V3 is your type of game. Arcade basketball videogames really got their start with the original NBA Jam, which featured the aforementioned characters as unlockable players. Since then, NBA Jam has been supplanted by NBA Street as the leader in all things arcade hoops. With its most recent chapter, NBA Street V3, Electronic Arts has upped the ante again, with a new “Gamebreaker” dunk system, insane moves and online play. But where the game delivers the goods in those three areas, it also suffers at times because of them.
The core gameplay in NBA Street V3 is as radical as it is gratifying. Like the previous NBA Street games, V3 is street-style hoops at its best, with no fouls, no referees and no shortage of style. Games are strictly three-on-three affairs, with the model occasionally mixed-up by the game’s new Dunk Contest. Both pick-up games and Dunk Contests are available from the “Play It” menu option, as is Practice and a Street Challenge mode.
Street Challenge is essentially a career mode in which players create a custom baller and spend the next 70 days building his or her street rep to gain the necessary fame and make the leap to the NBA. Much like a role-playing game awards experience points for completing different quests, each game, and the way it’s won or lost, nets players a given number of “street rep,” which can then be used to buy new clothes and new shoes or to upgrade certain skills (dunks, speed, agility, power, blocks, etc.).
Not surprisingly, a custom player starts out with only modest skills, meaning some dunks will be blocked, some shots will be airballs and, most embarrassingly, some of the fancier moves and dribbles will result in the baller tripping over his or her own feet and falling down. As players build up their stats, more moves become available and others are less apt for failure, and by the second week of the 70-day period, it’s safe to say you’ll have an uber-hoopster on your hands.
Each squad can have four players in addition to the custom baller, although only two can play in any single game. As with the more-advanced skills available as the game progresses, more-credible and more-powerful players will become available, including several current and past NBA stars (as of this writing, I had Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kareem Abdul Jabbar on my team). Recruiting players is as simple as “buying” them with street rep once you’ve defeated their squad or, depending upon your reputation and success, as simple as accepting their “fee-free” request to join your team.
With five different hoopsters at gamers’ disposal, there’s actually be a bit of strategy involved in selecting your three-person lineup before each game. For example, if you enter a Trick Challenge in which the first team to rack up 500,000 trick points goes home with the win, you’ll want to avoid a team with all centers and choose instead a team comprised of players who have good “handles” (ball control and juke/dribble moves). Alternatively, if you accept a Long Range challenge, you’ll want to select guys with goos Shots. But the piece d’resistance, and the thing that makes NBA Street V3 so fun, is the dunks, and there are several challenges (Dunk Contest and Dunks Only) that will test your creativity above the rim.
Like a mana meter in an RPG, NBA Street V3 includes a Gamebreaker meter that gradually fills as players complete spin moves, fancy passes and the like. String together several moves, and the meter fills up more quickly. Once it’s full, players enter a zone, of sorts, in which they have a set period of time to get into the key, press all three turbo buttons and unleash an insane, trick-filled dunk. Do really well, and you can even pass the ball to your teammates, getting them involved in the Gamebreaker action and racking up even more trick points in the process.
These Gamebreakers are fantastically well-animated and exciting, and they do a great job of bringing home the extreme arcade feel of this game. Unfortunately, they also underscore one of the game’s biggest thorns: the controls. To complete a Gamebreaker, players need to press all three turbo buttons at once, then, while they’re pressed, hit the “shoot” button while they’re driving the lane. Once in mid-air, the object is to move the thumbstick around in multiple directions to pull of between-the-legs, under-the-knees, over-the-shoulder dunk combinations.
Sound complicated? It is, at first, but you eventually get used to it. Of course, you also get sore fingers, but not necessarily from the Gamebreakers. Instead, the joint pain comes from the fancy passes and juke moves, which seemingly require double-and triple-jointed fingers. NBA Street V3 includes a large number of moves, all of which require pressing a thumbstick in a different direction. By pressing one, two or three of the turbo buttons while moving the thumbstick, the moves change even further. Stringing various turbo-induced moves together can lead to some serious trick points, but it can also lead to advanced arthritis.
As a result, the learning curve in NBA Street V3 is surprisingly high for an arcade basketball game, a fact that gamers who expect to win from the get-go might want to take into consideration. The initial frustration at the inability to pull off any moves gradually gives way, both as the custom player improves his/her skills and as the gamer gets more familiar with the nuances of the game’s controls. NBA Street V3 is the best arcade basketball game in years, but it took me several days of consistent playing to come to that realization.
What I also realized is that the online implementation in NBA Street V3 is disturbingly mediocre. Gamers can build a custom online player, but they can’t import their offline character. Ultimately this is a smart move, because gamers with maxed-out statistics would overpower everyone else, but gamers used to the skills of their offline character are in for a rude awakening when they’re forced to start at square one.
Additionally, as is status quo for EA games online, NBA Street V3 has no semblance of a good online lobby, and the only way to have a rematch with someone is not to say “hey, let’s play again” and go along your merry way, but to say “hey, I’ll find you again on the server, send you a challenge invitation, and you hit ‘accept,’ OK?” This is a total and complete pain, but it’s the only option gamers have for repeat matches.
Once you set it up, the actual online performance of those games is flawless, with no framerate hiccups, no dropped games, and no slowdown in audio. In fact, the only slowdown you’ll experience is your own, as you try to figure out what your teammates are capable of doing. Gamers are essentially assigned a new team each time they play online, so while the custom character may be the same, the skills and faces of their team are unknown. The impact of this is mitigated somewhat when players earn 1,000 online rep points, at which point NBA players will join your team, but until that point, trying to figure out where your strengths and weaknesses lie is a bit of a chore.
As you can see from the screenshots in this review (you can click any of them for a full-size version), the graphics in NBA Street V3 are fabulous. Most NBA players look like their real-life counterparts, the animations are generally quite solid, the courts look great and, in the GameCube version, the appearance of Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach is both gorgeous and welcome. The audio is also pretty good, and although the hip-hop soundtrack gets old and the play-by-play commentary is insanely repetitive, those can both be muted, leaving you nothing but the great sound of a dribbled ball and the surround sound effect of a crowd cheering you on.
It’s really too bad, then, that the sound of your popping knuckles ends up louder than the game itself. NBA Street V3 is easily the best arcade basketball game I’ve played in years, but the requisite 14 fingers needed to play it is a bit ridiculous. The Gamebreakers are a nice addition; the Dunk Contest is an entertaining, albeit somewhat tiresome mode compared to the games themselves; and the Street Challenge is a fun take on career mode. For an arcade-flavored basketball game, it’s hard to beat NBA Street V3, but there are certainly things that could have been done better.
- Gameplay: 8.5
- After the learning curve it’s a blast, but you’ve got to be a contortionist to pull off some of the combos.
- Graphics: 8.9
- A great balance of arcade flair and real-life looks.
- Sound: 8.0
- Nice surround and a decent soundtrack, but the repetitive play-by-play has got to go.
- Replay: 8.8
- The career mode is a blast, and if you can tolerate the online snafus, there are some good games to be had.
- Overall: 8.8
- The best arcade hoops I’ve played in years, but it’s still a few hops short of the Heir Apparent.
— Jonas Allen