Before I delve into my of review NBA Street—the newest release from Electronic Arts under their EA Sports Big label—let me clarify several things for the non-hoops connoisseurs reading. In the game of basketball, whether on the playgrounds or on the pro level, there are essentially two types of players or styles: the fundamental kind and street ballers.
Fundamentally sound players usually have an appreciation for the finer points of the game like boxing out for rebounds, passing the ball to the open man for the assist, or using the glass/backboard for higher percentage shots. Efficiency, teamwork, and unselfishness are all characteristic of this style. Living legend Larry Bird and wunderkind Tim Duncan are two of the most fundamentally sound players who have ever played the game.
Street balling is on the other side of the spectrum. It's all about creativity, showmanship, and trash talking attitude mostly during one-on-one confrontations. As the name implies, this style of play originated on the urban playgrounds of the United States and made its way to the professional ranks via trailblazers like Julius 'Dr. J' Erving and Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe in the 1970s. In today's pro ranks, players like Allen Iverson and Jason Williams best exemplify the street game.
Furthermore, its arguable that the most successful basketball players are the ones that are able to incorporate both the fundamental and street game into their repertoire. Players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant would best be described as having mastered both styles of the game.
So now that I've gotten that out of the way, let's get one thing straight about NBA Street the videogame; its all about arcade-style street balling similar to the classic NBA Jam. Toss out any preconceptions you might have of league organized 5-on-5 simulation basketball. The setup for NBA Street is simple. It's 3-on-3 fullcourt basketball. Shots made inside the arch are worth one point. Shots made beyond the arch count for two. The first team to score 21 points wins and you must win by two points. Goal tending is perfectly legal and you'll have to look up the word 'foul' in the dictionary because you won't find it in the game.
What separates NBA Street from previous arcade- or even simulation-style hoops titles is an unparalleled sense of control and creativity over the players. Not only does one command the evasive spin moves and steps a player makes when driving to the basket, but one can also select the exact dunk he or she would like to make. The control over the moves and dunk is handled nicely by an interface very similar to the one used for trick moves in PlayStation 2 snowboarding title, SSX, which was also developed by EA Canada. So for the second time in the Dual Shocks history, theres an ingenious use of the four L and R shoulder buttons rather than a typically awkward one.
All this control is necessary because of two distinctive features: "Tricky Points" and the "Gamebreaker". Tricky Points are awarded for every dribble move executed, point scored, or defensive stop. Completing a rapid succession of moves culminating with a scored bucket is considered a "Combo" and worth a significantly greater amount of Tricky Points. For example, a sequence of events like a defensive steal followed by a fake-out dribbling move and ending with a alley-op slam would be a considered a three-move-Combo.
Tricky points are essential because through out the game, there is a "Momentum Meter" that builds up as Tricky points are accumulated. Once the Momentum Meter is maxed out, players are able to perform a Gamebreaker shot. The Gamebreaker allows for players to perform a specially spotlighted shot or dunk that is not only near unstoppable, but also reduces the total score of the opposing team. In other words, if you take a Gamebreaker shot from behind the arch, your team is awarded two points while the other team loses two points. As you can imagine, such a special shot can significantly sway the tide of a ball game and make for a pretty quick comeback for any team.
Now I know many basketball purists are shaking their heads in disgust at such an outlandish and cheesy feature. I too groaned when the feature was described to me in the "Training" mode. However, once I saw the Gamebreaker in action, I was actually surprised by my positive reaction. It actually made the games more competitive by keeping the score close without having to resort to annoying computer assistance and it rewarded players for being more creative and stylish with combos and moves. The Gamebreaker doesnt dominate every aspect of the game, but it is an important feature that one must pay close attention to in order to be consistently successful. I liked how it affected the outcomes of matches and rather than seeming ridiculous, it actually had logic to it and for the most part, I felt it improved the game.
The last sentiment used to describe the Gamebreaker shot could also be used to describe the overall gameplay of NBA Street as well. Despite being an arcade-style basketball game, NBA Street manages to be fair and deep without being cheesy and unbalanced. Theres plenty of outrageousness, but it doesnt let outrageousness get so out of balance that it ruins any sense of technique and skill—a common mistake that most arcade sports titles make. The zany elements in the game are balanced out by ultra-tight controls, competent computer AI (artificial intelligence) and a physics-engine that feels just right; not too wild and not too realistic at the same time. As you would expect in an arcade-style basketball game, scoring is almost as easy as pressing a button, but the surprising thing about NBA Street is that offense does not rule all and it is possible to play solid defense. Hand-check steals can be made, shots can be blocked, and double teams can be effective.
Still, the most valuable contribution that NBA Street makes in the gameplay department is the sense of creativity it instills in the player. There are so many unique dribble moves and high-flying dunks that players have full control over, it shouldnt be too difficult for players to quickly identify their favorites and carve out their own individual style of play.
NBA Street isnt technically groundbreaking in terms of its presentation, but the game still has a better sense of art direction than most videogames. The overall graphic design melds hip-hop, NBA, and comic book sensibilities successfully together for a distinct look. The accompanying sound effects and background music are effective and incorporated well into the game. The graphics were overall clean, animation was smooth, and the player models were bold and expressive. NBA Street also beautifully recreates some of the worlds most legendary playgrounds like New York Citys West 4th and Rucker Parks.
In terms of flaws, it mainly comes down to one thing: the general lack of features. When I first purchased NBA Street, I naturally assumed that there would be tons of multiplayer features and immediately started calling over friends over to my place to hoop-it-up. You couldnt believe how stunned I was when I realized that NBA Street ONLY has a competitive "Versus" mode for two players! There are no cooperative or competitive 3-on-3 or 2-on-2 options for three or more human players. Forget about throwing any parties, because you can only play solo against the computer or play against one other human player. Thats pretty sad when you consider even the granddaddy of all arcade sports games, NBA Jam, had a 4-player multiplayer mode.
I wasnt thrilled by the scarce one-player modes either. There are plainly two choices: The City Circuit and Hold The Court. The City Circuit is a tournament-style setup where you have to knock out all the NBA teams one region at a time and match up against "Street Legend" boss characters peppered along the road to the top. Hold The Court is basically an extension of the two-player versus mode except theres more of a playground atmosphere and emphasis is on accumulating win streaks and Trick point totals.
With so little options, long-term play-life was in serious jeopardy and the terrific gameplay would have been wasted if not for an engaging Create-A-Player feature that supplements both play modes. To start, players are given a limited amount of skill points to allocate to different attributes and a few choices to customize the appearance of your character. By playing through both City Circuit and Hold The Court modes, additional skill points, playgrounds, cheats, NBA players, secret teams, and additional appearance customizations for your player can either be earned or unlocked and go towards improving your players abilities and increasing your roster of selectable of players. It's not exactly innovative, but it did the trick in keeping me coming back for more and in terms of features, this is really the only bright spot in an otherwise paltry collection of modes and options.
Regardless of the limited options, I still rate NBA Street highly because it sets new standards and changes my perception of what a basketball videogame can and should be. NBA Street doesnt capture every aspect of the sport perfectly and it isnt the end all to the genre. However, after playing NBA Street, I dont think Ill ever be able to look at any basketball videogame the same. The level of player-controlled action and creativity that NBA Street has captured from the game of basketball is momentous. Its contribution in representing the street game and 1-on-1 moves made a strong impression on me. This game may only reside in a niche genre, but nonetheless all future basketball titles arcade or simulation will have to reckon with what was accomplished here.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.
Somewhere between all the gaming, Chi some how managed to finish high school and get into the New York Institute of Technology. At the same time, Chi also interned at Virtual Frontiers, an Internet software consultancy where he learned the ways of HTML. Soon after acquiring his BFA, Chi went on to become the lead Web designer of the Anti-Defamation League. During his tenure there, Chi was instrumental in redesigning and relaunching the non-profit organization's Web site.
Today, Chi is the webmaster of the American Red Cross in Greater New York and somehow managed to work through the tragic events of September 11th without losing his sanity. Chi considers GameCritics.com his life's work and continues to be amazed that the web site is still standing after the recent dotcom fallout. It is his dream that GameCritics.com will accomplish two things: 1) Redefine the grammar of videogames much the same way French film critic Andre Bazin did for the art of cinema and 2) bring game criticism to the forefront of mainstream culture much the same way Siskel & Ebert did for film criticism.
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