NBA Ballers: Phenom Review (Xbox)
In October of 2005, the NBA instituted a controversial at the time NBA “minimum” dress code that all players would be forced to comply with. Out were throwback jerseys, big chains over T-shirts, sunglasses indoors, and anything else that did not fit David Stern’s explanation of business casual. A full regular season later, few could argue that the dress code was anything short of accepted and followed by the NBA players with very little resistance.
Prior to the new code, the NBA was slowly turning into a rap video. Oversized clothes, earrings as big as my fist, and medallions to match had become commonplace on NBA sidelines. Being on injured reserve or inactive, had become a fashion show of “bling”.
Midway games embraced that back in ’04 when they released NBA Ballers. The original Ballers was really centered around that environment and culture. It was a “rags to riches” story full of fast cars, women, and major gold. At the time, I felt that the game was primed to contend for the title in the arcade style sports market. So, with the release of the follow-up, NBA Ballers: Phenom, you can’t help but wonder how the NBA’s new business rules might affect the direction of the franchise.
The story in NBA Ballers: Phenom is different than the original and, to be honest, a little less realistic. No, I don’t need my games to be realistic. But, here you are out in L.A. during the NBA All-Star week playing in tournaments and games trying to impress the right people to earn yourself an NBA contract. Or, during the course of your week, you may decide that it’s the entertainment side of the world that suits you slightly better.
But wait, it gets more Shakespearean than that. You’re also out to exact revenge on your former playing partner, Hot Sauce, who stole your girl and your ticket to the big time. Let’s be honest, who hasn’t been betrayed by some bad hot sauce in their life? Am I right?
The story plays out in a slightly more open Grand Theft Auto-type environment between tournaments. You actually dribble your ball around the streets of Southern California looking for different challenges, mini-games, and opportunities to spend your tournament earned “credits” on new gear. While the new style seemed kind of strange and repetitive, I did find myself enjoying some of the mini-games. There are NBA Trivia kiosks all over town where you can take timed quizzes for prizes. They were actually pretty challenging and enjoyable. The other challenges were either button-mashing or timing-based with almost a Guitar Hero feel.
Along the way, the two people that you’re trying hardest to impress are cover boy Chauncey “Mr. Big Shot” Billups and hip-hop superstar Ludacris. There’s also the ex-girlfriend that Sauce swiped from you, but she seems to impress quite easily and gets on your nerves mighty quickly.
All that being said, you’re not going to buy NBA Ballers: Phenom for the story. You want the hoop action. And that really hasn’t changed much from the first in the series. The default match has moved to a game of 13 (from 11) for some strange reason, but besides that the concepts are the same. One on one, with the occasional two on two’s mixed in, and the ability for you to toss to your boy on the sidelines during certain matches. Along the way you will hit “special rules” matches like playing to 30, “make it, take it”, or holding your opponent fewer than eight points. You get five fouls to push, pull, toss, or run over your opponent during the best-of-three match-up. Exceeding the limit will result in a Free Throw (worth two points) and the ball, which is pretty crippling in a game to 13.
The gameplay itself is not as over the top as the old NBA Jam series or the more recent NBA Street. There are still players doing some gravity defying things here, but, for the most part, it plays a more realistic style NBA game than the competition. For example, if you’re matched up with Dirk Nowitski, he’ll take the lane and the dunk if you give it to him, but he prefers to rock you for a little bit, then step back for an outside “J” or deep three.
That’s not to say that the street aspect has gone away; there are still taunts, flashy dribbles, self passes and other ways to “clown” your opponent on your way to the rim. Perform strings of moves and taunts and you’ll fill up your meter, once full, the crowd will start chanting for you to “bring down the house.” If you can pull off the move, and subsequently pull down the hoop, the match ends at that moment and you’ll be declared the winner regardless of score. It almost lends a different strategy to the game, but can be a little too easy to pull off.
Unfortunately that’s not the only thing that’s difficult to pull off. The controls in NBA Ballers: Phenom just isn’t natural on the Xbox controller. It almost feels like there aren’t enough buttons giving the execution of taunts and moves almost a random a feel. Like there are too many things assigned to each combination of pushes. It’s not bad; I just think the PS2 controller lends itself slightly better to the game.
Graphically, Ballers still looks good, but no better than it did in the release from two years back. Franchises with a one year turn-time improve their graphics. Two years and no significant upgrade should not be acceptable. The animations run smoothly and string together well. There are still some collision issues where the detection is not sensitive enough in places and overly sensitive in others. I still give the series props for not letting you jump through the backboard without boppin’ your mellon.
The player models look the most impressive during a close-up. They’re actually a little bit creepy in the amount of detail in the skin textures and faces. They look quite realistic, despite the fact that every player appears to have freckles.
While we’re on the topic of visuals, you can’t help but notice the #1 place where the NBA’s new policy took root – the attire on the players in the game. Most of the players are either dressed in their uniform, some version of it, or casual clothes that look like that just left the country club. NBA Ballers: Phenom is a lot less LL Cool J and a lot more LL Bean.
The sounds of the game left me unimpressed. The in-game sounds and running commentary are pretty solid, but very repetitive. The voice-acting is pretty sub-par all in all. I don’t expect much from real players like Billups, that’s not his job, but characters like your created Baller and the Ex are chock full of cheesy lines, bad acting and rampant stereotypes.
The soundtrack, as you’d expect, is hip-hop. I’d be the last person to call myself knowledgeable about the hip-hop, but it seems like they took a lot of smaller name talent to fill the tracks. In fact, NBA Ballers: Phenom includes an 18-track CD soundtrack separate from the game disc featuring cuts from Jelly Joe, Heavy Mojo, Raskal and more. Maybe I’m just old-school, but I’d love to hear some Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, or some classic hip-hop splashed in with the new stuff.
Xbox Live players will be able to take their game to the net including your created Ballers. Sadly, the XBL integration is about as stripped down and basic as you get. You’re looking at One-on-One matchups and it pretty much ends there.
The most important thing that can be said about NBA Ballers: Phenom is that it is fun. It’s a fun game to play. It’s not overly challenging, but it’s not ridiculously easy either. You’ll easily sink 10-20 hours into the Story Mode alone and can extend some longevity with buddies on XBL.
I like this franchise and I would love to see it continue and make the jump to Next Gen. However, the two-year development cycle between the original and this release passed by with no significant improvements to add to the total experience. That can’t happen again for this franchise to survive.