Stick with the gym.
No sport captures the essence of playground bravado like basketball. Go down to the local courts for a pickup game and just check out the scene: puffed out chests, casual dribbling peppered with explosive dribble drives, that faraway, lazy look in the eyes so as not to seem too eager to show off your skills...and that's BEFORE you get into a game, whereupon the insanely competitive aggression usually results in a few yelling matches and at least one guy thinking he's Michael Jordan. It's the best and it blows the crap out of trying to get a pickup game of baseball or football going.
Playground hoops has gotten all kinds of coverage over the past few years, thanks in part to those kickass Nike commercials with the mad dribbling and the success of flashy new NBA up-and-comers like Darius Miles. Then there was NBA Street, which not only upped the ante on NBA Jam style arcade basketball, but also brought a whole new level of gameplay to arcade sports thanks to its mishmash of simple control and SSX tricking.
And just like we all want to be like Mike, Activision's new Street Hoops desperately wants to be like NBA Street. Instead, it's Mitch Kupchack. A crummy engine, weak graphics and waaaay more style than substance leads to a highlight reel gimmick that only Daryl Dawkins could enjoy.
The game is all about the playground, allowing you to play as a number of fictitious teams in 5 on 5 street basketball in famous street courts around the country. The rules are pretty loose - aside from basic violations like traveling or backcourt, it's pretty much anything goes. The rules can be tweaked on the fly in the options menu, but even with fouls 'on', very few fouls will ever be called.
There are a couple ways to compete. You can play Half Court or Full Court exhibition games, which allow you to play 3 on 3 or even 1 on 1 games. Lord of the Court and World Tournament modes both let you take one team through the 10 real-world locations (which, incidentally, are all in the U.S., despite a navigational map of the world at your disposal).
Winning games earns money, which is then used to buy all kinds of gear, clothing, sunglasses, hats, shirts, tattoos, jewelry and even new haircuts. You can then outfit every player on your team differently, creating a mismatched gang of thugs or a tight, uniformed wrecking crew. Street Hoops features a number of actual clothing lines, including And 1 and Rocawear. It's P. Diddy's dream come true, I guess, though it all seems pretty stereotypical.
Though Pete Rose might frown upon it, you can even bet money at the local bookie before each game. You can bet that you'll win, or get the most dunks or steals or whatever, and then if you meet the goal, you earn lots more bread. It's a nice (if shady) thought.
But all this posing and posturing and bling-bling winds up being little more than fancy icing on a very, very plain cake.
Street Hoops tries to steal a page from NBA Street's trick book by putting heavy focus on shaking and baking. There are a variety of move sets found in the game, which can be assigned to different players on your team. They are all operated the same way - simply hold down R2 and press one of the face buttons to make your ballhandler bust out some wacky dribble. If you're lucky, you'll cross up the defender and blow right by him for a dunk or layup or whatever.
The problem is, the practicality isn't there. You can pretty much get around guys just by passing and maneuvering, so the only real reason to bust out tricks is (in yet another rip of NBA Street) to increase your little Street Hoops meter. But what happens when you fill up your meter to its max? Uh, nothing. Oh wait, you get unlimited turbo for a while and supposedly your shots connect more, though you can hardly tell. Compared to the Gamebreaker in NBA Street or even being 'on fire' in NBA Jam, this is a total let down.
Not that things are all shiny to begin with. The engine that powers Street Hoops doesn't compare to the ones found in EA or Sega games. Timing of shots - letting go at the apex of your shot for better accuracy - seems completely lost. You'll make almost every jump shot from inside the three-point line regardless of how long you hold down the shoot button. Or if you're so inclined, you can throw alley-oops all day long, which almost never fail.
Defense is just as weak. Shot-blocking is very hard since players don't jump correctly and are difficult to maneuver. Stealing, however, is ridiculously easy, even if the opposing team's player is doing a Curly Neal impersonation. I went undefeated in a full season of World Tournament mode by racking up a minimum of about 15 steals per 10-minute game.
The graphics are identically cheap in both the Xbox and PS2 versions, which is surprising since so much energy was put into the clothing licenses and whatnot. Player animations are quite good - you'll occasionally see a sequence straight out of a Harlem Globetrotters reel thanks to smooth transitions. However, the models are very dumpy and lack polish. Though the game features a rock solid framerate and moves very, very quickly, clipping errors are common.
While the looks aren't thoroughly heinous, the sound sure is. Brutally repetitive commentary drives all the fun out of the trash talking. The quality is questionable, too - it's so tinny and thick with reverb that I think they recorded all the voice-overs in a bathroom. The music is purely new school rap, which is great if you're a DMX or Ludacris fan but sucks if you like pretty much anything else.
Though there are lots of unlockable videos and characters, Street Hoops is so shallow in its gameplay that you'll be hard pressed to stick with it long enough to open everything up. Just check out the cheats instead.
And while you're at it, check out NBA Street again and leave this one on the racks. Street Hoops tries to capture the sensationalized style of hardcore playground ball, but only manages to come off as a weak, thinly veiled copycat. Let's see some new moves in the future.