A brand new arena, but the same old team.
The release of any new hardware brings with it new hope for game developers caught on the wrong side of the tracks, and in the case of the PSP, all eyes are turned to 989 Sports. Sony's in-house dev team had a pretty rough go on the PS2, routinely getting trounced by critics and fans in pretty much every sport other than baseball. Having taken a year off from console pro roundball, the company looks to make a statement by blasting out the first crop of launch title sports games for their parent's fancy new toy.
Unfortunately, fresh hardware can't mask the odor of stale gameplay. The enigmatically-titled NBA simply isn't a very good game, and while it offers a few decent ideas, shaky mechanics and delivery spell disaster for the new leather.
The basics are there, at least. NBA delivers the 30 NBA teams and a few others in Exhibition, Season, Playoffs and Practice, all of which perform just as they do in any console game. You can simulate Seasons or play through them yourself, though there's no Franchise mode to tie it together. The managerial duties in Season are as thin as they get; don't expect trades to be a problem at all, as the CPU will seemingly accept any retarded package you throw their way. Troublesome Rafer Alston for talented Allen Iverson? Sweet!
A few mini-games are here as well, including the 3-point contest and Skills Challenge from the All-Star game along with 'Paint', an NBA version of Tony Hawk's Graffiti in which two players try to paint the court their color by making shots. Nice diversions, but none of these mini-games are worth more than a passing glance.
Regardless of the mode, NBA's gameplay is sluggish. The controls are somewhat unresponsive, often leading to errant passes, accidentally stepping out-of-bounds and other aggravating violations. Strangely, there's no turbo button, so don't expect speed bursts during fast-breaks or drives. Buttons for jukes and crossovers are here but nine times out of ten, juking doesn't do a thing. The analog stick is fixed to control movement while the D-pad is used to call plays, although the offensive playbooks aren't team-specific and barely seem to work at all. Defensive plays are more noticeable as teams switch to zones appropriately.
NBA actually tries something new in its approach to shooting. Pressing Circle will initiate a little ball cursor over a player's head; another press will stop the ball, hopefully in the green area, which will almost always guarantee a swish. Unlike the contemporary b-ball console games, there is no separate button for layups and shots.
The system might work on paper, but it's an airball in execution. You don't control a player's jumping; rather, you just press Circle and wait as he goes into his deliberate shooting animation, at which point you wait to press it again. Will he actually jump? Who knows! It's all up to the slow animation, which could be anything from a standard jump-shot to a layup, hook or dunk, even if your guy is standing at the free-throw line. The whole thing is incredibly obtuse, stressing timing over feel or touch to the point that it takes all the fun out of shooting. It also makes jump-passes needlessly awkward and difficult.
But don't for a second think that the shooting makes the game itself difficult – quite the contrary. NBA is a walk in the park for basketball game vets thanks to its terrible A.I. Computer-controlled teams suffer from glaring programming issues. I stood there and watched Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace literally pass the ball back and forth to one another for almost 20 seconds, failing to notice the shot-clock violation. On the other side of the ball, the CPU will incessantly swat at shots, at first resulting in about 20 blocks every 5 minutes or so. Once you get the hang of it, though, you'll pump fake your way out of this mess, although if you allow the CPU to control your defensive guys, you'll benefit greatly as the computer cleverly blocks itself time and again. Yay team.
So is all for naught? Well, not entirely. NBA's shiniest spot lies in its multiplayer. Supporting both Ad-Hoc games and Internet play, it's equipped to handle human players, which leads to a far better experience than repeatedly maiming the computer. Though the online play is still in its infancy - there are no tournaments or leagues yet, and the lobby system is archaic - it does work, and if you find an opponent with a good ping, you can have a pretty lively match. Your basic stats are accessible to theirs as well as an overall ranking based on your won/loss record, so you'll know what you're getting into before accepting a challenge.
NBA does manage to take advantage of the hardware with fairly smooth graphics. Players animate well, although the animations repeat pretty frequently. Only two camera angles are available, but they are both useful. Unfortunately, it's a little hard to distinguish between players due to the small screen (relative to a full-sized TV, that is), and the game fails to include any sort of labeling feature, like last names or position abbreviations over their heads. Is that Kobe Bryant or Devean George? At least the framerate keeps up.
The sound, sadly, doesn't. There's very little of it during play, just a few looping no-name hip-hop tracks and ball/sneaker sounds. There is no play-by-play or color commentary at all aside from the arena announcer who calls out fouls. Go ahead and leave your headphones at home.
Come to think of it, go ahead and leave NBA on the shelf, too. It might be the first basketball game for the PSP, but that doesn't make it a good one. Shoddy control and rough A.I. mar the gameplay, while the lack of any sort of deeper Franchise system leaves bus-stop managers out in the cold. If it weren't for the online play, 989 should be permanently benched.