Baller?. . . But I hardly know her!
First off, let’s get one thing straight. Ballers is a nutsack of a name for a basketball videogame. But this sweaty hangdown of a franchise name is paired with the overly pretentious and absurdly religious subtitle, “Chosen One”. Together, these two monikers accurately describe not only the game’s spectacularly gross and fun-deaf gameplay, but also the odor of cultish and overblown hero-worship emanating from the consumerist bling-bling subculture with which the NBA seems to be, err, consumed. To get the jarring discord, simply notice that the game’s title is synonymous with NBA Fuckers: The Second Coming of the Messiah.
Ballers is, of course, only following the lead of EA’s NBA Street franchise, which itself is modeled on the “street” ball hyped in the ubiquitous ESPN And1 Tour. But where both And1 and NBA Street (to a lesser extent) get both the histrionics and humor of the carnivalesque and fundamentals-abandoning showmanship of street basketball, Ballers humorlessly goes through the motions, as detached and lifeless as Wilt Chamberlain’s 19,999th lay must have been.
Ballers: Chosen One puts you in the shoes of a customizable basketball player working your way up a fictional street-ball tournament to attain the title of “The Chosen One”. To get there, you have to play in a series of short challenge-based matches against NBA players, using complicated-looking jukes and over-the-top dunks to win. Most of these games are one-on-one, but a few are two-on-two or one-on-one-on-one (three players, every man for himself).
The game blows in just about every way, but before I begin fouling it intentionally with kicks to its titular balls, I should point out the one praiseworthy miracle the so-called “chosen one” manages to pull out of his athletic shorts. The three-person versus mode is a smart and simple addition that expands the rather feeble reach of Ballers to that most difficult (but curiously, most frequent) number of gamers to accommodate. Three players going against one another can even feel, at best, a lot like the pickup games of 21 you might play at the neighborhood hoop.
But you can’t actually play 21. And the fact that Chosen One offers this unique three-player mode but doesn’t build in the rules of 21 is a sign of how distant Ballers is from street basketball, or any basketball for that matter.
In the first place, real basketball has defense; Ballers has heard of defense, but faintly, as if it were some heretical and threatening rumor that should by stomped on vigorously. From the first match to the very last, one can simply dribble around the defender and dunk the ball. It’s not even mocking and pathetic in the way the Washington Generals get dunked on. It’s more mechanical—sort of like flipping a switch over and over again for a few hours.
To add difficulty, then, Chosen One doesn’t give your opponents a knowledge of how the game of basketball works (you need to prevent that guy from putting the ball in the hoop, not just watch him do it), but adds extraneous and silly conditions on each match. Some of these, like “dunk five times”, are simple (you will dunk five times, and another fifteen times as well!), but others, like “don’t let your opponent score over ten points in twenty minutes” are stupidly difficult since it is nearly impossible to play anything like responsible defense. To put this in perspective, you are never really playing basketball in Ballers; you’re usually playing some bastardized made-up Calvinball whose only real connection with basketball is that there is a ball and a hoop.
Fine, you say, the game isn’t meant to be realistic; it is meant to be EXTREME!!! But even the show-stopping supermoves are neither exciting nor realistic nor visually integrated into the game. As you perform jukes and combos, usually by going into a mini-game in which you respond to on-screen button prompts, you build up a meter that lets you then trigger a super-shot, a super-steal, a super-juke, etc. When you trigger it, the game stops and transports you to a generic cutscene against a black outer-space backdrop in which you perform said super-thing. Once it is over, you are magically transported back to the court. This breach in the space-time continuum is as inexcusable in the decorum of gaming as it is in the laws of nature.
But even with the generic super-moves being scripted and slow-mo’d, they are still bereft of any energy. When someone superjukes you, for example, he might wing the ball up in the air, and then kick your legs out from under you with some breakdancing move, but his face will remain expressionless and dull. One doesn’t wonder at the utter lack of fun of kicking (almost all of the supermoves involve kicking: kicking the ball into the hoop, kicking a shot out of the air, kicking your opponent as you run by him), since by the end of the game you will have performed the same move several hundred times. You’d think they’d see the kick coming.
But they never do because every opponent plays exactly the same. There is no appreciable difference between the way you skunk Steve Nash or the way you clown Shaquille O’Neal. Chosen One has as much regard for nuance as a conservative talk-show host on painkillers. In point of example: Yao Ming, according to the Ballers, is Ming Yao.
Over and on top of the shallow strata of gameplay, however, is the gargantuan, uncompromising, and unapologetic glacier of bullshit. It starts with the silly and pretentious cutscenes of NBA players helicoptering into absurd locales like Dubai, strutting into basketball courts flanked with an entourage of secret service men, and generally behaving like they were mythical gangsta-thug / CEO / Messiahs. Who knows? Maybe a few NBA players get to act like self-important assholes—but that doesn’t excuse the game from wetting itself over presenting the fantasy of the NBA star as an international badass James Bond douchebag.
But the crap gets worse when you have to watch actual footage of Chuck D (yup, of Public Enemy) sit behind a newscast desk and “report” on the fake tournament. He’s pretty wooden, but a slightly swaying birch to Al Horford’s (Horford is, for those of you who don’t know, both a basketball player and the star of NBA Ballers) oak-like reading of his “impromptu” lines. The incorporation of live video is almost never a good idea in animated videogames, a fact one feels after watching the game commit needless gaffe after needless gaffe.
What all of this canned and scripted bullshit reveals, however, is that even the stupid ephemeral stuff that Ballers disproportionately spends its time and money on turns into crap. So even if Midway threw money at the gameplay development, chances are what seems cheap and unfun now would only end up being expensive and unfun, sort of like trying to cover up the smell of body odor by applying liberal amounts of single-malt scotch to your armpits. That, by the way, is almost bling-worthy.
If you really want to torture yourself, you could play both PS3 and Xbox 360 versions in their entirety and then tell me which is better. From a cursory, glance-at-the-road-accident comparison, the PS3 and 360 versions both look and handle equally poorly. The conclusion: whichever version you choose to buy is guaranteed to suck.
I could go on for much longer, pointing out the weightless feel of your player, the cheap and featureless last-gen graphics, the repetitive and unimaginative play-by-play banter, the purposeless customization options or the usually desolate and ultimately just as crappy online multiplayer. But that would be treating the game as if it had tried, when it’s apparent that this baller was looking to ball the pooch all along.