Just when you think there are no more surprises in basketball, no underdogs to root for, no players you can really trust or admire, some autistic kid scores 20 points
in his high-school debut. Now that’s
One might use the same word to describe NBA Ballers: Phenom, though the definition would certainly change. While it attempts to go where few other ballers have gone before, this rickety sequel misses the rim with an assortment of bad gameplay mechanics and rough technical issues. Special indeed.
In an attempt to cash in on the increasingly popular “live the life” gaming concept, Phenom’s main Story mode plops you into the shoes of an up and coming street baller. You guide your customized player through various one-on-one tournaments in pursuit of either an NBA contract or an Entrepreneurial career in the entertainment industry. To get started, you build a character by distributing points between various attributes, choosing a position, outfitting him with gear and giving him a name. I named my baller Nickel Fivecent, and he sported a black fedora, sunglasses, dress slacks, and a pair of pastel blue sneakers. Yes, you may have seen him hanging around the alley behind Seven-Eleven. He’s totally street, and maybe even a little krunk.
As the plot goes, Fivecent has been betrayed by his longtime pal, Hot Sauce (you might know him from the And 1 series), and is out to prove himself on the street courts of L.A. during NBA Finals Week. Along the way, Fivecent makes friends with Chauncey Billups and Ludacris, each of whom represent the possible futures for Fivecent in either the NBA or the entertainment industry. It’s not a great story, and neither Billups nor Ludacris are excellent voice-actors, but the idea of adding a narrative to a sports game is a good way of giving the single-player game some life.
Another change from the original is the purportedly free-roaming hub system, represented by two neighborhoods you can explore at will. However, they’re actually small, side-scrolling maps rather than fully realized 3D worlds, making the whole thing feel a bit dated. You bump into all kinds of pros while meandering about, often leading to boring errand quests. Mini-games such as NBA trivia kiosks or wonky DDR-style rhythm games pepper the streets, but none of this is done very well.
As you compete in tournaments and mini-games, you win cash to spend on items, or sometimes the items themselves. Some of these boost your stats, and there is a cool and robust assortment of performance-enhancing gear to be found here. The labeling system, though, is absurd. For example, you might win a tournament and acquire something called “hound.” What is “hound?” Nobody knows. It is only by searching through every piece of gear - and there’s quite a lot in here - that you will discover “hound” is a golf shirt. I still haven’t found my “crushed platinum” that I won early in the game. Maybe “crushed platinum” is a special kind of elbow pad? It certainly isn’t jewelry. I checked.
Though the story, neighborhood environments and RPG dress-up help distinguish this game from its predecessor, it is in the one-on-one basketball that Phenom lofts its last-second prayer. The bulk of your play time is in half-court scrimmages against a single opponent. As before, you have a variety of jukes and dribbling moves at your disposal as well as spectacular dunks and different types of jump shots. On defense, you hack away, draw charges, or jump for high-flying blocks.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any improvements to be found here. By pushing the Juice buttons (right and left triggers), you can add flair to your dunk or juke, but the computer decides which move actually occurs. Could be a cross-over, could be a fake. There just seems to be something flawed with any control scheme in which you are surprised by what you’ve caused to occur on the screen.
Further, defending against jukes relies heavily on the ‘take charge’ button. By forcing your player to stand still, sometimes you will actually draw a charge, but more often will simply keep your player from falling down during a juke. Defense is almost entirely about standing still.
And that’s really it for the one-on-one game. There isn’t much more strategy than slamming the juke button on offense or the take charge button on defense. There are some unlockable options, like bigger dunks or a sideline buddy to whom you can pass, but none of that changes the basic dynamic of dribbling around the other guy.
In an effort to remedy this obvious gameplay hitch, Phenom includes a two-on-two full-court game. Oddly, passing to your teammate doesn’t switch control, and it definitely doesn’t make your duo more effective or the game more fun. There isn’t even a way to set a pick, which I hear is something that occurs even in street basketball.
The bonus for pulling off tricks is gauged by the “House” meter at the bottom of the screen. Once the meter is full, you can try to throw a fancy alley-oop to break the backboard and win the game outright. This is good for an early win but not much else, as opposed to NBA Street’s far more engaging Gamebreaker system.
Other odd design choices mar the package. For instance, there is no way to save your progress at any point during a tournament. Since every match you play in Story mode is part of a tournament (there are no pick-up games, which doesn’t seem very street), this means you must choose whether you want to devote a half-hour to Phenom every time you play solo. Tournaments can range in size from four opponents to an astounding ten, and, in most cases, each round of the tournament is played best two-out-of-three. If you do the math, that can add up to thirty games in a row. Still, you can’t save at all, even after the twenty-ninth game.
It doesn’t help that the pacing is tortoise slow. After every basket, the MC goes nuts and whoever made the shot waves his arms and dances around like a maniac. Over the course of twenty or thirty games in a tournament, all the waving and dancing can add several minutes or even hours of wasted time. The insane load times don’t help. These are nearly game-breaking on the PS2, though they’re merely frustrating on the Xbox.
It also doesn’t help that every match feels identical. None of the rule changes (games to 11, winner’s/losers outs, etc.) add anything to the mix, and everybody seems to have the same moves and abilities. Jason Kidd can pull 360 windmill dunks, and Yao Ming can clown you by dribbling off your head.
At least it still looks okay. The NBA player faces are remarkably similar to their real-world counterparts, and the dunks and jukes feel appropriately over-the-top. On the other hand, your ability to look at the game really suffers from the immovable camera. It always follows the ball, making it difficult to run down loose balls when you can’t see your player on the screen.
The voice-acting and writing are unintentionally hilarious thanks to watered-down, thuggish ebonics for children. Trikz, who I assume is famous in the street ball scene, does an okay job with the MC assignment, but after the fiftieth “watch out for the monorail!” one gets tired of the hype. I can’t decide if the music is bad and catchy, or just bad. I’ve found myself humming suspect lyrics like “I wanna be an NBA baller” or “Now we’re balling” or other such variations on the verb “to ball.” But maybe that’s because I’ve listened to so much of the music during load screens.
Basic online play is here in both versions, which is good, though the gameplay isn’t really interesting enough to warrant playing against others. At least the lag and functionality are up to snuff.
NBA Ballers: Phenom might mark a change from its predecessor with a new story mode and faux third-person exploration, but it ultimately tries too much and does too little. Compared to EA’s more complex series, this is one street baller you’ll want to leave on the curb.