At the start of every season in sports one key question always arises: will this year be any different, or will it be a repeat of the same? Sure, players may be traded and rules may change, but fans always wonder if fate will be any different for a particular team. The same can be said for sports video games -- will it be a simple roster update that retains the flavor of the old game, or a complete re-imagining of the series? NBA 07, Sony's upcoming portable title, manages to straddle this line rather deftly, with plenty of new mini-games and features to make it seem new and fresh, while still retaining the same gameplay mechanics (and flaws) that the series is known for.
Unlike Sony's console game that shares the same name, the PSP series doesn't examine the life of an NBA superstar. No theatrics, no storyline, and no goals to fulfill in crunch situations. Instead, it focuses much more on the game of basketball (with a lot more attention to diversionary mini-games as well.) Veterans of last year's game will notice that that many of their favorite standbys have made a return: exhibition, season, playoffs, shoot around and free throw modes are still to be found. The All-Star weekend returns, with the All-Star Game, Skills Challenge and 3 Point Contest. There's now a new Dunk Contest, which is rhythm based: each move that you select and subsequently perform is scored based on how accurate your timing is with buttons that fall from the top of the screen, a la Dance Dance Revolution. It's not the most challenging dunk feature out there; in fact, it's probably one of the weakest additions this year, but it may amuse some players for a few minutes. The Exhibition, All-Star and Online Quick Play options return as well, giving you the opportunity to immediately leap into a basketball game, although there's now an option to play a pickup game as well.
Similar to the kind of games you'd play on your street court with your friends, the pickup game mode provides you with 10 random NBA players for you and your opponent (either the computer or an opposing player) to choose from. Fortunately, you'll be able to see their stats and ratings before you make a choice; just like the playground, you'll want to pick the best players for your team before your opponent, although you're not forced to keep them at their actual positions. Want to make Jason Terry a power forward instead of a shooting guard, or use Dirk Nowitzki as your point guard? Here's your chance as you try to beat the other team to 21. No fouls, no shot clock -- just players busting their butt on a street court.
While it might sound like a mini-game, it actually isn't compared to the two "major" mini-game additions for this year, Carnival and Conquest mode. The Carnival mode is actually comprised of three separate games: Hot Shot!, Big Shooter and Pinball. The Hot Shot! Game is one of those amusement park games (akin to those Pop-A-Shot machines) where you're given a minute to make as many baskets as possible. Every 20 seconds, the basket winds up moving, so you constantly have to adjust the power of your shot. Big Shooter, on the other hand, is based off Skeeball, where you're given 10 balls and you try to place them in six different baskets. To give the game an extra added challenge, the top bucket moves, so you need to try to aim carefully for that one if you want to hit all six. Finally, Pinball is exactly what it sounds like: a basketball themed pinball table. Players can try to rack up multi-ball bonuses, extra balls and other staples of the arcade game. These three may seem like a fun way to waste some time, but you actually receive tickets for your progress, which can be redeemed for any one of over 50 classic jerseys in the Prizes feature. It's a nice way to give players an incentive to play something that's basketball themed, but doesn't take as much time as a full basketball game.
The same can be said for the Conquest mode, which is a turn-based strategy game and one of the most creative uses of basketball and strategy ever designed. The goal of the game is to take over every single team in the NBA (and the city they belong to) due to your skill on the street courts. Every turn, a city can either invade or defend itself from invasion from another team. If the invaders win, they take over that city and all of the players on that team. If the defending team wins, they can steal away any player from the invaders. If your home city is defeated, then you lose the game. This sets up a situation where you're constantly focusing on expanding your turf by challenging weaker teams while creating a buffer zone to protect yourself from other squads. If you really have skills and can take over a region, then you unlock a legendary player to help your squad.
The actual match-up has its own rules as well. Each team has a specific life meter, which is reduced by the number of shots taken. Once a team loses all of its health, the match is over. While there are no fouls or shot clock here, there are some definite obstacles to beware of: if a player's shot is blocked, that player is stunned, which hurts their speed and their abilities to be effective on the court. Likewise, if a three pointer is knocked down, the person defending them is stunned as well. Fortunately, these incapacitated players can be rejuvenated if their squad makes a basket. Finally, teams that happen to be on the verge of being eliminated have the option to make a comeback thanks to 4 and 5 point hot spots that will appear on the court. Make a few baskets from here, and you're right back in the hunt. At the end of a match, you're graded on your play, and the player with the most rebounds, points and assists get medals. Every three medals will earn your squad a star, which increases the amount of life you have before you lose, so it's especially important to gain as many stars as you can. This is an excellent idea, and one of those things that could easily stand on its own as a separate game.
While playing against the computer is a lot of fun, and will at times give you a challenge, it doesn't compare to taking on a human opponent. NBA 07 returns with Ad Hoc and Internet play formerly known as Infrastructure. Connecting is quick and easy, and extremely solid, with loads of stat tracking items. What's nice is that the NBA 07 also supports game sharing for the Carnival, so your friends that don't have the disc can check out those mini-games. Interestingly, NBA 07 is one of the first titles that provides support for the PSP camera, presumably so players can see who they decide to challenge in an online match. While there hasn't been a date set on when the camera would even arrive, the inclusion of that feature might mean that portable fans may get their hands on that soon. It's nice to see Sony laying down the early foundation for that peripheral.
Apart from the myriad of mini-games that NBA 07 hosts, portable players will discover the standard play that the series has been known for. Particularly, this includes the colored hold and shoot button mechanism that lets someone know if you've got great timing, might miss the shot or just threw up a brick. It's great to get the feedback on how close you might be to making the shot, and it really gives you an idea how you're doing as you move the ball up and down the court. However, the game still suffers from the same strange shooting issues from last year -- some jumpers that are ringed in green will wind up going off the mark or missing entirely, while treys that are red as soon as they leave your players hands will go in. While the arbitrary nature may be understandable (especially because even the lamest duck shot goes in during real life at times), it does wind up casting some doubt on the color mechanic.
The game also still suffers from some of its older A.I. defensive issues. This is actually a curious thing, since the overall A.I. is much more agressive than previous iterations of the series. Players will actively go after balls, and you will discover that you have to pass to the open man, since many defenders will put a hand or two out to steal an errant ball away. However, way too often you'll discover that an opposing player can drive to the basket without any one of your teammates challenging them for position or putting a body on the man. Zone plays can become wide open lanes for anyone to run through and potentially exploit. You may also find that calling in plays can result in a lag for a few seconds as the new play is registered, then called, and finally executed.
While some of the older issues do creep up here and there, the presentation of the game has actually become much stronger this year around. Instead of only getting the stadium announcer after a basket is made, Ian Eagle and Mark Jackson perform play by play and color commentary throughout every game, and they're actually good. While they may miss some plays, it gives them a chance to revisit them with the new instant replay sponsored by TNT, which often will be shown during a break in the action (such as right after a foul has been committed or a particularly spectacular play has been made). There's also a highlight reel that can be played after a game to see the best plays from you and your opponent. You'll also find that some plays will highlight a particular player, with their stats (akin to the Upper Deck presentation from last year. However, since that deal is no longer in effect with the game, players are only being singled out in a separate kind of presentation. You'll also pick up on subtle animation changes, such as billboards that scroll with animated ads for T-Mobile, Spaulding and TNT, as well as stadium Strip-a-trons cheering for the home team. Finally, the crowd is definitely much more involved in gameplay, and you'll notice the booing and cheering that will rise and fall during each quarter.
©2006-09-21, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved