IGN Review of NBA 08: Featuring Block Party
When the PSP version was released last year alongside the PS2, it was somewhat surprising to note that it was the best basketball title from Sony's studios. The portable title merged the elements of the court game and its colored halo shooting mechanic with some of the most addictive and engaging sports mini-games. What's more, it fully took advantage of the online and even peripheral capabilities of the system, making it a showcase sports game for the PSP. How could Sony follow up on such a strong title? By releasing NBA 08, a game that builds on the strengths of last year's title with deeper features and more mini-games than ever before.
Once again, NBA 08 for the PSP doesn't focus on The Life like the PS2 version of the game, nor does it have a Progression Hub for created players akin to the PS3 title. What it does once again is pack in a ton of basketball and basketball related mini-games onto a tiny UMD. The same pack of gameplay modes from last year return in this year's title: exhibition, season, playoffs, shoot around, free throw and the pickup game make an appearance, with the option to play online pickup and exhibition games. The standard Sony All-Star weekend package is back, with the 3 point contest, All-Star Game and Skills Challenge included. The Dunk Contest, which was a new addition last year, has been excluded in this version of the game. That's not much of a loss, since that mini-game sucked, but considering that there's nothing new with the All-Star Weekend, it's a little disappointing that something didn't take its place.
Joining these standard modes are the return of the mini-games that made NBA 07 so much fun. These have been split into two separate categories: Mini-games and Carnival. Within the mini-games category, players will find returning favorites such as Horse, Dodgeball and the excellent Own The Court mode. These are joined by two new games, Fast Break and Elimination. Fast Break is a 3-on-2 game where you alternate between offense and defense. On offense, you try to score as many times as you can before the clock runs out. However, this isn't the only way to rack up points; if a defender is able to steal or intercept the ball via pass or rebound, they'll receive points and prevent the offensive side from inbounding for three seconds. After three rounds, the team with the most points wins. It's a very fast paced mini-game that tests your scoring and ball handling ability, which you can use to strengthen your skills for other modes.
Elimination, on the other hand, is a 5-on-5 arcade style game based around points. Each team member has six points assigned to them, which can only be cleared by making any combination of jump shots, layups or dunks. Once a player has scored their six points, he's removed from the court entirely, which would initially seem like a disadvantage. However, this is actually a plus, because his remaining teammates receive a powerup to further help them defeat their opponents. Some of these include unlimited turbo, increased stealing abilities or easier rebounding. All of these powerups are randomized at the beginning of each game, so you won't continually receive the same one over and over again. There is one twist to the formula, however: the star athletes will receive weaker powerups while the regular or sixth man style player will be assigned stronger powerups. So someone like King James would possibly be assigned nothing at all, while Daniel Gibson or Shannon Brown would have improved shooting powerups. The game is one once a team has eliminated four of its five players, which is a challenge by itself, but an engaging one as you try to score as quickly as possible before your opponent does.
As for Carnival, the previous three modes, Big Shooter, Pop-A-Shot and Pinball make a return in this year's game. Of the original three, Pinball has been vastly expanded, with a grand total of three tables to try your table skills on. What's more, players will be able to download additional tables every week to expand the number of machines they can play with, which is a cool concept. Along with these three games, players can take advantage of Block-A-Shot and Shootin' Bricks. Block-A-Shot is similar to Whack-A-Mole, where you try to hit basketballs that pop out of six different holes while avoiding hitting referee whistles that will give you fouls (three fouls and you're out). The game tosses up a number of random items as well, such as bonus balls, slam dunk opportunities, numbered jerseys that have to be hit in sequence, and time outs that freeze the clock, allowing you to think about your next move. To move on to the next stage, you have to hit the right percentage of balls or items and hit the shot clock before it reaches zero.
Shootin' Bricks, on the other hand, is more like Arkanoid, where you control a paddle and knock balls into different colored bricks on a basketball court. Random blocks are arrayed on the stage as well which can either affect the direction of the ball or unlock powerups, such as the ability to use magnets to move the ball where you want it to go or expanding the size of your paddle. The game deviates from Arkanoid in a few ways though - you can control the angle and the speed of your paddle at any time you want, and you also don't have to clear every single block to reach the next stage. Instead, you simply have to uncover the basketball goal that's hidden by a block on the stage and have the ball make contact with the goal to continue. Regardless of the Carnival game that you play, you'll receive tickets which can be used to unlock classic jerseys for teams, or floor patterns for the Own the Court game. It's an okay number of unlockables, but the true meat of the extras to be found here comes with the aforementioned downloadable pinball tables, which should keep you busy for a while.
Another thing that will keep you busy is Conquest mode, which has been significantly expanded from last year's version. As a quick reminder, Conquest is a mix of basketball and strategy where you take you favorite team and attempt to invade and take over every other NBA city with your skill on the courts. There are a number of new features that have been added to make the strategy more complex as well as increase the challenge for skilled conquest players. The first is the ability to strengthen your teams with the addition of training programs. In last year's game, you could only improve a squad under your control by beating another team, trading their stars for yours in the process. While that's still a key point of the game, you're now able to supplement these teams with additional training, bolstering a player's individual stats with extra medals and stars. What's more, you can now redeem any of these stars for upgradeable powerups, such as shooting, running and power boosts to make those athletes more of a force on the court. Stars can also be used to upgrade a city, making it harder for an invading squad to defeat another team by taking the court off the streets and into practice facilities and eventually the home arena itself. Once again, Conquest mode comes off as an incredibly deep feature that could stand alone as a title, and hopefully it will be exported to all of the future versions of Sony's NBA franchise.
So with all of these mini-games, how does the actual basketball gameplay fare? Well, in some ways, this year's game feels like a time warp to last year, as it has most of the same flaws that plagued NBA 07. The shot halo still winds up being inaccurate at times, making some clearly well timed shots miss while horribly off shots will drop in. This has been somewhat addressed so it's not as atrocious as it was last year, but it can still frustrate you. For instance, it was particularly infuriating when you try to go for a slam or a layup and you notice that the momentum for your player carries them past the basket, leaving a well timed, green haloed shot to ricochet off the rim. The same thing can be said of the gaps within the defense, which will allow players to slash their way towards the basket way too often with little interference on your defender's part.
However, there is a significant twist that's been made to the game, particularly in the season play. This revolves around player management and team chemistry on the court. As you play through the season, you'll notice that your player's moods will rotate between neutral to annoyed if they're not getting enough floor time or in a slump, and happy or even on fire if they're making their shots. It's up to you, as a good head coach, to balance the moods of the players so you can get the best possible squad on the floor. Of course, you still have the ability to make rather unrealistic trades, although the game will give you mild resistance on what is and isn't acceptable. Hopefully they'll improve on this in the future titles and extend that to other versions in the franchise
Obviously, NBA 08 is incredibly deep, and the fact that you can take on players via Ad Hoc and Infrastructure in five of the mini-games as well as the exhibition and pickup games is impressive. However, we did notice that while jumping online and getting into a match with another player is extremely easy to do, we ran into multiple instances of lag that dipped the title below the game's standard 60 frames per second. We also noticed that many of the features that were included in last year's title seem to be missing in this year's game. For instance, the game sharing that was included in last year's title for Carnival games appears to be completely missing from NBA 08. Similarly, the inclusion of PSP camera support appears to have evaporated from this version, presumably because the peripheral has as well for North American shores, which is somewhat disappointing. Considering all of that, it would've been nice if you could hook up your PSP to your PS3 version of the game and take your season with you on the go, uploading your progress when you got home. Alas, that's not to be in NBA 08 either. At least there's downloadable roster support.
As for the presentational effects, the game carries over every aspect from last year's game, making very few changes to the on-court action. This is supplemented with additional animations this year to go with the 60 frames a second, such as new diving or leaping moves for loose balls. Players still receive highlight reels at the end of games, and that's tied together with a solid job from Ian Eagle and Mark Jackson, who return for commentary duties this year. The crowd still winds up getting involved with their boos and cheers, although they still don't appear to have radically changed when they make their commentary during a game.
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