IGN Review of NBA 08 Featuring Games of the Week
Last year, Sony tried to issue sports into the full HD era with their release of NBA 07. Timed to coincide with the launch of the PS3, the basketball title featured strong shooting mechanics and one of the most creative modes in sports, thanks to the NBA Replay feature. With a little more than a month to go before the 2007 season gets underway, Sony is readying their release of NBA 08 to hit PS3 courts everywhere. However, even though the game is a deeper title, gameplay issues make it weaker than last year's attempt.
One of the largest criticisms that came with last year's title was related to the hit and miss nature of the game control scheme. While the game came with Sixaxis controls to perform jukes, crossovers and spins, you weren't necessarily guaranteed success when you tried to pull them off. A portion of this has been remedied with the revamping of the system into the new Free6 system, which implements a couple of new controls, primarily around getting high or getting wide with a defender's hands. By tilting the Sixaxis backwards, a player raises their hands above their head, making it harder for a ball handler to successfully get a shot off. By tilting the controller forwards, a player puts their hands down, disrupting passing lanes and making it harder for offensive players to use jukes and spins to get to the basket.
The Free6 control scheme hasn't been solely restricted to defense either. Offensive players can use the same mechanic to keep the ball away from a defender when they're not dribbling. This cuts down on the amount of stealing opportunities for the defense while giving you more of a chance to pass out of a trap or other defensive play. What's more, you can now use the Sixaxis in the post to determine whether you'll push off or spin towards the basket, giving you a new control option for the big men in the paint. Players can also dribble between their legs by rolling the Sixaxis from side to side, keeping the defense off-guard. All of the new controls are paired together with some tighter controls for pre-existing moves with the wireless controller. It's much easier to pull off spins this year, and while the crossovers are still a bit tricky to pull with motion, it's better than it was last year.
Alongside the redone Free6 controls is a new player system that lets you manipulate more than one person on the court at the same time. Players can designate their Go To Guy by holding the L1 button and selecting the corresponding button of a player on the court, which places a star beneath their feet. From there, every single play run centers around that particular player, including pick and rolls, isolations or cuts towards the basket. Obviously, this makes it much easier to pull off Alley Oops, assists for dunks and baseline jumpers, or other energizing plays.
However, there are still a couple of issues with this combined control scheme that can make you hesitate with the game mechanics. For one thing, jukes or step backs are still somewhat tricky to pull off, requiring two or three attempts before you notice a specific move recognized. You'll quickly realize that you won't be fully divorcing yourself from the right analog stick to solely control players. What's more, instead of giving you some flexibility with branched movement on the court, players will frequently and doggedly focus on finishing animations before accepting another command. As a result, both computerized and human controlled players will move out of bounds, carried more by momentum and prior frames without any chance of avoiding the sidelines until it's too late. This is particularly noticeable if you're trying to spin or juke around a trap that's rather close to the sidelines, and you can't pass out of the initial move before you step over the line.
That brings up one of the most problematic issues with this year's game, which is that the overall gameplay seems to have regressed since last year, even playing at times like last year's PS2 title. Not only will some defenders slide up to characters on an angle, but they'll also immediately drop down into a ready stance instead of running with an offensive player and breaking them down as the play develops. That makes it much harder at times to follow their movements and square up before putting a body on your opponent. What's unfortunate is that this was largely addressed in last year's PS3 version, making its reappearance rather disappointing. Part of this control issue could potentially be attributed to the new Free6 "Get High or Get Low" hands feature; the game seems to interpret players as automatically being "low" even with the controller held on a stable, flat plane instead of influencing the peripheral in a direction. We even put the controller down on a desk and noticed this phenomenon, even after we'd recalibrated the Sixaxis multiple times.
Tie this together with pre-existing issues that weren't fixed from last year's title, and you'll notice that the overall gameplay isn't as solid as it could, or even should have been. The clock management issues return, so you'll still see the AI hold onto the ball instead of taking shots or intentionally fouling your players if they're down during a close game. Players still establish themselves out of bounds, frequently calling for a pass with one foot out of bounds. Depending on the kind of defense that you put on a player, you can easily force an eight second violation in the backcourt, and the AI will still pass into backcourt violations more than it should. Finally, fatigue still doesn't appear to have a significant affect on the gameplay, which ruins the simulation aspects of the title.
As a quick aside, what's up with the large number of turnovers that are found in this year's game? It's obvious that NBA 08 has a new set of ball physics for the game, but it seems tuned up a bit too high, resulting in passes that are quickly intercepted back and forth between teams. It can be expected, particularly during hard fought contests, that you might run into a sequence where players are running too hard and turn the ball over between each team twice within a fast break. However, we witnessed sequences of four or more turnovers between teams at half court within 30 seconds, which would stretch believability.
Unlike previous titles in the franchise, the overall experience of NBA 08 is governed by a new hub system. Called the Upside Progression System, players are allowed to collect points by completing various game goals or game mode goals scattered across six different categories: Exhibition, Season, Playoffs, Mini-Games, Online, and NBA Replay. As the primary gameplay features of NBA 08, these six categories will present you with one of 90 different tasks to accomplish, such as getting a triple double, beating a certain number of opponents online or winning a season MVP. Successfully completing these objectives will reward you with different awards, such as game balls, player cards and trophies. You'll also receive experience points that improves your player level, giving you access to new and better gameplay elements. These new elements come across in one of two ways. The first way provides credits that can be used to unlock additional features, such as classic jerseys, floor parquets, intro sequences and even fantasy arenas. By itself, the level of unlockable elements is about two to three times larger than last year's game, which is pretty cool.
However, you don't have to spend all of your credits on these items. The second way to improve your game experience is by spending them on a created player of their choice. Not only can you make a player for any team that you want, you can use the credits that you've accumulated to improve his stats, gain new gear for the floor, and modify what he looks like at will. What's extremely cool about this situation is that you can access your Progression Hub at almost any time, checking out how many goals you've accomplished and what you'd still need to do to unlock new features. It's an excellent idea and one that adds a ton of replayability to the title.
Similarly, last year's groundbreaking gameplay mode, NBA Replay, makes a return, but this time around, it features everything from last season as well as the playoffs. As a result, PS3 owners will be able to experience 34 weeks of the NBA season, taking on two challenges for each week in The Season mode of NBA Replay, or downloading the 5 best performances over the course of the game season. There's even a slight adjustment that's been made to this year's tasks, giving you an even greater challenge. In NBA 08's Replay mode, players will now have to hit shots from the exact same spot on the court that they were hit in real life. That means that if Kobe or The Matrix pulled up and sank a jumper from the corner, you have to as well if you want to pass that task. Coupled with three difficulty levels, NBA Replay has only gotten better in NBA 08.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the rest of the gameplay, which hasn't really changed at all. Trade logic is still radically missing from the title, which lets anyone create their dream team without any kind of restrictions. It's really time that this issue gets fixed if this is going to be a simulation style game. The mini-games are the same ones that have been included for the past few years with few changes; you can have up to four players in own the court, 3 point shootout and the skills challenge, but that's much fewer than the PSP version and less than last year's title on the PS2. Online play does have an easier hub to search for matches, find your online stat info and check game lobbies and leaderboards, but when we played, we ran into some lag off and on that slowed the court action to a crawl.
At least the visuals have been tightened up. The full HD settings that were established in last year's game makes the game really look great, and at 60 frames a second at 1080p (if you have a display that can run it), you'll see an incredible title. Character models have received a much needed makeover, however, to reduce the amount of sweat that pours out of their bodies during each game. Now these guys look much more realistic instead of like plastic figurines moving across the court, which adds to the atmosphere of the game. The other aspects from last year, such as the microtextures and cloth physics on the uniforms, have carried over to this year's title, and there appear to be a number of new camera angles to highlight the crowd, team benches and arenas.
The same can be said about in-game cinematics that showcase a big score, although there is a caveat to this: you'll sometimes find the cinematic playing a few seconds after the play has ended, which can throw off your timing or your positioning on the ball if you're trying to press the offense into turning the ball over. What's more, the cinematic will sometimes adjust the positioning of your characters after it's finished, making it harder to intercept in-bounds passes. Additionally, there are a few moments where players will appear to clip through other players, which looks rather strange, especially when they suddenly gain and acquire mass, bumping into each other for contact.
While the musical selections are relatively standard, the sound effects, particularly for the stadium during games are quite nice. The crowd will build and cheer for strong plays by the home team and be silenced by the visitors. During hard fought games or particularly close meetings, they will rise to their feet, rooting their team on to victory. It truly adds to the feeling and excitement of the title, although there are some sections where it feels a bit uneven. For instance, if the other team is shooting the first of their two foul shots, the crowd is boisterous, waving thunder sticks and trying to make them miss. However, after that shot has been taken and made (or missed), the crowd immediately shuts up and doesn't try to distract the player for the second attempt. This isn't realistic in the slightest. Other times, you can make a thunderous dunk and only get a minor raise in the excitement level, which is unfortunate. At least this year, NBA 08 features commentary by Kevin Calabro and Mark Jackson. However, the play by play and color comments feel forced and somewhat behind the on-screen action, making it seem poorly synched with the rest of the game.
©2007-09-26, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved