The "street" side of basketball is pretty popular these days. What began as a few regular cats from the block, talking smack and playing wild pick-up games, has since grown into a marketable entity with sponsorship and celebrities thrown in the mix. So it comes as no surprise that EA's "Street" titles do well for them every time they hit the shelves. They're good for an effortless dose of arcade-basketball, minus the rules and maturity of a traditional simulation. Enter, NBA Street: Showdown
, EA's second PSP offering this week that's hoping to do on handhelds what its bigger brothers did on consoles. Thankfully, the game does a good job of miming some of the graphical detail of those games, while also takes advantage of unique PSP features and the needs of handheld gamers.
As a zany three-on-three arcade hoops game that's all about showboating and beating your opponent in the most unsportsmanlike like way possible, Showdown delivers a solid experience worth playing on PSP. What it misses in terms of scale and features, it makes up for in novel ideas like Shot Blocker, a hot mini-game. If you have a small amount of time to play your PSP, the mini-games here are ideal. Seeing behind-the-back passes or a monster dunk in the middle of heated game is still a heart-stopping moment on the small screen. The action is fast, clean, and perhaps most importantly, addicting.
All those rich lighting effects that were accomplished in NBA Street V3 didn't quite make it into Showdown. But that's OK because there's a ton of background detail that's present, more that I expected. The Showdown's player models, color palette, shadows, and life-like animations are impressive feats for the handheld. Some of the locations you'll hit like Venice Beach and The Cage really push to capture the environments they're based on. Uptown has this cool-looking cage enclosure with visible trees in distance that provide a great sense of depth. All the slick and "streety" menus, fonts, and music are here as well, reminding you of the lineage that this game comes from. And all of this spills over into the actual gameplay in a graceful way. Showdown is definitely a stylish basketball game.
When it comes to actually playing the game, things did get a bit watered down for PSP. You can move your players around with either the analog nub or the direction pad. It's harder to make cuts to shake opponents with the gooey analog nub -- the directional pad may be the best way to go. In terms of accomplishing tricks, things fall close to the way things worked in NBA Street Volume 2. All your tricks are accomplished by pressing the square button in Showdown, which is a bit limiting when you compare it to the trick stick in V3 that dedicated the entire right analog stick to fancy move options. By moving the stick one of eight directions and pressing the turbo button, your character was capable of pulling off up to 40 moves. Now you're confined to the square button for initial tricks and the two shoulder buttons for modifying. The only way this could have been avoided is if there would have been an analog nub on the right side of the PSP. Fortunately, the limited controls aren't devastating because the overall gameplay is sharp and satisfying.
You still accomplish "Gamebreaker" the same way, but again, it plays out more the way it did in Volume 2. You can't control the moves during the actual Gamebreaker the way you can in V3. Tricking and stringing together whacky combos will build the Gamebreaker meter which is measured by the letters in the word. When all the letters in the word are highlighted, your team is capable of pulling of an unstoppable shot, dunk, or defensive block. The action itself is highlighted by a cutscene in where the color hues turn pale and dreamy, and the player charges to the hole with a sparkly ball in hand. When the score is made, the screen and the players will celebrate a bit with a few bragging animations. It's classic "Street" presentation that exploits the graphical capacity of the PSP well. When you're not controlling a given player, the A.I. isn't very proactive. This is annoying at times when the opponent is driving to the hole and your teammate across the court isn't bearing down on him like he should. But it balances out with the ability to muscle through defenders, swat the hell out of shooters, and blatantly goal tend. You don't have to worry about fouling or running out of bounds. It's all school yard fun with Hip-Hop overtones.
Navigating Street's many modes is a cinch. You can access Pick Up games with the NBA teams in Quick Play mode, as well as the two mini-games. Arcade Shootout puts you in first-person as a player of your choice stands in front of a classic pop-a-shot machine with three hoops to shoot at. You have to judge how long to hold down the X button to determine how hard you throw the ball. The player's arms are the only visible part of him when he shoots, so it's hard to visually judge how the game is reading your button press. Things get tougher when the hoops start moving on you.
Shot Blocker is leagues more fun. Your player stands in front of the goal while other NBA players (in varying quantities depending on the level) stand at the three-point line and take shots. You have to hit triangle just like you do in the regular game to jump and pull off a successful swat. The closer you are to them, the more points you get for your efforts. Each time a player gets a ball past you for a bucket, it counts as a punishing strike. The levels will keep progressing, presenting tougher challenges in terms of strategy. Sometimes they'll fake pump, or pass to another player to throw you off. The game is over once you reach nine strikes. When you swat down a "money" ball, it explodes about a dozen bright yellow stars (a switch from the green dollar sign I grew to love in the preview build) all over the court floor. Game points get totaled up at the end, which will translate into whatever amount of rewards points you've earned. These are redeemable later for upgrades.
The King of the Courts mode has all the customizable treats which includes building your own three-man team and designing your own baller. You'll take the whole crew up against other teams to "own" their home court. Battles take place every where from the gritty New York asphalt, to Oakland's very own Mosswood park. Your baller will earn respect and clothes through his (or her) travels with the points acquired from wins.
Mutiplayer has two faces in Showdown. Party Play mode takes place offline with up to four players passing the PSP around for turns. Head to Head uses Ad-hoc functionality to play wireless Pick Up games with another PSP. The actual gameplay in this mode is rather good. It only chugged once with us, but remained fluid for the rest of the game. It's a solid enough experience to engage users in the inherent competitive nature of basketball. The Street series is made for multiplayer combat and it was a relief to see the wireless component work well here.
EA Pocket Trax is a mode that's solely dedicated to all the music in the game with 3D animated graphics playing in the background. It's a nice element that's worth exploring, especially if you find the music in the game especially charming. And with tracks from acts like Guerilla Black, Ali Vegas, and De La Soul, that's not hard at all.
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