It's only been about half a year since Sony's last effort at a portable basketball game, the simply named NBA for the PSP. But just in time for the start of the new pro hoops season, Sony's back on the hardwood with NBA 06. It certainly seems as though the developer listened to the criticism leveled at NBA 06's predecessor, as certain aspects of the 06 game have definitely been improved over its forebear. However, the gameplay didn't keep up its end of the bargain, so it's a case of two steps forward and two steps back.
One aspect of the game that has definitely improved in NBA 06 over its predecessor is the graphics. The game runs at a silky frame rate, and players animate much more smoothly and are easier to recognize compared to the last version. The player models offer a decent level of detail, and newer dunk animations have been added, along with animations for players that are setting or fighting through picks. The developer has also improved on sound. The on-court sound effects are about what you would expect from any basketball game, but this version offers music in the menu screens, as well as a play-by-play announcer in Ian Eagle. He doesn't have a great variety of things to say, but at least some announcing is better than none.
As far as gameplay goes, the biggest changes are, ironically, ones that make NBA 06 much like any other basketball game released in the past few years. The awkward shooting mechanic introduced in the last game has been mercifully scrapped, replaced by a more standard hold-and-release method. You'll still see a color-coded halo around the ball to give you another visual indication of when to release your shot, but switching away from the two-button-press method makes dunks and layups much more sensible in this edition of NBA. A turbo button has also been reintroduced, but your player runs out of energy so quickly that you'll discover you almost never find an opportune time to use it unless you're on a breakaway. The play calling has also improved, with four simple plays available from the D pad. These include sending a cutter down the lane or along the baseline, as well as asking for a pick.
While those improvements are certainly welcome, unfortunately some big flaws remain in the gameplay. The most irritating of them is that your players will inexplicably pick up their dribbles whenever you run into a defender more than once or twice. Those of us who have played any amount of organized basketball, be it in high school or even grade school, remember the most basic rule of all is: You never pick up your dribble unless you intend to shoot or pass immediately. Yet NBA 06 would have you believe that seasoned professionals, like Steve Nash or Jason Kidd, have all of a sudden forgotten the single most fundamental tenet of ballhandling. The upshot of this irritating quirk is that you can almost never drive the ball with any effectiveness, as the juke moves are canned and can be as dangerous as they are effective. In fact, many times you're apt to lose control of your player out-of-bounds if you try to use the spin or crossover moves. So you're forced into passing the ball a lot more in NBA 06. The latter effect doesn't sound like such a bad thing until you begin to realize that the directional passes are often unpredictable or inaccurate. You could be pointing with the analog stick to a player running open along the left wing, yet you'll still see your pass head directly ahead of you--and toward your center, who's being double-teamed in the post. In effect, you're forced to use icon passing to gain any semblance of control over your passing game.
The artificial intelligence in the game is also pretty boneheaded on both sides of the ball. Offenses set up exactly the same each time. If you bring the ball up with your point guard, your center will always settle into the low block on the left side of the key. Your power forward will set up in the high post on the right elbow. Your small forward will be on the left wing, with your shooting guard mirroring him on the right. This happens every time. You can also bait the AI defensively. Simply dump the ball into the post, and have your man back-in the defender. There's no need to worry about a three-second call in the paint, as that rule doesn't exist in NBA 06, and there's no need to worry about a guard pinching in on a double team, because he won't come. Just keep backing the defender down into the circle, pump fake (he'll bite on it every time), and then lay the ball in. It's money every single time.
NBA 06 offers other game modes, including a single season mode, which is adjustable to 29, 58, or 82 games (the latter of which is a full pro schedule). You can easily simulate or play as many as you like before going into the playoffs, and you can also trade players around. Again, there's no trade logic, so if you're a Laker fan, feel free to dump Aaron McKie and Kwame Brown for Jason Kidd and Jermaine O'Neal. The Nets and Pacers won't mind a bit. Aside from single season mode, there are also five minigames to choose from. The three games from last time around are back: three-point shooting, skills challenge, and paint (although paint has been renamed to "own the court"). Horse and dodgeball have also been added. There's something really amusing about seeing Shaq aim a beanball right at Kobe's head, but maybe that's just us. The minigames are all pretty well done and are actually probably more fun than playing regular basketball in NBA 06. Rounding out the game's features is wireless multiplayer mode. You can play against an opponent either locally or over the Internet in a regular exhibition game. The game isn't so great to begin with, though, so the amount of value you get out of playing it against someone else is already suspect.
While NBA 06 does offer some high points, such as a more sensible control mechanism, improved graphics and play calling, and a quick pace to its gameplay, the flaws in the AI on both sides of the ball make it impossible for us to recommend. It's a better game than its predecessor, which was released as a launch title with the PSP, but that's really not saying much. We'd also liked to have seen a franchise mode added. The season mode and minigames are nice and all, but NBA 06 just doesn't deliver where it really counts.