After spending a year on the bench, NBA 06 comes back featuring an interesting new wrinkle. However, Sony's game still isn't refined enough to warrant a spot in your starting lineup.
- The Life mode is a new and interesting twist
- Showtime and alley-oop mechanics are unique and interesting.
- Not much flexibility or customizability in The Life
- Core basketball mechanics are still flawed
- Graphics and sound still lag behind the competition
- Getting stuck in a Life mission can be a drag.
Last week marked the return of Sony's pro basketball franchise, which wasn't published last year because the developer took some time off from its yearly development cycle to reevaluate the game and its goals. The result of that time off is NBA 06: The Life Vol. 1, which is in reference to the new story-based gameplay mode that is the centerpiece of the game. The Life turned out to be an interesting, albeit flawed, feature--what with its heavily scripted progression that follows the story of an NBA rookie looking to get drafted so he can become a star. Unfortunately, holes in the core gameplay mechanics and the lack of a standard dynasty mode leave NBA 06 as more of a curiosity than a must-have for basketball fans.
Right from the start, the game encourages you to jump right into its unique story mode, as you're presented with just three options in the menu: NBA, The Life, and Online. NBA opens up options to play single exhibition games, to dip into NBA 06's extensive list of minigames, or to play season mode. If you start up The Life mode, it begins by putting you into a character-creation screen, where you'll be able to select your jersey number, as well as customize the appearance of your created baller by specifying his accessories, like headbands, elbow pads, leg sleeves, and, of course, tats.
The options here were surprisingly limited, compared to the player-creation abilities of similar games. We couldn't find any options, for example, to make a baller a southpaw. Perhaps more importantly, you're not given any options to customize the size of your player, or his position. You always play as a point guard in The Life. Since the storyline is so heavily scripted, it's understandable on some level why these limitations are placed on you. But the restrictions may be disappointing for someone looking for something more open-ended. Our dream of creating the second coming of Kurt Rambis for the Lakers, complete with mullet and ugly black glasses, was immediately squashed. Once you're done with creating your point guard, The Life begins in earnest, starting you off with some cutscenes that place you in some predraft workouts for whatever team you selected as your favorite in your profile. Eventually you get drafted by your favorite team and then begin the long journey that is your first year in the league.
In a nutshell, The Life is a series of minigame challenges (interspersed with cutscenes) that set the stage for your character and how he advances in his first season in the NBA. Over the course of the campaign, you'll follow along as your wide-eyed rookie, a little known junior college player, generates buzz leading into the NBA draft before getting selected early in the second round. You'll follow his first-season highs and lows of performing in crunch time, facing off against rival players, and just dealing with the pressures of being a pro baller on and off the court.
It all sounds interesting and fun on paper, like a basketball role-playing game, of sorts. The problem is that within the first half hour or so, you begin to see how The Life is largely a flawed experience in execution. Oftentimes you'll get stuck with a loading screen, you'll watch a brief 30-second or one-minute cutscene, and then you'll deal with another loading screen before your next task is assigned. Sometimes the cutscenes run one after another, but you need to sit through about an equal amount of loading-screen time for all the time you spend watching the story play out. The story itself might be a little overdramatized, but that's to be expected. (Think of it as an interactive He Got Game.) But the incessant load screens that only reward you with a small spoonful of a cutscene keep you from getting into any real flow with the story or with your character.
The predraft workouts you do are a thinly disguised tutorial, introducing you to the game's shooting, juking, and passing mechanics. From time to time you'll jump into scrimmages, where you're given certain conditions, like win the game, score X number of points, or gather Y number of steals and assists. These challenges are all pass-fail. Pass and your character gains some attribute points...and you get to proceed in the storyline. Do extremely well and you'll get bonus attribute points, as well as unlock special extras, like jerseys for use in exhibitions. As you get into the season, these bonus goals become "showtime goals," where you try to get your player to not only be effective, but also entertain--with no-look dishes and alley-oops. Fail the challenge, however, and you have to do the drill or the mission all over.
And therein lies the flaw: It's very possible to get stuck on certain challenges for a while, which can be very frustrating. Most players may actually spend a few hours grinding through the predraft workouts and summer league games before they actually reach the regular season, where more fun in The Life mode awaits. Even when you start getting to the more interesting parts of the story, though, the possible frustrations of getting stuck on a mission remain. Your team may win a game, for example, but you may end up an assist or a steal short of meeting the conditions of the challenge. So in effect, you've failed. This doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Whatever happened to "Just win, baby!"?