There's an overused cliche in sports: The best players get better as the game wears on. And trite or not, there couldn't be a better phrase to describe Sony, a company that's turning the sports video game industry upside down. Don't just take my word for it - ask some of sports gaming's fallen leaders - like Sega or EA Sports.
NBA Shoot Out '97 has been significantly improved over last year's premiere. Most evident is a higher-octane 3-D engine that greatly enhances the aesthetics of the game - in addition to improving its speed. Shoot Out's polygon player replicas are extremely sharp and animate very well, due in part to some fancy motion capturing. Most importantly, Shoot Out no longer feels like a basketball game played on a court of wet cement.
Sony clearly invested time and energy in detailing this game. The excellent authenticity of each NBA arena is matched by the clear, accurate sound of sneakers squeaking as they grip the polished hardwood floor. A booming announcer shouts player names in a variety of tones ranging from low-key pronunciations to rowdy exclamations that contributes to the exciting essence of NBA fare. The environment cries NBA Basketball - and that's a good thing.
Shoot Out is played either as an arcade game or a simulation that involves fatigue, substitutions, and play calling. On balance, the game plays best as a fast-paced arcade game. There are plenty of moves such as crossover dribbles and pump fakes, and once you use those to drive into the paint, you can finish with a variety of fantastic slams. But the best feature in Shoot Out's gameplay is its "icon passing" system, which does for basketball video games what Madden did for football. By pressing one of the "shoulder" buttons on the PlayStation controller, icons representing the four face buttons appear over your teammates. Press one of those buttons and the ball is passed to that player, eliminating foul-ups such as accidentally passing to the wrong teammate (something that always plagues basketball video games).
As a simulation, Shoot Out is fairly realistic, but many of the features that could have made it truly exceptional fall short. For instance, the on-court play calling is nice and simple, but there are only a few vague plays, such as "Inside," "Half-Court," and "Outside," and that just doesn't make for a healthy playbook. Very few defensive or offensive strategic options are available beyond the bare essentials, and despite having a nifty "Create a Player" feature, this title falls squarely behind EA's NBA Live 97 when it comes to coaching options and features.
Despite its small shortcomings, Sony's new basketball game does a commendable job of striking a balance between the realistic and arcade elements that make basketball games fun. The only gamers who might be dissatisfied with Shoot Out are those die-hard hoopsters who appreciate the Xs and Os of the game more than they do slam-dunking in their opponent's face. And even those clipboard toters will probably find a lot to like in this excellent basketball game.