Sony Computer Entertainment America has a knack for coming up with interesting twists on conventional basketball. Unfortunately, that ability doesn't seem to extend to making good basketball games. NBA 07 on the PlayStation Portable had some neat ideas but was a chore to play. That's the case for NBA 08 as well. There are a dizzying number of ways to play the game of basketball, but that's the catch: You still have to play basketball, which is not one of the game's strengths.
NBA 08's best feature is conquest mode, which returns from last year in improved form. You select an NBA team with the goal of trying to take over every NBA city by defeating its team. If you challenge then defeat a team, you'll control that team and can challenge other nearby cities. Once a turn, you can even swap players between teams you already control in an effort to fortify a weak team. Taking over the entire map isn't easy because that's the goal for all the other teams in the league as well. They'll aggressively try to take over your cities, so it's important that you don't water down your squads too much or else you'll be easy prey for an attacking team. If you do manage to fend off an assault, you're awarded your choice of any player on that team. There are a few other ways to improve your squad this year. You can train players to develop their attributes, improve a city's rating, and even unlock retired greats, such as Karl Malone, if you take over an entire region.
This isn't some sort of dice or card game--you actually have to play the games. Last year's conquest mode was a chore because the actual basketball was so bad. This year it's a bit better. There are fewer blocked shots, the games don't last very long, and it's a little easier thereby less frustrating. Rather than playing for a certain amount of time or to a set score, each team has a life meter that depletes when the other team hits a shot. Blocking shots or hitting three-pointers will make an opposing player "dizzy" and less effective until that player's team scores a basket. There are other twists on normal NBA rules as well. There are no fouls, no backcourt violations, and no shot clock. You can go out of bounds, though, which is a shame because it's pretty easy to do.
The on-court action you'll find in exhibition, online, and season modes is much like it is in conquest: better, but still not very good. The tricolored shot meter that is so helpful in other versions of the game isn't quite so useful here. It's less user-friendly and seems to have less impact on whether or not the ball goes in the hoop. Passes are less likely to be intercepted, players will pick up their dribble for no reason less often, and it's a little easier to keep offensive players in front of you on defense. That's the good news. The bad news is what passes for basketball here doesn't feel much like basketball. Players can stop on a dime; their momentum has no bearing on how fast they can change direction. Rather than being a function of smart artificial intelligence, good defense is mostly a result of players simply linking themselves to the ball-hander via some unseen magnetic force. To their credit, defenders are pretty good about rotating to pick up the open man and moving around screens, but getting a dunk is still not much more difficult than mashing the crossover button or pump-faking until you magically break free from the defense's invisible clutches.
Rounding out NBA 08's game modes are a cornucopia of minigames--some good and some terrible. There are three basketball-themed pinball tables (with another available via download). These aren't great by any means, but they're amusing. Own the court is a timed head-to-head shooting challenge that's pretty fun and the three-point contest is entertaining against friends for a few rounds. Fastbreak, which awards you points for buckets made on offense, as well as stolen passes and blocked shots on defense, is fun--in addition to being useful. Elimination is an interesting five-on-five variant where the objective is to eliminate your players until you only have one left. Players are eliminated when they score six points. There's a lot of strategy required to win here because if you eliminate too many of your players too quickly you'll have a hard time scoring with the players that are left. It's too bad the developer chose to include power-ups in this mode because they weren't needed. The rest of the minigames are either extremely shallow, really bad, or retreads from last year. There's a lame whack-a-mole variant, a Breakout clone, H.O.R.S.E., skee-ball, and dodge ball.
NBA 08's presentation gets the job done in workmanlike fashion. Instant replays are sporadic and there aren't many player close-ups, but there are some nice reflections on the floor while the arenas look good. The player models aren't bad and you can recognize easily recognize many players despite the small screen. This is in part due to the camera, which is too close to the action and too low. But it's hard to recommend a better solution because sometimes you'll have a hard time figuring out who has the ball in the crowded paint. This is because everything is so small--even with the camera zoomed in close. The audio is surprisingly good. Play-by-play man Ian Eagle is joined by Mark Jackson and the two form one of the better announcing teams in a PSP sports game.
Rather than tossing in more game modes than anyone could possibly desire, it would have been great if SCEA focused on making the core gameplay better. Until then, the enjoyable conquest mode will remain one of the few reasons anyone would want to play this otherwise unimpressive game.