EA and Midway share the rights to NBA-licensed arcade basketball games. As a result, the NBA Ballers franchise is released every other year, with EA's NBA Street series occupying the year in between. This year is NBA Ballers' time to shine and that didn't happen, which means it's a down year for arcade hoops. NBA Ballers: Chosen One has some interesting ideas, particularly with regards to its presentation, but it's ultimately a disappointment thanks to repetitive gameplay and needlessly complex controls.
You can single-play games of 1V1, 2V2, and 1V1V1, or sharpen your skills in practice, a shootout, or three-point contest. You can also play ranked and unranked matches online using your custom character, which is pretty cool. The bulk of Ballers' content, however, is found in Story mode. Here you create a player, give him a nickname (we went with "Beans"), and choose from hundreds of different shirts, pants, shoes, jewelry items, and more to customize his appearance. You'll unlock more gear as you progress, but you can make a truly unique baller with just the stuff that's unlocked from the outset. Your created player will be terrible at first, but his attributes will improve slightly after each game. These attribute boosts are supposedly based on your performance in the previous game, but they seem more random than anything else. Story mode's premise is simple. Each year after the NBA playoffs, the top players in the league take part in a street ball tournament, the winner of which will be known as the "Chosen One." Story mode is divided into six episodes, each of which contains five chapters. Episodes are introduced by short video segments that feature Public Enemy's Chuck D as a host of an NBA Tonight-like show. He doesn't have anything particularly riveting to say, but the segments are nicely produced and add a bit of realism to the mode.
Although the game's six episodes have diverse themes, they don't feel that different from one another. Most of the time you go up against other players one-on-one and try to beat them. Sure, dunks might be worth three points in a round, you may have to pull off a particular special move, or you might play to 21 instead of 11, but after a couple of chapters you realize there's not much variety, or at least variety that matters. Even the media mogul chapter, where you're vying for a spot in a soft drink commercial, isn't interesting. You spend most of the chapter beating guys head-to-head and then the last chapter performing specific moves against LeBron James while the commercial is filmed. But this just ends up feeling like the rest of the game because the moves are presented in list form before the round (once you start playing, you can't reference them again, either), you're doing the same combos you've been doing for the last few hours. The "commercial" that plays when you're done doesn't even look like a commercial, nor does it feature the moves you performed while shooting it.
Most people don't expect a great story or a lot of variety to the game modes when they play an arcade-style basketball game. They want the best players, over-the-top dunks, hard fouls, diverse court locales, as well as fast-paced, fun gameplay. Chosen One delivers most of these. There are more than 80 current NBA players as well as legends such as Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, Daryl Dawkins, Dr. J, Larry Bird, Magic, Bill Russell, and more. The basketball courts are spread out among a number of interesting locations including an airplane hangar, a penthouse suite in Boston, the Chicago lakefront, a rooftop in Dubai, South Beach, and the mountains of China. Dunks are suitably outrageous. Even someone like Steve Nash can throw down some crazy dunks and pass the ball to someone standing courtside for a long-distance alley-oop. Toss in plenty of blocks, steals, and physical play, and you have a game that should be a lot of fun, at least on paper.
But NBA Ballers: Chosen One isn't fun, and there are a number of reasons for this. To start with, the controls are much too complicated for this style of game. You can juke with the right analog stick or a face button, but you can also hold down any of the shoulder buttons to further modify your jukes, dunks, and alley-oops. Eventually you'll learn all of the moves, but you'll still have a difficult time performing them thanks to frequently unresponsive controls, especially when you're forced to hold two shoulder buttons in conjunction with another button. Like in NBA Street you must perform flashy jukes and dunks to fill a meter. The twist here is that this meter serves to fill another meter, which, depending on how many levels are full, gives you a guaranteed steal, successful juke, made shot, block, or game-ending super dunk.
These super moves, particularly the game-ending super dunk, are so effective that you'll spend most of your time trying to fill your meter with the game's worst feature: act-a-fool combos. You begin an act-a-fool combo by holding a shoulder and face button together while standing near a player. Once the combo starts, button icons appear onscreen, and you must press them as quickly as possible. The defender can also try to press the buttons, and if they do so before you, the combo ends. The AI won't stop you very often, though, and once the combo has ended after five moves, there's usually an open path to a dunk, which will be worth five points thanks to the bonus points awarded from the combo. Not only do you get bonus points for the combo, but you fill your meter as well. It takes just three or four successful act-a-fool combos to fill the meter to the point that you can end the game with a super dunk. Playing the game this way is cheesy and boring, but you're forced to do so because some of the challenges, like coming back from 20 points down with three minutes to go, and beating T-Mac in a game to 11 without letting him score, are absurdly difficult.
The problems don't end there. For some reason there are fouls in the game, and though you aren't penalized for the first four, when you get your fifth foul, the other player gets a foul shot that's worth three points and they retain possession. The defensive fouls may be annoying, but they do serve to keep you honest. The fact that you can get called for charging is just plain annoying and has no place in this kind of basketball game. One particularly terrible game variation gets rid of the checked-ball rule, so you don't have to take the ball back on a change of possession or after you score. The game devolves into both players standing under the basket trying to catch the ball as it goes through the net, and then immediately putting up a shot when they do catch the ball. It's mind-numbingly stupid. Toss in inconsistent goaltending calls, repetitive cutscenes for super moves that often end with you facing away from the basket, and horrific clipping problems that see the ball go through the rim on dunks so that you don't even know if you made them or not, and you're left with a flashy-looking game that isn't much fun.
NBA Ballers' strongest aspect is its presentation. Even the menus are attractive. The cutscenes that introduce players like Kobe, Agent Zero, and LeBron look cool and inspire a sense of awe when they play before a big matchup. It's a shame that big-name players like Shaq, Kidd, and Gasol, who were recently traded, aren't on their current teams. Nevertheless, players look lifelike and have a swagger to them that only NBA players seem to have. There's little variety to more routine actions like running, diving for the ball, and shooting from one player to the next, but there's no shortage of great-looking dunk and juke animations. While the "normal" moves generally look great, the developer got carried away when it comes to the cutscenes for special moves. These noninteractive clips that play for every special move are repetitive and do nothing but interrupt the flow of the game. To make matters worse, there's no way to turn them off.
Chosen One's audio is surprisingly subdued. The soundtrack by Just Blaze stays mostly in the background and doesn't stand out as particularly good or bad. In addition to hosting the TV show in the game, Chuck D also provides play-by-play. He gets a little repetitive, but he's better than most of the announcers found in other street games. Plus, hearing him yell "They call him Mr. Beans!" when our player threw down a dunk never got old.
NBA Ballers: Chosen One deserves credit for trying to bring some new ideas to a genre that isn't known for mixing things up. But while many of these ideas may have seemed good during the design phase, they don't work in the context of the actual gameplay. There's no reason to pick this one up, regardless of how bad you need a basketball fix--there are plenty of cheaper, better options available.