Hoopworld Impressions

We check out a work-in-progress build of this manic XBL Arcade hoops game, from the floor of GDC.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--What do you get when you take the sport of basketball, strip away all the foul calls and rules, and add things such as robots, goth girls, cowboys, and Mayan temples? Hoopworld, of course--the Xbox Live Arcade sports title that is currently nearing completion by Amsterdam-based Streamline Studios. We got a behind-the-scenes peek at the game today at the Game Developers Conference, as well as a chance to speak to the development team about what's gone into creating this lively arcade sports title for Microsoft's Xbox Live platform.

First, a bit of explanation is in order--you won't find a Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant in Hoopworld, and the closest thing you'll find to a Shaquille O'Neal is an imposing-looking robot who looks like he'd be murder as a starting center. Instead, Hoopworld is an unlicensed take on the game of b'ball; one that revels in its over-the-top arcade roots. Just watching the game in action, you're reminded more of fighting games such as Power Stone and Super Smash Bros. Melee than you are NBA Street. This is completely intentional; as the developers told us, the team at Streamline has worked mechanics such as combat, chain-combo systems, and countermoves into Hoopworld to keep the pace of the game up and the action on the screen lively.

And boy is it lively. Once you've built your team from the game's cast of colorful characters and outfitted them with any available power-ups (more on those in a bit) you go straight to the action, playing hoops in environments that--beyond baskets at either end--have as little to do with pro basketball as Isiah Thomas' general-manager instincts. Your goal is to score as many points as you can, and the way you score those points is by performing stunts such as flips, wall jumps, passes, and/or kicks and other attacks on your foes. You can chain these moves together to form massive combos, but the only way to bank these combo points is by scoring a basket (usually in the form of a rim-shattering dunk or an alley-oop). Should your opponent steal the ball away, you'll lose all those combo points and will need to start over. The winner of the timed match is the player with the most points as time runs out.

To add more complexity to the formula, Hoopworld environments feature more than one type of basket to score in. Of course, you have your standard hoops at either end that "bank" your combo points. There is also a golden basket that you can unlock on every level--score on it and you'll get a modifier to your combo points. The final basket type, and perhaps the most interesting, is the black basket. Put the ball through it, and any points you have built up will be subtracted from your opponent's total score--a great way to bring your foe back down to earth if you're in danger of losing a game. These special baskets require a bit of work to earn, however, but it's usually by way of interacting with the environment. In one jungle-themed court, we watched as a character twisted a giant totem pole, which then set off a geyser. Once the character jumped onto the geyser, he was shot up high into the air where he could access the golden basket. The black basket on the same level could be found on a bird lazily flying through the air at random--another tough target to hit.

Because Hoopworld is a hybrid basketball/combat game, you can deck your character out with special power-ups before a game begins. These might include angel wings that help a character glide through the air with ease, or more offensive-minded power-ups such as fire gauntlets that let you shoot fireballs at your foes. Whether or not you use these power-ups before the match is up to you--the development team has strove to make sure that each power-up has its pros and its cons. Angel wings, for example, let you float in the air, but you won't be able to come down to earth perhaps as quickly as you'd like. The same could be said for the game's basic combat moves--developers told us that every move in the game is balanced by a countermove. Expert players, it seems, will be the ones that take full advantage of that balance.

This is Streamline Studios' first original game product, and they are quite pleased to be bringing it out via Xbox Live Arcade. Though the system's standards can be challenging--Hoopworld will come in at under 50MB, which has made for some interesting compromises when it comes to sound--the team acknowledges that the download service is an ideal way to get their original debut out to as many people as possible. And despite these limitations, it hasn't stopped the team from creating a visually impressive game full of lively characters and action that runs at an extremely quick tempo.

Hoopworld is scheduled for release during the first half of 2006, which, according to our calendars, means the game could be available any time in the next three months. There's still no word on how many points this one will cost, but we're betting it will be worth the (we hope minimal) cost. We'll keep you filled in on the details of how this fun-looking arcade hoops game is coming along in future updates.

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