NBA 08 Hands-On

Minigames rule in our look at this year's handheld basketball game from Sony.

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We're not really sure what it says about a game series when the attached minigames are more fun than the main modes of play, but nonetheless, Sony's NBA franchise has been on a minigame roll on the PlayStation Portable of late. Last year's game saw the introduction of the addictive conquest minigame, and with the upcoming NBA 08, the development team behind the game is adding even more basketball-themed minigames to the mix.

Before we talk about the new features in NBA 08, let's take a moment to talk about the improvements to the central component of the game--the five-on-five basketball. Most obvious, when you pick up the game for the first time, is the pace of play. Producers behind the game say it has been slowed down from last year's game in an attempt to bring a more lifelike pace to the game. The next thing you notice is an "X" icon located above certain players on the court. That icon indicates which player you will switch to once you press the X button on defense, or which player you will pass to when you have the ball. It's confusing at first but makes sense after you get used to it. You can still use icon passing or icon player switching just as you could in the previous games in the series.

Other changes to the game include a new rebound assist and a new tactic on defense. The rebound assist comes in the form of a small wedge-shaped shadow underneath the basket when the ball is up for a rebound--the wedge indicates the general position of where the ball will land once it hits the floor. And though producers said the wedge was not finalized yet, they're looking to make something other than a floor icon depicting the exact location of where the ball is heading--using a slightly less precise icon helps the player to get in the right spot to pick up a rebound, while still requiring him or her to keep an eye on the ball in order to haul it in.

The new defensive gameplay wrinkle involves where your player's hands are when guarding a player with the ball. When on defense, you can choose to have your controlled player keep his hands up or down by pressing the circle button. When a player's hands are up, the player with the ball will have a tougher time making a jump shot or passing over your defender, though your defender will be more susceptible to a juke or spin move. Conversely, if your hands are down, the offensive player will be less likely to spin around you but will be in a better position to knock the J down from long range. The result is a cat-and-mouse game of position that looks to add another layer of depth to playing defense.

Then we come to the minigames. In addition to an updated version of pinball and last year's addictive Risk-like conquest game, NBA 08 will have some new minigames, which we got to try out at the Sony event. The first, known as shooting bricks, is an Arkanoid-like brick-busting game, where you use a paddle to bounce a ball up in the air, breaking through patterns of small rectangles for points. While you can use the joystick to move the paddle left or right, it felt better to use the directional pad. You can also increase or decrease the speed of the paddle's movement on the fly by pressing the circle or square button, respectively. You can add power to your shot by pressing the X button when the ball lands on the paddle. In an interesting twist to the standard brick-buster game, you can also angle the paddle either left or right by pressing the left or right trigger; as you might expect, adding this angle to the paddle can alter your shot dramatically and help you break hard-to-reach bricks on each level.

These bricks will come in a number of different forms. There are standard bricks, of course, as well as stronger bricks--such as cinder and steel--that will require multiple hits to destroy, though you can use the powered-up shots to destroy the tougher bricks more quickly. Wooden bricks will slow the pace of your shot down, which should prove to be handy, because the game will also include a "shot clock" of sorts that will continually count down from 24; each time the clock runs down, the speed of the ball will increase. Finally, there will be goal bricks--if you break them, you move on to the next level. There will be an element of strategy here, however, because you might want to try to break all the bricks to secure the highest score before moving on to the next level.

The final game in the mix is called block a shot, and its nearest comparison is the whack-a-mole game you might find at an arcade or county fair. In the game, you have six holes onscreen from which various objects, including basketballs, hoops, and shot clocks, can pop up. The idea is to smack as many of these objects as you can with your left or right "hand," controlled by the directional pad and face buttons. The up, left, and down buttons control the three holes available to your left hand, while the triangle, circle, and X buttons control the three holes available to your right hand. For example, if a basketball pops up on the top hole on your right hand, you would hit the triangle button to hit it; if one comes up on the second hole on the left, you would hit the left directional pad button.

The game starts off slowly but, soon enough, you've got b-balls popping up from all different parts of the board--and the more you smack the more points you earn. There are also other objects to worry about, including items you don't want to hit at all. One of these is the foul whistle--if you whack one of those by accident, you earn a foul; if you hit three in a single round, you foul out. If a shot clock pops out, you have only a few seconds to hit it; if you fail to do so, yep you guessed it, your round is over.

Not all of the objects are bad, however; a red, white, and blue-colored ball will let you pound on it multiple times before going away, awarding you extra points in the process. If you see a timer pop up, you can hit it and earn a time-out. You can accrue multiple time-outs and use them at any time if you need a break in the action or to plan your next few moves. Time-outs are especially useful for the team jersey items. Here, multiple team jerseys pop out of the holes, and the idea is to hit them in order of the number appearing on the jersey. To plan your attack, a typical tactic is to call a time-out as soon as you see the jerseys pop up. Finally, there's the slam dunk button. Here, to earn maximum dunk points you have to hold the appropriate button down until the shot meter reaches green.

In all, NBA 08's minigames still seem to be the high point of this latest handheld sports offering from Sony. We'll have to spend some more time with the game to see if the fundamental five-on-five play has been improved, so stay tuned for more coverage on the game in the coming months.

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