NBA Ballers: Phenom Hands-On

We check out the latest version of Midway's streetball sequel at a press event in Hollywood.

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Currently scheduled for release on the Xbox and the PlayStation 2 in April, NBA Ballers: Phenom is Midway's promising sequel to 2004's one-on-one streetball game, NBA Ballers. The list of new features and improvements that Phenom promises to introduce to the series is a lengthy one, and we recently had an opportunity to check out a number of them for ourselves at a press event in Hollywood.

Two-on-two matches aren't the only thing that's new in Phenom.
Two-on-two matches aren't the only thing that's new in Phenom.

Perhaps the most talked-about new feature in NBA Ballers: Phenom is two-on-two matches, which are played on a full court rather than half of one. Most of the licensed NBA players who will appear in Phenom were unavailable in the version of the game on display at Midway's event, but there were still plenty for us to choose from when we were prompted to choose our own pairing, as well as our CPU opponents. You'll be able to check out each baller's attributes before adding them to your team, of course, but the selection process is definitely made easier by the fact that all of the players are sorted into groups according to their play styles. Floor generals, high flyers, power bigmen, swingmen, 3-point bombers, anklebreakers, low post muscle, and shutdown D players comprise the bulk of the roster, but you'll also be unlocking team mascots and other personalities as you progress through the game.

Once you've taken care of the team selection, you'll get to choose where you want to play. Many of the courts in the game will need to be unlocked in the story mode before you can use them, but there were a handful of locales including the Staples Center, Hollywood, a park, and mansions belonging to celebrities available from the outset. The choice of court didn't appear to have much of an effect on the gameplay, although the presence of interactive spectators who would return passes from the sidelines at some locations certainly made a difference.

Given the sheer number of easily accessible jukes and tricks in the Phenom arsenal, the two-on-two games that we played rarely involved a great deal of passing. Rather, it felt like there were two one-on-one matchups on the court, since our CPU opposition very rarely left either of our players unmarked. The opposing players did a much better job of interacting with each other than ours did on this occasion, though it was incredible alley-oops rather than straightforward passes that the unforgiving CPU preferred to beat us with for the most part. The CPU also attempted to use crowd members for one-two passes quite regularly, which we found were relatively easy to intercept.

Our preferred playing style, without a doubt, was to humiliate our opponents en route to the hoop using one of Phenom's numerous "act the fool" moves. Performed by hitting two buttons simultaneously when an opponent gets a little too close for comfort, these showy moves involve dribbling the ball through an opponent's legs, bouncing it over their head, and basically just making the opposition look as hopeless as possible--we even performed a couple of moves that saw our players demonstrating their soccer skills while beating an opponent with their feet. The act the fool moves in NBA Ballers: Phenom are made all the more satisfying by the fact that they're shown in slow-motion, which gives you ample opportunity to check out the impressive animations while forcing your embarrassed opponent to endure them for longer than they'd like.

Mmm… skill-enhancing bacon wrapped hotdog.
Mmm… skill-enhancing bacon wrapped hotdog.

After spending some time honing our questionable streetball skills on the courts of the regular gameplay mode, we decided to spend the remainder of our time with NBA Ballers: Phenom checking out the story mode, which promises to be quite unlike anything that has been seen in a sports game to date. To give you some idea of the kinds of things that you can expect to find in the story mode as you explore Los Angeles, the video demonstration of the game that we watched before playing it for ourselves included Dance Dance Revolution-style minigames with dancing, rapping, and car-washing themes, as well as an expansive map of Los Angeles that you'll be able to explore at your leisure while having conversations with and accepting missions from other characters. If The Sims 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas ever parented a third-person game, this portion of Phenom's story mode is probably what that offspring would look like.

We didn't get far enough into the story mode to check out any of these unusual and intriguing features for ourselves on this occasion, but we did get to play through the first few stages of a one-on-one tournament using a character that we'd created for ourselves using Phenom's much-improved editing tools. You'll find that there are around three times as many baller customization options in Phenom as there were in the original game, which we were told equates to at least 20,000 different combinations. Many of those options will need to be unlocked as you progress through the game, of course, including special items of clothing that give performance bonuses when worn as a set.

Again, we feel like we've barely scratched the surface of what NBA Ballers: Phenom will have to offer come April, and we look forward to bringing you more information on the game just as soon as we get our hands on a copy.

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