NBA Ballers Preview

We get our hands on Midway's upcoming B-ball offering.

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NBA Ballers is the upcoming basketball game from Midway that offers a different spin on the genre. Originally announced in August 2001, the game has demonstrated a slow burn in terms of development but has since picked up the pace and is headed for an early 2004 release. The game is, at its heart, a one-on-one basketball game, but it features a heavy emphasis on the lifestyle of an NBA player. The result, so far, is a mix of MTV Cribs, EA's NBA Street, and some of Midway's own arcade style-sports offerings. We had the chance to try out a work-in-progress version of the PlayStation 2 game, which let us get a feel for how all the aforementioned elements are being cooked up.

NBA Ballers offers a new take on the one-on-one B-ball scene.
NBA Ballers offers a new take on the one-on-one B-ball scene.

You'll find three main gameplay modes in NBA Ballers; they are quickplay, play modes, and online. Each has its own unique settings that offer several different game types. Quickplay is a randomly generated competition for one or two players that throws you into a game after just one button press. You and your opponent are randomly assigned a baller, and then you're both sent to one of the unlocked venues in the game. Play modes represent the meat of the game and offer the largest selection of game types available. You'll find a standard versus match, a hectic one-versus-one-versus-one match, which lets you mix it up with up to two other AI- or human-controlled players (via the PS2 multitap), and a practice option that lets you hone your skills against an AI-controlled opponent. The final two game types, rags to riches and TV tournament, play up the game's lifestyle approach in unique ways. Rags to riches is a story-style career mode that starts you out as a nobody who plays on street courts. You are basically challenged with having to claw your way up to the big leagues. One of your goals as a nobody is to get on to a fictitious reality show called NBA Ballers: Rags to Riches--think American Idol for the hoops set--which is a spin-off of another show within the game called NBA Ballers. You must then prove that you've got what it takes to be a contender in the NBA.

As you claw your way up from obscurity, you're able to create your own unique legend, thanks to a host of customizable elements. When you start the mode, you're able to create a virtual-baller to represent you in the game. You're able to enter in such information as the player's name, nickname, position, number, birth date, and playing style. You can also customize your player's appearance via a meaty character generator that lets you tweak a host of elements, including the face and body. You're also able to customize player attributes by distributing points to 16 different components, like power, stamina, dunking, low post offense, free throws and more. Once you start to earn yourself some "bling" in rags to riches--by winning games-- you're able to buy clothes, jewelry, a mansion (complete with its own basketball court), and even an entourage. Your baller's story unfolds via in-engine cutscenes that star your virtual avatar.

The ever-changing rule system offers quite a bit of gameplay variety.
The ever-changing rule system offers quite a bit of gameplay variety.

The TV tournament game is a collection of matches that are broken up into competition ladders that feature several different players for you to compete against, including a "boss." Each ladder is themed and features its own set of rules for competitions. Some ladders put you in one-on-one matches while others throw more players into the mix to keep things fresh.

NBA Ballers also features an online mode that lets you take your virtual self to the Net so you can compete against other players. While exact details still haven't been released, we do know that you'll be able to show off your winnings online by being able to use your mansion as a playable court.

The gameplay in NBA Ballers is a mix of old-school one-on-one basketball and flashy moves that are in the same vein as EA's NBA Street games. The move sets for the various players are good, as are the special moves. It's also nice to see that your player can be "on fire" after making several baskets in a row. The game incorporates a crowd response to your performance via a crowd meter that affects some of the specials you can perform (which is pretty cool). Our version of the game handled pretty well, although the control wasn't as tight as we'd like it to be. We're also hoping to see the AI tweaked some to offer more variety in the challenge it poses. We will say that the constantly changing rules for the matches is a nice touch that keeps you on your toes. There's a boatload of different rules that are swapped in, which ensures that you'll rarely have to play under the exact same conditions from game to game.

NBA Ballers' online multiplayer should be very cool if it comes together.
NBA Ballers' online multiplayer should be very cool if it comes together.

The graphics are looking very good, thanks to savvy use of the game's polygon budget. The limited number of players on the court has allowed the development team to pour on the polygons, which has resulted in highly detailed player models and backgrounds. The 84 NBA stars in the game, 60 of whom are current players and 24 of whom are legends, are re-created in high detail that borders on photorealistic, in some cases. Our work-in-progress version of the game illustrates a few rough spots for some players, but, given the level of quality seen in models for such players as the Atlanta Hawks' forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, we expect that all the players will look just as good. The high level of detail extends to your created player as well, though you won't be able to add some of the fine details seen in the NBA players, like freckles, for instance. The environments, modeled after the homes of NBA stars, are very nicely done and feature a high level of detail and many moving objects. In addition, the game features weather effects, some of which you can trigger by inputting codes on the matchup screen, as in many other Midway games. The game's frame rate is solid, though there are some bits of inconsistency when several different special effects are active at the same time.

The game's graphics benefit from a high polygon count and attention to detail.
The game's graphics benefit from a high polygon count and attention to detail.

The game's audio is solid and plays a major part in giving the game its atmosphere. You'll hear a beefy soundtrack of hip-hop and rap tunes, plenty of ambient voices for the crowds, and a ton of commentary. You'll even hear some exaggerated sound effects that punctuate slick moves on the court, like slam dunks that are executed when a player is on fire. Based on what we've heard in this version, the mix works fine and should be a nice complement to the visuals.

NBA Ballers seems to finally be coming together and should be a unique alternative to other games in the basketball genre. The lifestyle aspect of the game is an interesting extra that could prove to be an addictive element in the game--along the lines of hoarding stuff for your house in Nintendo's Animal Crossing. Hopefully, Midway can tighten up the rough spots in the game and can polish it up by the time it ships. We're especially anxious to see how the online mode shapes up, which could go a long way toward giving the game some staying power after players have unlocked everything in it. NBA Ballers is currently slated to ship in February 2004 for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox.

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