NBA Hands-On

Could this be the best-looking game on the PSP? We take a few Js with Sony's PSP roundball game.

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SAN FRANCISCO – At this evening's Sony PSP press event we got our greedy fingers on the company's upcoming first-party basketball game, dubbed, simply, NBA. The game was developed by Sony's 989 Sports and will be the first hoops game released for the handheld. We found NBA to be a great-looking game that features a fast-paced five-on-five play style with some interesting gameplay twists thrown into the mix.

While many of the PSP sports launch games feature a fairly stripped down assortment of game modes, NBA has a large selection of modes to choose from right out of the gate, including exhibition, practice, season, and playoff modes; online play; and a number of minigames for use when you're tired of the more traditional NBA action. The practice mode includes a shoot-around mode, which is perfect for practicing the color-coded shooting mechanic found in the game. Season mode will let you guide the team of your choice to NBA glory over the course of a full 82-game season or an abbreviated 58- or 29-game campaign.

The most noticeable gameplay mechanic in NBA has to be the aforementioned shot mechanic, which uses color coding to judge your ball release. After you press the shot button, the ball in your player's hand will go from red, to yellow, to green, indicating a bad, good, or perfect release. To release the ball, you simply press the shoot button again. As you might expect, a perfect release has a much greater chance of finding the bottom of the twine than a bad one, though it should be noted that even the best releases don't always translate into points. Similarly, even a blind duck finds water every once in a while, and so too will a small percentage of red-release shots. Finally, you'll progress through this rainbow of shot options on open shots, though if you're heavily guarded, with a hand or two in your face, you may not find a good release point.

Matchups are central to the NBA, and this game gives you the ability to set matchups on a player-by-player basis in the team strategy options. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any options for setting double-team or pressure options in the menu, which probably accounted for why Keith Van Horn dropped 29 points on us in a single game. You can change defensive configurations in the menu as well, moving from, say, a 2-3 zone to man coverage. It would have been nice to see this kind of play-calling available on the fly, however. Defensive controls look to be fairly straightforward, with simple button presses controlling steal attempts and leaping shot blocks. Keeping your virtual player between his opponent and the basket tends to be a chore though, since the left analog stick, used to control player movement, tends to be pretty sensitive. If you're not mindful of your position, it's easy to get caught out and beat by a quick-moving opponent, even on the lower difficulty setting.

Graphically, NBA was one of the best-looking games we saw at tonight's press event. In fact, the game's player models looked far and away the best of any of the team sport games we saw. Player models are nicely detailed, if a bit too muscular in some cases (such as the aforementioned Van Horn), and faces are recognizable from the get-go, an impressive feat for the Sony handheld. In addition, the game has a real sense of flair for dunks and alley-oops, highlighting these real plays with close-ups of the player mid-dunk. While the sound doesn't necessarily match the panache of NBA's visuals, the swish of the basket and the roar of the crowd convey the excitement of the game just fine.

The minigames found in NBA are among the best of the game's features, especially if you don’t have time for a full game of ball. Split into three categories--skills challenge, paint, and 3-point--the minigames are easy to learn, quick to finish, and pretty fun. The skills challenge is an obstacle course of sorts that tests all facets of your b-ball skills, including shot-making, foot speed, passing ability, and reaction time. The paint challenge is a highly addictive competition between two players to see who can score the most points from designated sections all over the court. The further out the shot, the more points it's worth. Last but not least, the 3-point challenge is just what it sounds like, a test of your skills from all along the arch. Best of all, much like the regular five-on-five game, all of these mini-challenges are available in NBA's online play mode.

Though games like NBA Live and the ESPN NBA 2K series are making a splash on consoles, NBA will arrive relatively unencumbered on the PSP. It won't be long before hardwood competition rears its ugly head, but for the first few weeks of the Sony handheld's shelf life, NBA will be the only basketball game in town. Expect to see a full review of the game when it arrives in stores in late March.

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