NBA Street Hands-On

We have a near-final build of EA Sports Big's SSX-influenced roundball game. Click on through to get the skinny on the latest interpretation of over-the-top sports video games.

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Just when you thought the over-the-top basketball genre was becoming more stagnant than Charles Barkely's broadcasting career, EA Sports Big has decided to shake things up with NBA Street. While it has the exaggerated dunks and flaming basketballs that symbolize the genre, Street innovates in an area that Midway has slept on for far too long: gameplay. Borrowing some elements from Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, SSX, and the NBA Jam series, NBA Street reinvigorates a genre that many have left for dead.

Now on its third released build, NBA Street's three-on-three gameplay is starting to shine. Games are played to 21, and just like in games on the playground, shots from behind the three-point arc are worth two points while everything else will net you one point. There is a shot clock to keep teams from milking leads, and the game is never over thanks to the gamebreaker meter. The gamebreaker meter gradually builds as you perform special moves and combos, and if you boost the gamebreaker meter to the top, your next shot will deduct points from your opponent's score. Taking a cue from SSX, special moves are pulled off by holding combinations of the shoulder buttons and pressing the square button. If you string together several special moves, you are awarded combo bonuses once the basket is made. Making the game even more compelling, goaltending is allowed, there is no out of bounds, and fouls are nonexistent. The lack of goaltending calls in conjunction with the omission of lane violations can present a problem--big men like Dikembe Mutombo and Shaq Daddy can just stand in the lane and swat balls left and right. Switching defenders can also be troublesome in the control scheme's present state because it's impossible to cycle through your defenders. In addition to shooting and performing special dribbles, you can clear out the lane by throwing some elbows, call for picks, and back defenders down into the paint. While playing defense, your player will automatically lock on to a player and break down into a defensive stance.

While there are just two main gameplay modes in NBA Street, it's what EA Sports Big does with them that makes it such an engaging game. The main single-player mode is called the city circuit, and it asks you to climb a ladder of real NBA teams. The five players chosen for each team include its obvious stars and any other guys who may have spent some serious time working the chain-link nets on the outdoor courts. As you defeat each team, you can choose any player from the opposition and make him a part of your roster. This adds a good deal of strategy to the game. Since you can select the order of your opponents, you can choose to play teams with high-caliber players that will fill holes in your starting lineup. Having a well-balanced team will help you overcome the tougher teams you face later in the game. After you defeat all the teams in a region, you face off against a region boss. Region bosses are usually heavily weighted in one specific skill, and defeating them teaches you how to overcome your friends who like to resort to the same tactic every time they play. The cast of region bosses is a varied one. There's Bonafide, a Latino with a sky-high steal rating; Takashi, a towering giant of a player; Stretch, a '70s era Dr. J with a huge afro; and D.J., a straight-outta-North-Philly dreadlocked Jamaican who plays in Timberland boots and jean shorts. Michael Jordan waits at the end of the game as the final boss.

Street features a fairly extensive player-creation tool that lets you dole out a set number of points to eight different skill categories. If you play games with your created player and win, you can choose to receive points to increase the created player's stats. The hold-the-court mode is handy for when the party atmosphere is in full gear, and when you play it by yourself, you can unlock items like tattoos and new kicks for your created players. For those of you who are having problems coming to grips with the combo system, there's a street school mode to help you along.

The elastic AI that the latest build of NBA Street employs can be every bit as frustrating as losing in the last second on a full-court shot in NBA Jam. When the computer needs a rebound, the ball always seems to bounce its way. When the computer desperately needs to score, it will often sink an improbable shot. It can be frustrating at times, but it certainly keeps you on the edge of your seat. Controlling the players is smooth and intuitive once you get the hang of performing the special dribbles, and there are plenty of small details hidden in the game. If a player has a low rating in certain categories, he may fall down while attempting to perform moves that require a superior level of skill, and like the premise behind rochambeau, for every offensive strategy there's a defensive strategy to thwart it. For the completist, NBA Street may be the most rewarding sports game yet. New courts are unlocked by defeating all the teams within a region in city-circuit mode, and breaking records in the hold-the-court mode will reward you with items to use on your created player. While the game is loading, you may enter codes that will introduce madcap variables into the game like trick boost, special uniforms, and a variety of balls to play with.

Not much has changed in NBA Street's graphics since we last played it. It's still the most visually pleasing PlayStation 2 basketball game. The character models are exquisitely rendered right down to their ears, but the real showstopper is the animation. EA Sports Big has yet to release the raw number of animations included, but it has to be in the thousands. There are dozens of animations for jump shots alone that change depending on your orientation to the basket. The altimeter-busting dunks and Globetrotter-inspired special dribbles are incredibly smooth thanks to some intensive motion-capture sessions with some of the most wily street ballers from Chicago and New York City. EA Sports Big promised a couple of months ago that it would eventually include self-passes off the backboard for dunks, and they have already been added to the game. If you throw one down especially hard, you can bust the rim off the backboard. There are 12 courts included, but only three are available for play until more are unlocked. The courts are what make NBA Street truly refreshing. Instead of playing in cramped arenas that all end up looking the same, the courts are located outdoors, complete with inclement weather conditions and shady courtside spectators. There are courts located in South Beach in Miami, dreary Vancouver, and the sand-blown desert of Arizona. The courts look amazing, with entire communities built of polygons surrounding them and enormous landmarks in the background like the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco court. Real-time lighting and shadows are present on every court, and particle effects are used to simulate fog and dust particles twisting in the wind. Despite all this graphical flair, the frame rates stay the course and help make the buttery-smooth animations all the more believable.

EA Sports Big was flirting with the idea of replacing the interactive Ninja Tune soundtrack with more recognizable, licensed tracks, but it has happily erred on the side of interactivity and kept Ninja Tune on board. While you don't get a raucous crowd chanting every game, there are plenty of single voices making snide remarks about the game and ambient sounds like car alarms and police sirens to keep things interesting. An MC with a bullhorn provides commentary during the game, but his verbal quips, while humorous on the first few passes, wear out their welcome expeditiously. Sound is usually the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place during a game's development, and this seems to be the case with NBA Street.

NBA Street is shaping up to be a great game that takes its genre by the nape of the neck and shakes it up. With its deep gameplay mechanics, sharp graphics, and street edge, Street may just change what people expect from sports video games. Thanks to the challenging AI and hundreds of unlockable features, NBA Street may also be the first next-generation sports game to be as fun to play solo as it is head-to-head. With a release scheduled for the end of next month, there's not a lot of time for EA Sports Big to make many changes, but minus a few bugs, the latest build we received is just about in shipping order. Look for our full review of NBA Street in the coming weeks.

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