After taking a year off, Sony's first-party hoops title returned to little fanfare with NBA 06. The gameplay wasn't anything to write home about, but the story mode, dubbed The Life, proved to be an interesting and original approach to combating the "more of the same" vibe that many sports games give off year after year. The Life is back again this year with an expanded story and a few new minigames, but many of the same problems that plagued NBA 06 remain untouched in NBA 07.
Most of NBA 07's game modes aren't particularly deep, but there are a number of ways to keep yourself occupied. You can play a single game, a season, or jump straight to the playoffs. The season mode is shallow and only encompasses the 2006 to 2007 NBA season--there's no multiyear franchise option. You can trade players without having to worry about the salary cap, or for that matter, general managers that have a clue as to what they're doing. Ben Wallace for LeBron James? That'll work! P.J. Brown for Dirk Nowitzki? It's all good! If you want to add yourself into the mix, you can snap a picture with the EyeToy and create a character. NBA 07 does have a bunch of minigames, most of which are enjoyable. From the all-star weekend mode, the three-point shoot-out is playable, as is the skills challenge, where your dribbling, shooting, and passing skills are put to the test. There's no dunk contest, which is curious, since it's in the PSP version of the game. You can head to the playground and play two-on-two or take on another player in own the court, where you try and hit jumpers to take control of circles of varying point values that are spread around the court. There are also seven drills available to help you hone your skills. You can practice alley-oops, dribbling, free throws, post-up moves, and more. These are handy not only to learn the game, but also to improve your skills for when you tackle The Life.
NBA 07's deepest feature isn't the season mode; it's the story mode titled The Life Vol. 2, which is best described as the ESPN show Playmakers with basketball players. The Life follows two players, The Kid and his rival Big W, both of whom will be familiar to anyone that played last year's game. Each player has his own story arc, but the two stories are somewhat intertwined, and the two players occasionally cross paths. The Kid's story centers on how he comes back from an injury and must struggle to reassert himself as a part of the team. Big W, on the other hand, has a sick child and a meddling owner (complete with Beethoven's 5th as his nefarious-sounding ringtone) to deal with. The short cutscenes that tell the story occur before and after you play games and practices. The game or practice scenario is usually relevant to the story, but not always. For example, your agent wants you to show the world that you're back from your injury, so you're placed in a game that's already in progress and tasked with certain individual goals to achieve before the game is over. Later, The Kid asks his coach to stop by his home gym, and the following scenario is you practicing against your coach. Most of these challenges are enjoyable, but there are a few that are incredibly frustrating. The two players' stories are compelling and well written, so you'll likely want to see them through.
The concept behind The Life is a solid one, but the execution keeps it from being as enjoyable as it could have been. One of the biggest problems is the frequent load times, which are often over a minute long. Finishing a scenario and then waiting for a cutscene to load is bad enough, but waiting another minute after the cutscene is painful. Vague objectives are another issue. Some scenarios will tell you to limit an opposing point guard or small forward to a certain number of points or assists. The problem is that you have no idea who is playing what position on the other team since only a player's name, not his position, is shown on the court, and even then it's just when that person has the ball. You can pause the game to see your progress toward certain goals, but this only tells you if you've gotten them or not--not how close you are.
There's also not a whole lot of variety to the different game scenarios. They mostly revolve around individual statistics, particularly scoring and dishing out assists. Occasionally, you'll need to maintain a lead or hold opposing players to a certain point total, but you're rarely rewarded for steals, rebounds, or blocked shots. By far the biggest problem, and the only one likely to keep you from seeing the story all the way through, is the uneven difficulty. Some challenges are quick and a piece of cake, while others are lengthy and involve multiple challenging goals. One in particular gives you 4:51 to complete four dynamic goals, make 10 shots with Big W, and limit the opposing small forward to two field goals. You also have to win the game by at least six points, which means you'll need to outscore the other team by 18 points in that time span. Some challenges ask you if you want to temporarily drop down to easy if you fail repeatedly, but after failing over and over for 30 minutes in the case above, the game never offered any sort of mercy.
On the court, NBA 07 is enjoyable but far from spectacular. The timing-based shot meter that uses red, yellow, and green to show how well you timed your shot is back and works fine. A new marker that shows where a rebound is headed is supposed to make it easier to hit the boards, but the ball just ends up magically appearing in a player's hands, so it's not very useful. You can perform jukes, crossovers, and spins via the right analog stick, and other than it being occasionally difficult to perform the spin move, this system works quite well. Alley-oops can be thrown by pressing R2 to send a player toward the hoop and then X (or triangle for a no-look) to pass. When it works, this method feels great, but too often it's hard to tell which player is going to make a run, and by the time you figure it out, the pass is too late. One aspect that the developer did nail is the post game. You can start backing a player down with L1 and then flick the right analog stick when it's time to make your move. This control scheme is easy to learn, yet still allows you a lot of freedom. Playing defense primarily is a largely futile endeavor that involves frantically trying to keep the defender in front of the ball handler and then pounding the triangle button to block their shot.
"Dunkfest" is the moniker that best describes how NBA 07 plays. It's easy to work your way to the rim by running around the court juking and spinning with even the worst players. Even if you want to play in a more realistic fashion, you can't, because the computer blocks shots like Shaq playing against fifth graders. The CPU is also adept at stealing any pass that needs to travel more than 15 feet. Even if you try to keep your passes short, you'll often end up throwing a cross-court pass that usually ends up getting picked off. Players do a decent job of getting open, though they don't do much more than run from point A to point B and back, so for the most part, you're on your own when it comes to creating shots. You can call a few basic plays using the D pad, but since it's not particularly difficult to get to the hoop, you really won't need to use this feature very often. The artificial intelligence often employs some questionable tactics. If they're losing, opposing teams will often intentionally foul late in the game, but if they're not over the limit after the first foul, they'll just give up and watch the clock expire. If teams have the lead, they'll still pass the ball around, even taking shots when all they had to do is dribble out the clock. Even with all of these issues, the game's brisk pace and easy-to-learn controls make it fun.
Online play is solid, offering both ranked and unranked five-on-five games, own the court, and three-point shoot-out. There aren't any leagues, but there are leaderboards to show you where you stack up against the competition. There weren't many people playing online, but when we did find a game, everything ran smoothly.
NBA 07 is not a good-looking game, and the overall presentation is sorely in need of some flare. The default baseline camera tends to be zoomed out too far on fast breaks, but too close when you're working the half-court offense out near the wing. A quick change to the camera settings fixes this problem, but tweaking the default camera in a sports game to make it more gameplay friendly is something you shouldn't have to do. While the gameplay is fast-paced the frame rate isn't, though it's not horrendous. Both wide-screen and 480p are supported, which does help the game look a little better. Arenas are dark and all nearly identical, and there are no player introductions. The player models aren't impressive, either. Checking out a replay reveals that players' faces do have lots of detail, but many players don't look much like their real-life counterparts. Even when the replay is paused, players blink and open their mouths every few seconds, which looks odd. Player animation is smooth and looks realistic, though it would be nice to have a little more variety. The motion-capture work done during the story parts of The Life is excellent, and you'll even notice The Kid's limp slowly improving as his rehab progresses.
Other than some outstanding voice-over work, NBA 07's audio is unimpressive. The actors that portray Big W, The Kid, and especially the sports-highlight-show anchors all do a fantastic job. The top-notch voice work goes a long ways toward making The Life's story enjoyable. The soundtrack consists solely of hip-hop tunes and features a handful of songs from KRS-One, Rhymefest, Big Rich, Rakim, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, and a few others. Save for a lone PA announcer that calls out baskets, assists, and steals, there's no commentary to speak of. This design choice makes sense in The Life, where you're supposed to be a player on the court, but not having announcers during regular games is puzzling because the PSP version of NBA 07 has them. There are short bursts of music here and there, but the crowd noise is buggy and isn't very well done. For some reason, the crowd and the PA announcer will sometimes take a while to start, leaving you with just the sound of shoes squeaking and the ball hitting the hardwood at the beginning of games.
NBA 07 is a classic example of a game that's whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The gameplay is nothing special, and the graphics are dated, but The Life is entertaining enough that you're able to look past many of the problems to see the story through. It's refreshing to see a developer take a chance and try to bring something new to the table. If they can get the rest of the game up to the story's level, perhaps more people will take notice. Until then, NBA 07 is best suited for people that are both looking for a new take on sports games and able to look past a game's faults.