The PlayStation Portable has been out just 18 months, and Sony's NBA franchise is already making its third appearance on the handheld after two disappointing efforts. Despite some improvements over Sony's first NBA game for the PSP, NBA 06 was a mediocre effort, hampered by quirky gameplay and lousy artificial intelligence. This year's title, NBA 07, has a whole host of problems, some old and some new, making it difficult to recommend, even though it is better than NBA 06.
SCEA has avoided the common pitfall of simply porting a PS2 game to the PSP. The developers tailored NBA 07 to take advantage of the PSP's strengths by making the game easy to pick up and play and by adding a host of minigames. 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! The story mode from the PS2 version of NBA 07, called The Life, is nowhere to be found. This is a shame, since its series of short challenges are ideal for playing on the go.
Most of NBA 07's value is found in its minigames, though there are a few duds in the bunch. 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. Due to some touchy controls and a fussy camera, the skills challenge isn't as enjoyable on the PSP as it is on the PS2. You can even take part in the slam-dunk contest, which is a timing-based DDR-style event. This is fun for a short while, but you're so focused on inputting the proper commands that you aren't able to watch the dunks. A quick pick-up game at the playground has you and the CPU taking turns choosing a squad of NBA players. Own the court, where you try and hit jumpers to take control of circles of varying point values, is back. Dodgeball returns from last year, but the controls are lousy, so it's not much fun. HORSE is an enjoyable mode that's great for practicing difficult shots. Many of these games feature a ladder challenge, where you start at the bottom and work your way to the top. As you progress, the players become better and better, so be ready to take on the likes of Larry Bird if you reach the top of the three-point shoot-out ladder.
To further mix the formula up, there are a handful of carnival-style minigames. The basketball-themed pinball machine is quite a bit of fun, though it would have been better if you could play it with the PSP turned vertically. Hot shot is a quick game where you make as many shots as you can on an arcade basketball machine with a moving backboard. Big shooter is skeeball with a basketball theme and is amusing for a short while. All of the carnival games support game sharing, but they're strictly single-player affairs.
Wireless play for both ad hoc and infrastructure are robust. HORSE, dodgeball, pick up, exhibition, skills challenge, own the court, and the three-point contest are all available for play. The game played smooth over an ad hoc connection, though there were a few sporadic hiccups here and there. Lag wasn't an issue with infrastructure play, but at times the game was extremely choppy--not to the point that the game was unplayable, but enough that you probably wouldn't want to play an entire game.
Far and away, NBA 07's coolest aspect is conquest mode. Best described as a cross between basketball and the classic board game RISK, your eventual goal is to rule every team in the NBA. You start by selecting a team, and then you're shown a map of North America, where each team's city is represented by their logo. When it's your turn, you can challenge any team that's in your immediate area to a game of five-on-five. The games take place on outdoor courts and have a few different rules from standard full-court games. You don't play to a set score; rather, each team has a score indicator that gets lower each time it's scored upon. The first team to have an empty meter loses the game. Also, there are no fouls and no shot clock. If you block a player's shot or hit a three-pointer over a defender, that player will become stunned and his speed will become greatly reduced until his team scores again. When you beat a team that you've challenged, you own that territory and control the team. Should someone try and take your territory, you'll be forced to defend it. If you beat the challenger, you can take a player of your choice from that team in exchange for the worst player on your roster. This helps because better players not only make your team better, but also raise the value of your score indicator. And you're not the only one trying to take over the league. In between turns, you'll see the CPU play out challenge scenarios for the rest of the teams in the NBA. There's quite a bit of depth to conquest mode, and it's a great fit for quick play sessions on the PSP.
Eventually, you'll grow tired of all the minigames and play a normal game of full-court basketball. This is where your fun will end, because NBA 07's core gameplay does a lot poorly and only a little well. One of the few features it does get right is the color-coded shot system. One of the few things it does get right are the shot mechanics. Like other basketball games shooting is timing based, only here, a ring surrounds the ball and changes colors based on your timing. If you're too early or late, it's red; just a tad off, it's yellow; and dead on, it's green. There are a few other areas where the game does well--players are aggressive when crashing the boards, and the final scores are always close without feeling rigged.
The list of items that NBA 07 does poorly is much longer. Players still pick up their dribble for no reason, forcing you to pass or take an ill-advised shot with a defender in your face. This happens less often than it did last year, but that it's still a problem is unforgivable. It's also extremely difficult to run the fast break, not only because players tend to stop to receive the ball, but also because the CPU picks off nearly every medium-to-long-range pass. This problem is made worse since passes frequently go in the complete opposite direction of where you're aiming. Icon passing is done by holding the left shoulder button, but when you need to make a quick pass, searching for icons isn't practical. You can run a few plays by pressing the D pad, but you're on your own when it comes to getting an open shot. Some players will simply stand still with their hands down by their side for the entire duration of the shot clock. If you get near them, they'll raise their hands in anticipation of a pass, and that's often the extent of their effort to help the team. Crossovers and spin moves are mostly worthless, as the questionable collision detection creates a force field around defenders, often leaving the ball handler looking as if they're dribbling against a wall. Alley-oops are another poorly implemented feature. They're supposed to be performed by pressing the X and circle button at the same time, but instead of throwing the ball to a player cutting to the basket, your player always seems to pass to another player, who then may or may not throw the alley-oop.
NBA 07's visuals aren't spectacular, but they're solid, equaling or surpassing the admittedly underwhelming PS2 version in several areas. The game runs at a solid 60 frames per second and looks smooth. However, this makes the game feel too fast. Players fly around the screen so quickly that it's tough to play defense, or even follow where the ball is. For instance, you'll be waiting for the CPU to in-bound the ball, and before you know it, someone's laying it in. The player models are on par with the PS2 version, as are the arenas. The presentation isn't stellar, though there is a brief intro before each game, which is more than what the PS2 version has. There's no user-controlled instant replay available, only quick TV-style replays after big plays, in between quarters, and after the game. It's while watching these replays that you'll notice problems like players jumping from one animation to the next, the ball teleporting from one spot to another, and quite a few instances of players clipping through each other. The default camera works well most of the time, but it tends to get in too close to the action when you're running a half-court offense. This leads to a lot of turnovers, since it's easy to get stuck in a corner when the ball handler picks up his dribble, forcing you to pass to an unseen teammate offscreen.
The soundtrack consists solely of hip-hop tunes and features just a handful of songs from KRS-One, Rhymefest, Big Rich, Rakim, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, and a few others. Short "arena music" clips are played during the game, and there's also a PA announcer. Both of these add nicely to the atmosphere. Ian Eagle and former player Mark Jackson provide in-game commentary. Their play-by-play isn't very in-depth, as it repeats often, is frequently behind the action, and hiccups and stutters a lot. That said, NBA 07 on the PlayStation 2 didn't have any commentary at all, so this is a step up from that.
SCEA's NBA franchise had the potential to be a very enjoyable series, but it's now in its third iteration and the core gameplay is still tremendously flawed, with many of the same problems popping up year after year. The conquest mode is a great idea, and many of the minigames are fun for awhile, but until the actual basketball aspect of this basketball game is improved, the series will remain a disappointment.