When NBA Ballers was shown off for the first time last year, it created a good number of skeptics. Despite the fact that Ballers is a one-on-one game instead of three-on-three, the hip-hop soundtrack and streetball theme may have led some to believe that Midway was just trying to cash in on the success Electronic Arts had with the NBA Street series. While it's natural to draw comparisons between the two franchises, NBA Ballers offers a unique gameplay experience, with a high quality presentation overlaid on a solid game design.
Ballers' excellent visuals give a great first impression. Even before you load the game, you'll see plenty of original, high quality photographs of the NBA stars you'll find in the game just by navigating through the menus. Once you reach the character-select screens, you'll see the amazing work the modelers have done with player faces, which are quite possibly the best we've ever seen in a sports game. If you're at all familiar with the NBA, the players will be instantly recognizable to you. The excellent graphics extend to the in-game engine, which features little to no drop-off in the quality of player faces, and presents great-looking body models. The artists have done a pretty good job at scaling the sizes of the various players, who look appropriately lean, muscular, or bulky depending on their real-life physiques. There's also a ton of detail in the game's various venues, most of which are set in player cribs that range from Kevin Garnett's home (which is surrounded by man-made waterfalls) to Jason Kidd's sprawling estate.
Perhaps more important than the great player models and flashy courts are the game's excellent animations. Whether you're throwing down a windmill dunk or pulling off an ankle-breaking move to get open, everything looks smooth and authentic. The fact that Midway used real streetballers to motion-capture the game's seemingly dozens of different dribbling moves shows clearly in the final product. There are also some nice-looking special effects used when you pull off the most powerful dribbling maneuvers. Specifically, the game zooms in close to the action and applies slow motion and a blur filter.
Ballers' presentation doesn't fall short in the sound department either. The included hip-hop soundtrack offers some great beats that fit well with the game's theme; it's just too bad there isn't any way to selectively remove tracks from the rotation (for those who wish to do so). In-game, you'll hear sideline commentary from MC Supernatural as you play. Although his comments do become repetitive after a short while, the basic sound effects of dribbling, bumping, and dunking are good. It's also fun to hear crowd and mechanical chatter from the sideline spectators and from the sounds of camera shutters going off whenever a player pulls off a spectacular move.
As mentioned earlier, NBA Ballers is primarily a one-on-one game. The standard match is set up like a fighting game, so the first to win two out of three rounds wins. Each round goes up to 11 points, and there's a two-minute time limit. Scoring is done by twos and threes, and ball possession changes after made baskets (aka "loser's outs"). You must win by two to win the match, or you can just be ahead when the time limit is up. Goaltending is loosely enforced, and like NBA Jam, you can push and foul players to take the ball away. However, like NBA Showtime, you're limited to four fouls per match without penalty. On every fifth foul, your opponent is awarded a free throw that's good for three points, and he keeps possession of the ball, which is a massive penalty in rounds that are played only up to 11 points. As you play through the game, you'll play a good number of special-rules matches during which you'll need to meet or overcome additional challenges or twists, such as beating a five-second shot clock, playing winner's outs, and more.
Depending on what player you're using, you'll have an array of street moves at your disposal. A slick guard like Steve Nash obviously has a lot more options when dribbling than a big center like Ben Wallace, but in exchange, "Big Ben" has power dunks, and he can easily back down smaller players in the paint. Though there are some superficial differences like these between big men and guards, there still isn't quite enough differentiation in feel between big and small players. We would have liked to have seen guards be a little faster so that they could blow by big men off the dribble, in exchange for how much they give up in power and rebounding. Ballers is supposed to be somewhat grounded in reality, so it can also be somewhat unnerving to see lumbering Yao Ming throwing oops to himself, in addition to watching low-flying guards, like Gary Payton, throwing down dunks.
On offense, you can use the right thumbstick to execute basic juke moves, not unlike other basketball games on the market. Beyond this, Ballers takes a page out of NBA Street's playbook by allowing you to execute more-effective juke moves by pressing various combinations of "juice" (turbo) buttons along with another button. Once you master this, you'll be performing killer crossovers, going behind the back, spinning, and more. The most powerful moves, called "act-a-fool" moves, allow you to do all the crazy streetball tricks you've seen on TV, such as dribbling the ball back and forth between your opponent's legs, throwing the ball up behind your back and over your man, and other "now you see it, now you don't" ball tricks. These act-a-fool moves aren't all-powerful though. If you can anticipate your opponent's execution of one, you can press a button to counter the move, and then you can instantly steal the ball.
You can also perform other tricks on offense, like passing the ball to yourself off of the glass or tossing the ball to a friend in the crowd and then taking an alley-oop pass from him. You can also embarrass your opponent by throwing the ball off his face, and you can even bounce an oop to yourself off of his head. Depending on the player's dunk skill, there are other self-thrown oops at your disposal, which include bouncing the ball off the ground, tossing it up gently, or banking it to yourself off the glass (as was popularized by Tracy McGrady in the 2002 NBA All-Star Game). Tip dunks are also included in Ballers, in addition to "stunt dunks," like vaulting off your opponent's chest and then high into the air for a dunk.
Those who enjoy the low-post game can use the post-play battle feature to get more physical. You can initiate this challenge by approaching your opponent and then pressing a button. Once locked up, you simply pound on a button to try to gain an advantage in position. Defensively, you'll attempt to push your man away from the basket, while on offense, you'll try to back your man down into the paint. Win decisively, and your opponent will be stunned momentarily and, thus, pushed far out of position. Defense is a challenge in Ballers, because the game seems fairly slanted to the offensive player (as in real-life streetball), but once you get the hang of it, you can use your quick- and power-steal buttons to great effect. The timing of blocked shots seems spot-on as well, although rebounding is pretty quirky at times.
Much of the strategy in Ballers involves chaining together your various moves and finishing them off with a made basket or dunk. Performing chains increases your score and ups your "house" meter, while it also reduces any "house" that your opponent has accumulated. If you can manage to fill your house meter, the crowd starts chanting "Juice house!", which is your cue to do the juice-house oop, a powerful dunk that will both automatically win the match for you and break the backboard. We also noticed that player luck seems to be tied to your house level. While Ballers features noticeably annoying computer-assist AI at times (which means that you'll miss dunks more often or give up the ball more easily when the computer is behind), this effect appears to be lessened if you can maintain a decent house level.
Ballers has two primary game modes--rags to riches and TV tournament. The former is a story-based mode where you assume the role of an unknown streetball player who stars in a reality TV show. You start by creating a player using Ballers' robust character-creation engine, which allows you to tweak everything, like your facial structure, your clothes, shoes, accessories, and abilities. You'll start off with just a few options in clothes, but as you play through the rags to riches mode, you'll earn points that you can use to buy NBA gear, tattoos, and other accessories to customize your player. Your created player is also supposed to improve in skill depending on how you play him. Play above the rim, and score most of your points by dunks--and subsequently watch your dunk stat improve. Fire up lots of "treys," and your three-point shooting skill will rise. This feature seems to work as advertised, for the most part, but there are some quirks about it. One of our created guards, for example, always seemed to gain a lot in free throws and low-post offense, even though he never shot a free throw or backed anyone down into the block.
Rags to riches is set up as a series of tiered tournaments against NBA stars. As you complete each tier, you'll unlock bonus tournaments against NBA legends, as well as in-engine cutscenes that advance the game's story. Your character will also unlock material riches, such as individual pieces to a luxurious crib, cars (some fictional and a couple of real-life Cadillac models, including the Escalade), friends, and clothes. At the end of it all, your crib will be complete and playable in the other game modes. It would have been nice to have seen Xbox Live support here, but, unfortunately, only the PS2 version of the game features online play.
TV tournament is set up in a similar manner, but you can choose to play as an NBA player against other NBA players in themed tournaments, which earns you points that you can use to unlock certain players. For example, one tournament features former number-one picks, so you'll face off against the likes of Lebron James, Chris Webber, and Kenyon Martin. Another tournament will have you facing off against Laker legends, like Magic Johnson and James Worthy. The points you earn in TV tournament can be used to unlock players, alternate clothing, and player cribs; these points are separate from the ones you get in rags to riches. Aside from these mentioned modes, you can play a regular one-on-one match or the three player one-on-one-on-one mode by using any number of computer players to fill in. You can easily set special rules for these matches, like no ball clearing, no fouls, and legal goaltending, for instance.
The PS2 version of NBA Ballers includes online play, allowing you to test your skills against other players in regular one-on-one matches. Until you complete the rags to riches mode, only the NBA players you've unlocked in the single player mode are available for you to use online. Ballers' online component includes a leaderboard and hall of fame section, and will also allow players to enter tournaments, which weren't yet running as of this writing, but Midway claims it will be awarding prizes to the top players once the tournaments start up. The matches we played on the retail servers were smooth, and the controls very responsive. You can easily see how fast your connection is to other players in the lobbies, enabling you to intelligently pick an opponent. The online play works well, and this adds a decent amount of replay value to the game.
Our main beef with NBA Ballers is that most of the game's 84 players (60 current and 24 legend) start off locked--as do most of the game's cribs. Depending on what player you're looking for, you're liable to be working pretty hard to earn him. It could easily take dozens of hours to unlock everything in the game, so if you lack patience, just be warned that it could take a while to get Kobe and Shaq or Vince Carter's downtown penthouse. The game does include a mysterious "phrase-ology" feature for entering codes, so it's possible that easier ways to unlock your favorite players will surface over time. Of course, the quantity of locked items does have the side benefit of giving you plenty of things to work toward, so it's a minor issue. We also wished the game was a little more transparent about telling you what moves are available to you and how to pull them off. At first, it seems like the types of dribble moves you do and the dunks you pull off are chosen at random, but over time, you begin to learn the nuances of each NBA player, and you learn how to perform each specific move. Rounding out the flaws are the annoying load times on seemingly every menu option. Just changing between the player lists, game modes, and clothing options in the menus results in a brief but annoying load screen overlay that discourages you from browsing just for the sake of it.
Overall, NBA Ballers offers a great gameplay experience for fans of the NBA and of streetball culture. Midway has done a great job at combining a fun style with a solid underlying gameplay design to create a unique basketball game experience. If you've ever watched and enjoyed the Rucker Park tournaments or the And1 Mix Tape Tour on television, you owe it to yourself to check out NBA Ballers. Fans of arcade-style basketball and people who live for unlockable challenges will find no shortage of stuff to discover in NBA Ballers.