When NBA Ballers first launched back in 2004 on Xbox and PS2 it was all about delivering simple, unadulterated, over-the-top basketball fun. And it came through in spades for hoops fans. Now we're four years removed from the series' inaugural outing and it's making its debut on Xbox 360 and PS3 with NBA Ballers: Chosen with revamped visuals and a few new gameplay mechanics.
First thing you do in NBA Ballers games is create your custom b-baller. The create-a-player system is alright, but compared to many other sport titles out there, it lacks a bit of depth and polish. You pick a nickname, assign an allotment of attribute points to get your career rolling, and then take to the court for the very first time. Attribute progression is not what you would expect. Rather than assigning point values after beating your competition like in other sport games, such as Top Spin 3, the game auto-assigns these points based on how you played the game. For me, this feels a bit cheap as it doesn’t let you create your own style of player, instead you have to try to play the game a certain way and hope the AI allocates the attribute points the way you want them to.
Every category gets a bump of +1 when you win a game, but it's clear that your progression is slowed to ensure that dunk-happy players can't rule the air up there too early in their careers. This is good and bad depending on your perspective.
The structure of the career mode in Chosen One is pretty solid, with six episodes and a handful of chapters (sets of games to win) per episode. Each episode kicks off with an introduction from Chuck D. about the type of competition that you'll be up against. He speaks to you while sitting in a flashy NBA TV studio set and it's pretty cool, while being a bit fake and tacky.
Once you've listened to Chuck D. do his thing it's time to take to the court. Unlike past Ballers titles which constrained players to one-on-one duels (or one-on-one affairs), you will now be able to play a good old fashioned two-on-two full-court game if you so desire. There are also different rules that the computer will throw at you in an attempt to keep things fresh. This helps through the first two episodes, but after that you've pretty much seen all that the game has to offer.
One of the more confusing (and annoying) rule decisions is the "no take back" variant. This means that you don't have to take the ball out beyond the three-point line after your opponent shoots up a brick and means that you don't need to check the ball after a made basket. This leads to a game of sitting under the basket, hoping the ball happens to come to you, and then trying to throw it down without getting blocked. This can become very frustrating as there is no skill involved, just button mashing. I must admit, I became insanely pissed off when I had to repeat one of the early matches a few times because I wasn’t timing my jump button mashing right. The controller nearly bore the brunt of it, but it survived. Luckily the vast majority of the career mode games are played under more traditional rule sets.
NBA Ballers new gameplay mechanics comes in the form of the combo system. This is activated by pressing the left shoulder button and X. Doing so displays a button prompt on the screen. Press it before your opponent does and your character will pull off a stylish move and another prompt will appear, succeed with the second, and another will pop up. Your position (center, forward, or guard) determines exactly how many moves can be linked together, but the more you're able to link the higher your super-move meter builds.
The combo mechanic does a good job of varying the timing between button presses and the combination of buttons so a veteran player will never have the upper-hand on a newbie. The downside, which far outweighs the positive, is that the combo system winds up completely dominating the gameplay. Completing one successful string of combos gives you a score multiplier which adds an additional two points if you can quickly score a basket, something that feels a little cheap if you're on the losing end. It also nets you a level one super-move, complete another and you'll get a level two move, and get lucky enough to nail three consecutive combos without your opponent making a bucket and you'll earn the game ending level three super-move. That's right, no matter if you're losing 40-2, if you pull off a level three super-move it's an auto-win.
The super-move is another addition. After completing a combo or a few of the Act a Fool moves, you'll earn energy towards your super-move meter. A level one super-move can be used to pull off a steal or a fancy dribble. A level two super-move lets you pull off a super-shot or a super-block and a level three move is a game ending slamma jamma.
The problem with the super-move is that activating one automatically starts a six to seven second cutscene that cannot be skipped and it comes in and completely disrupts the flow of the game. The animations that are activated simply aren't that cool unfortunately and become very mundane the more you see them. The rest of the core gameplay from past Ballers games is still intact and plays just as you remember. The animations seemed a little too rigid in all aspects of Chosen One. Compared to other basketball games, NBA Ballers just felt a little sluggish and slow, especially for an arcade title. Whether it's performing a simple flick of the right stick or doing a bona fide Act a Fool move, it didn't feel like the fluidity had progressed from the Xbox versions. You can’t also break out of an animation which is another thing that Chosen One lacks. The other aspect of the single player game that NBA Ballers falls short is the artificial intelligence. Most games came down to the following pattern; Check the ball, perform full combo, dunk the ball, get level one super-move. There are different win conditions that force you to change your strategy bit, but the AI is just as stupid regardless of the rules.
As you probably realize, the single player aspect of Chosen One isn't the main draw. It's more a means to the end of getting your custom player to a level where he can compete effectively online or against your buddies locally. That's where the real fun of Ballers has always been and it's no different here. You can now play up to four players on one system and participate in a two-on-two full court game. This is probably the best part of Ballers as unfortunately, when take the game online, even for a one-on-one with fellow aussies the game is incredibly laggy. My advice is to stick to playing this as a party game when a few mates come over to your place and leave the online side of things to games like NBA2K8.
Visually NBA Ballers: Chosen is good, but not great. The extravagant environments look good and the zany introductions, while over the top, are pretty cool. The real problem with the look of the game is the aforementioned rigid animations, which lack polish. The player models look solid, but are a bit out of proportion. Don’t get me wrong, NBA Ballers is nice to look at, especially in HD, it’s just not what you’d expect from a 360 title these days, especially with the visual prowess of basketball titles like NBA Live 2008, NBA 2K8 and NBA Street: Homecourt.
The audio portion comes with a soundtrack that is serviceable, but features nothing that you'll catch yourself singing along to. On the court the rim rattles with authenticity and the commentary does its job, but like the rest of the package there's nothing memorable about it.
Overall NBA Ballers: Chosen One delivers more of the same gameplay from the Xbox version, but with new additions that do nothing but hurt the overall formula. The multiplayer action is still fun if you can get enough friends to sit down and play with you, but that’s probably not enough to warrant a full purchase.
AAG Score: 6.5/10
Reviewed and Written by Craig Cirillo