NBA '06 Review (PS2)

Whenever there is a major battle between huge companies, be it Coke versus Pepsi, Ford versus General Motors versus Chrysler, Leno versus Letterman, inevitably there is another competitor in the equation sitting somewhat harmlessly on the side watching the others duke it out. There’s really two choices at that point; throw your hat into the battle or continue to fly a little lower on the radar, develop a brand, build support, and, when you see your chance, pounce.

The FOX Network is a great example. At the time, and some of you might not even remember this (pardon me while I pop a Centrum Silver), nobody believed that this new network would last more than a few months going head-to-head with the big boys. What they decided to do was be innovative. Put things on network TV that no one else would. “The Simpsons” and “Married with Children” were the cornerstones. A cartoon and a sitcom - nothing that hadn’t been done thousands of times before; they just made them a little more real. A little bit more like you and me than most of the other things on TV.

Now that “TV History 101” is complete, you’re probably wondering what that has to do with this review. In the sports gaming business, the core of each game is very limited. Sports are games with set rules. If you’re making a basketball game and you change all of the rules, it’s not basketball. So how does the “other guy” innovate? How do they appeal to customers that may be looking the other way?

While Sony can hardly be thought of as “the little guy”, they are in the sports gaming world. Just the fact they release only on a single platform is an uphill battle right out of the gate. But basketball is still a game of five on five, with two baskets that are ten feet off the ground, and a specific set of rules. The variable is what happens off the court. And not just the practices and plane rides that happen throughout the season. NBA '06 has launched a new mode known simply as “The Life, Volume 1”.

“The Life, Volume 1” is not a new concept to sports games. But the execution is by far the deepest and most creative we’ve seen. The mode plays out like a story, even a movie. Things like the “Superstar Mode” in Madden 06 were very vanilla; almost just a glorified menu system. “The Life” in NBA '06 is engrossing. Through cutscenes and a variety of challenges (mini-games), you’ll have the opportunity to take your created player from prospect to NBA icon. The flow is logical and really pulled me into the story. The visuals and voice acting in the cutscenes are really the best you’ll see in the game. They did a nice job crafting the right look and feel to “The Life” without going overboard or becoming a giant cliché or stereotype.

From a gamer perspective, I was really pleased with this mode and can’t wait to see what they do in the years to come. The mode definitely needs a little more flexibility. But the concept and the execution are a great building block for this franchise. Unfortunately, from a sports gaming and basketball perspective, the title left a lot to be desired anytime I was outside of “The Life” mode.

As much as I appreciate and respect a good gameplay mode and innovation, the core gameplay itself still has to be there. That’s where I found a few holes in NBA '06. The biggest black eye was some less than stellar - almost oddball - AI moments that I encountered. I saw a lot of inexplicably missed shots and lay-ups. Errant passes were far too common and never seemed to occur at appropriate moments in the game. The AI players seemed to get unrealistic speed bursts at different moments in the game. The problems are nothing major for most people, but enough little annoyances to make the gameplay frustrating; and not in the good, competitive way.

The in-game look is not nearly as solid as the cutscenes in “The Life”. The player models and their movement were not really to the level that we know the system can push. The look of the players and the arenas are just kind of plain, almost generic.

The sounds of the game are about the same. It's almost like they spent so much time on “The Life”, that they did just enough with areas like the sounds. There’s really nothing missing from the environment; just nothing that really gives you that feel of excitement that you can find in other titles.

Besides “The Life” and a basic “NBA Mode” - where you can play quick games and set up a season - you’re also able to take it to the ‘Net (no pun intended) for some online action. Besides the standard 5-on-5, you’ll be pleased to find a decent array of competition in games like “21” and an “Own The Court” mode. Play was solid and mostly lag-free. And, unlike some other PS2 online sports titles, I really didn’t have any problem finding a game.

Competition generally breeds innovation. While NBA '06 featuring “The Life, Volume 1” is not revolutionary at the core, I personally believe more immersive experiences like this are the way sports gaming is headed. I’m very excited for it. But, with that innovation, developers can’t lose sight of the people who also want a good game a basketball first and foremost. The game is worth a look for most sports gamers. It’s another glimpse at the likely future of sports titles.

NBA '06 Score
out of 10