NBA '05 Review (PSP)

989 Sports took the year off from their PS2 basketball series, ShootOut, but instead of that, they've come through with an NBA game for the launch of the PSP. Does the game deliver a solid NBA experience for Sony's new handheld, or does 989 clank one off the rim?

NBA introduces a new timing based shooting system, where you'll tap the button to start the shot, and then tap again as the ball changes color. If your second tap comes while the ball is green, your shot will usually go in. Red means there isn't much chance, and yellow is somewhere in between. Though it takes some getting used to, it's not the system itself that's a problem. It's really not different from the standard hold-and-release system you usually see. It's a lot of fun shooting jumpers with this system.

Unfortunately, basketball isn't just about jumpshots.

The most frequent problem you'll run into is that the system changes for dunks - you only tap the button once, and the player will go into the dunk animation and slam it home. Unfortunately, players' dunk range can be easily 10 feet out along the baseline, so there's no way to tell if your first tap will result in a dunk, lay-up or jumper. You'll tap the button, and then try to react if the colored halo unexpectedly appears. Since you don't know what kind of shot you'll be attempting, it's hard to establish the precise timing the double-tap system calls for. Lay-ups and shots in the paint become the trickiest shots to make, as the window is small and you're often caught off guard. When your shooting system makes three-point shots easier than lay-ups ... there's something wrong. It's completely unrealistic, and it turns the game into a jump shot contest where you are punished for driving the lane.

If the shot mechanic was the only problem, this might turn out to be a decent game. But that's only the start of NBA's problems.

There's a deep play-calling interface, as the entire directional pad is dedicated to the 32 plays available for on-the-fly plays. Those 32 plays would be a lot more impressive if they were worth calling. They boil down to combinations of drive versus shoot, primary shooter versus secondary, and one of four areas of the court. There's no isolation plays, no pick-and-rolls available; not even the simple ability to call for a pick for the ball handler. In general, the player positioning and off the ball movement is really shocking, as your players will assume the same positions in their offensive set. It's not varied at all - they will hit the same parquet square every time down the court, regardless of the play.

The court seems amazingly small, especially when combined with the somewhat slow shot mechanic. Though the CPU is intelligent enough to double-team your hot shooters, it's hard to kick the ball out to the open man because the defender will be there by the time you shoot - they aren't far away to start with, and the double tap system takes a while to get a shot off. Once that defender gets there, you're often out of luck. Though you don't see too many three pointers blocked in the NBA, here they happen with alarming frequency. Kick out to your small forward at the arc and if his defender is anywhere near, you're just going to get swatted.

On defense, the directional pad is still dedicated to play-calling, though defenses are limited to a 2-3 zone, a 3-2 zone, and man-to-man. Simple things like the ability to call for a double team on your man - or even assign double teams through the pause menu - are missing. Rebounding doesn't really exist in the game, as rebounds usually consist of a few players milling around a bouncing ball before one of them runs into the ball, and takes possession. Unlike many basketball games, there's no kind of turbo or sprint control in the game. Players all generally move the same speed, and there's no way to get an extra burst if you need it to close on a fast break or get after a loose ball. You'll often see a loose ball go rolling down the court out of bounds as players jog after it, unable to catch up or even close the gap.

There's no sense of playing different teams ... or even different players. The CPU runs its offense primarily through its point guard: from Gilbert Arenas to Keith McLeod, each point guard you encounter will break your defenders down off the dribble or launch off-balance jump shots on their way to a 20-point night. If you play the Heat, Shaq's an afterthought and Dwyane Wade is barely noticeable as Damon Jones puts up shot after shot after shot. The CPU won't call timeouts near the end of games when it's down by a few points (though they will foul intelligently), nor will they even call a timeout for an injured player who can barely hobble up the court.

In what might be the lowest hurdle for any "sim" sports game, NBA manages to fail at even the basic implementation of the rules. Neither the defensive three-second rule is implemented, nor it's defensive counterpart and the five-second back-to-the basket penalty is also completely missing. You'll see free throws awarded incorrectly on a pretty consistent basis, as a foul on a three-point attempt nets you only two free throws most of the time. I've also seen what seem to be far too many cases where a ball is blocked out of bounds and possession gets awarded to the blocker's team, or cases where retrieving one of those blocked three-pointers will penalize you with a backcourt violation.

Besides the exhibition games you'd expect on a handheld system, you'll also find "Season Mode" and "Quick Games". The "Quick Games" are comprised of a three-point contest, a game called "Paint" where you take control of areas of the court by making successful shots, and the "Skills Challenge" - just as it's played during the NBA All-Star Weekend. These games can take as little as 30 seconds, provide a good alternative to four quarters of NBA action for gamers on the go, and the "3-Point" and "Paint" contests really highlight the strengths of the new shooting system.

As fun as the "Quick Games" are, they don't have the depth to sustain the game over the long haul. This is where "Season Mode" should come in to provide longevity. Unfortunately, for gamers used to console offerings from the last half-decade or so, it's completely underpowered and provides only the bare minimum one would expect: 82 games played in order, with some basic stat tracking. There's no management challenge at all. Though trades and free agent signings are available, there is no AI and no money. Want to trade Jason Collins for Jason Kidd? Sure - the computer won't stop you. Want an All-Star starting five? The cap won't stop you there, as there's no money involved. For those that want roster fidelity in their season mode, this game is an unmitigated disaster. I'm not a real stickler for "realistic" trade logic, but a season where you'll see the CPU-controlled teams make an Antonio McDyess for Kobe Bryant trade, and then follow it with a Michael Redd for LeBron James deal; you know it's not remotely grounded in reality.

Simulating games in season mode is quick and easy - you can simulate whole seasons in minutes if you wish. There's full stat tracking while you're there, but the horrible engine almost makes it not worth the time. The statheads reading this will be horrified at an NBA game where the scoring leader is in the 20 PPG range, and you'll often find second-tier frontcourt players like Brad Miller or Troy Murphy near the top, if not winning it outright. And even someone like myself, who is hardly an NBA purist, recoils from league leaders in field goal percentage shooting around .650 ... and they're all guards.

While you have the flexibility to set your quarter length in exhibition games and playoff mode, for some reason you can't alter it in season mode. You're stuck at four minute quarters through your season, and that's definitely too short to provide any kind of reasonable stats. Though I'm glad to see a season mode of some sort implemented, I'm not sure why it needs to be so limited. Other PSP sports games from 989 Sports have more robust season modes than this, so it's not the hardware. It feels like an underestimation of the audience, as if 989 didn't expect the handheld market to be savvy enough gamers to realize that this sort of "Season Mode" really isn't acceptable in today's sports gaming.

Outside of the lack of commentary, the presentation rivals what you'd see on a home console. The menus are slick and easy to use, the camera options are decent, and the graphics are detailed. In close-ups the players are rendered well, but on the court it can get hard to tell one player from another. They look alike, use the same limited animations and they all move at about the same speed. It's a minor thing, but it sure would have been nice to at least have the option of seeing some sort of player identifier. There's no option for player names, numbers, positions, or skills to be displayed.

There's an interesting special effect that'll happen a few times a game. As a superstar makes a particularly good shot or dunk, the game will cut to a freeze frame of the player in mid-shot, and put them in a virtual Upper Deck card, complete with autograph. It's a fun idea, but happens so suddenly it's completely distracting, especially when you don't actually make the shot and need to quickly react on defense. Please, developers, save the special effects for after the shot - not while I'm trying to make it.

Though the game hit shelves with the launch of the PSP, the rosters are terribly out of date. Not only are trade deadline deals like Baron Davis to Golden State missing, so are breakout players like the 76'ers Andre Iguodala. There's no way to edit the base rosters, nor are there roster downloads, so any exhibition games or quick games will use the default rosters that seem to date from mid-January 2005.

Online is really quite impressive, and is definitely the game's highlight. NBA not only supports "Ad-hoc Mode", where you can play with other local players, but full "Infrastructure Mode", which is online Internet play through a wireless hotspot. Exhibition games are available, as well as all the "Quick Games". You can easily hop online and play a game in whatever timeframe you want, as something like the three-point contest only takes minutes. There are a few kinks in the online setup, and it can be hard to get a match going. You'll often get disconnected, or find yourself unable to connect in the first place. But once you get in the game, it plays smoother than many PS2 online games I've played. The concept of portable lag-free online gaming really amazes me, and NBA has it. There are occasional small slowdowns and hiccups, but in general it's as smooth as online gaming gets.

It's hard reviewing titles early in the life of a console, as no one's quite sure what the system is capable of. If this is the best that the PSP can offer for basketball titles, though, it's going to be disappointing for sports gamers. The on the court basketball is an uneven mess, and the game's "Season Mode" is an embarrassment. The online play is smooth and the "Quick Games" are a bit of fun, but this isn't a game I can recommend to any serious sports gamer.

NBA '05 Score
out of 10