Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: February 20, 2007
NBA Street: Homecourt is the kind of game that reminds you of just why Electronic Arts is the biggest and most profitable publisher in the video game industry. This is the sort of game you realize you've always wanted to play the moment you picked up the controller, but isn't anything that could result from pandering to fans or groupthink. Instead it's an amazing triumph of technical skill, style, and the sort of knowledge of what makes a fun game that separates the stars of the game design world from the also-rans. Homecourt runs at a smooth 60fps, which shows in the sheer detail of the character animations. It's the first Xbox 360 game to do so, and only the second PS3 title to hit that milestone. The version demonstrated was the 360 build, which is one of the most amazingly beautiful uses of the hardware to date.
Homecourt is the fourth game in the NBA Street series, which tried to blend EA's licensed athletes with the rough and tumble (and sometimes ludicrously over the top) world of street basketball. For Homecourt, EA decided to explore the idea of the franchise by presenting it as a "flashback", both to the roots of street basketball and, implicitly, to what the roots of your favorite NBA stars could have been. Associate Producer Todd Batty called it a "70's documentary feel", and this design aesthetic unifies the entire game. The way light plays across the court subtly suggests 70's era cheap film stock, and the fashions and environments definitely suggest earlier, simpler times. All of the licensed games are 70's and 80's-era classics, heavy on the funk, period electronica, and rap classics. Even the fonts for the game recall vintage 70's advertising design.
Despite this emphasis on simplicity and nostalgia, much about the graphics and AI is absolutely cutting-edge. Characters are rendered with a level of realism that is compelling and simply unprecedented on the 360, and yet this doesn't result in any artifacts like stiff animations or "uncanny valley" surrealist expressions. Everything feels perfect and true to life even as you can obviously tell that the athlete's moves are incredibly larger-than-life, almost superhuman. The players' animations are as smooth and believable as anything a more stylized game could manage, with the high frames per second adding both to realism and the actual gameplay. With so many frames of animation, timing becomes tighter and more strategic than ever.
The basic realism of the characters also makes some of the flashier and more over-the-top character moves, if anything, all the more impressive. Some moves available in the game go so far beyond the realms of basic possibility, but they look absolutely "right". The only oddity of the graphics on the demonstration build was the way the lighting engine caused sweat on the athlete's bodies to reflect. While some shimmer is good, players had a tendency to look eerily reflective in certain light. There's still a little over a month until release, though, so EA has plenty of time for ironing kinks out.
As with the other NBA Street titles, the emphasis in Homecourt is solidly on wild tricks and gimmicks. It is to EA's other basketball titles as the Harlem Globetrotters are to real basketball, which is to say a billion times more fun just out of the game. Homecourt's reconstructed ambience, however, suggests that it's not a sequel meant to please the faithful so much as a new beginning meant to invite all players to the series. The tricks are all fresh and new, as is the on-court action and the hilarious Gamebreaker mode. Likewise, the controls are simple and clearly designed to invite new players to pick up the game and give it a try. Within a minute or two virtually any player can be pulling off basic stunts that look quite impressive.
Basically, the two stunt-triggering buttons are X and A. X lets you perform stunt dribbles, while A always takes the ball to the ground. Pressing the buttons in different ways results in different sorts of moves; for instance, tapping X makes your player bend over and dribble the ball inches from the ground, while holding X makes him palm the ball and hold on to it for a second before dribbling high and strong. Likewise, tapping A makes your player kick the ball along the ground for a second, while holding A results in a more elaborate roll along the ground. You can elaborate these two basic building blocks of style by using the R and L buttons (or both) to modify your moves, allowing for a wide variety of basic stunts.
When a defender is trying to get in your way, then you can use your tricks to help keep the ball away from him, or even use special defensive tricks with the Y button to build style while putting him in his place. For instance, you can bounce the ball off the forehead of a defender who's staying in your face a bit too aggressively. To dunk, you use the B button, and how long you hold the button determines the style of your dunk. Ideally, you hold it down long enough to build a lot of power, and then let go of it at the last possible second to execute a stylish dunk worth a perfect 13000 points. If you hold it down for a briefer period of time, you get a less powerful dunk, and holding down the button too long results in a painful-looking (and honestly hilarious) wipeout animation. You can even do special dunks that involve using a teammate as a prop, such as leaping off his back. These moves have their own special rewards, and profoundly hilarious wipeout animations to accompany a failure.
Now, you may be wondering why you should bother to do tricks in Homecourt, other than sheer novelty. In fact, the game gives you a very satisfying reward for playing it well. Each bit of successful flash and style you manage on the court powers up your Gamebreaker meter. The more risky and daring the move, the bigger the power-up will be. Screw-ups don't penalize your meter, but instead, your opponent always has the ability to steal your meter by stealing control of the ball. This means longer and more elaborate tricks are more risky and more likely to result in you losing control of the Gamebreaker meter entirely. Once the Gamebreaker meter is full, then in the words of Batty, "if you have the ball, you're God".
Your player's entire animation set changes, and having the ball stolen from you becomes enormously more difficult. You become the star of a Globetrotters style stunt show, able to keep control of the ball while executing stunts that turn your game into an elaborate breakdancing routine set to Herbie Hancock's "Rocket" while disco waves of red and blue flow across the screen. The sequence doesn't end until you dunk, which shouldn't be until after you've amassed a giant score bonus with flashy stunts and tricks. It is a thing of beauty and an unparalleled joy to behold. This is what video games are all about.
As in previous NBA Street titles, players may select from a variety of "street" players and NBA players, complete with team jerseys. They look more than a bit anachronistic up against the 70's-80's veneer of the game, but perhaps that sort of contrast is simply a selling point. Different players have unique, sometimes motion-captured playing styles, and everyone certainly is recognizable and completely natural in movement and expression. Batty mentioned that the game spun out of the idea of "homecoming", and so they based much of the gameplay off of talking to their various NBA stars about their roots with street basketball. "These guys get really passionate about street basketball. The players are always positive about the games, but Rip Hamilton flew himself out at his own expense to work on this game, because he cared so much about it."
At the demo, only basic moves on a single court were being shown off, and it's obvious the game will have much more to offer than that. How much of it will come directly from crafting the affection of NBA players for street ball into the gameplay remains to be seen, but EA clearly has the fundamentals well in hand. As in basketball, that is the foundation of all the most awe-inspiring stunts that may follow.
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