Release Date: October 2, 2007
First-party published sports titles are always a tin of mixed nuts, usually the cheap kind, heavy on peanut halves and pecans and light on the cashews and hazelnuts. The problem: These franchises often were originated to fill holes, real or perceived, in third-party support for the console manufacturer's flagship platform. That's not traditionally the case with Sony's consoles; PlayStation models quickly acquire top-tier sports games support from the best developers and publishers. It makes you wonder why Sony forges ahead with its NBA franchise when, for the PlayStation 3, there are now two other established, competent professional basketball titles available. If we were talking about Sony's MLB: The Show franchise, you could make the case that despite all efforts and varying annual critical opinions, no developer can manage a truly excellent modern baseball video game. You can even argue that most likely simulative baseball and video games don't mix, applauding Sony's ongoing endeavor to tap the magic and release a truly solid baseball simulation. But in basketball, other publishers have the game down; there are full-featured PlayStation 3 versions of the top franchises, making the annual first-party NBA titles seem redundant.
When the platform manufacturers create a sports franchise, they're often stuck between quickly pushing an acceptable catalog-filler into the market and taking the time and effort to innovate. Usually what you get are catalog-fillers with halfhearted or broken features that, at least on the drawing board, aspired to innovation. That's the rule, but there are exceptions. When Microsoft's first-party publishing operation couldn't sleep nights worrying about a lack of quality, feature-rich third-party sports support for the original Xbox console, they churned out a few games of their own.
Their NFL football title — like all the other sports they tried — was a half-formed, abortive and ultimately poor attempt at building a sports franchise, save one thing: you could save games mid-game, returning to finish them at your convenience. While this may not have been an absolute first in sports titles, there's a certain philosophy of machismo in contemporary popular sports games that says, if you started it, you're going to finish it right here, right now. You thought you had time for 15-minute quarters ticked off in real time but then your life intercedes, that's tough, and you should quit late in the game and lose every moment of your show-off victory, cumulative awards and earned achievements. But Microsoft said, Oh give 'em a break and let them play at their leisure. Too bad no other publishers picked up on this excellent idea, as the saved, unfinished sports match died with Microsoft's first-party lineup.
Similar statements can be made about Sony's NBA franchise, somewhat incomplete and occasionally rough around the edges, but in certain aspects exhibiting highlight features. For example, added to the overall NBA 07 game design is the new Upside Progression System, which is simply a create-a-player feature common to most sports titles these days. However, NBA 08 structures the system more like those of solo sports titles — say, tennis or golf — than team sports. Not only can you create your own player, but you also can modify his appearance, name and athletic résumé, his clothing and equipment — the ubiquitous "gear" — and as you achieve goals in NBA 08, you're awarded points with which to stuff your player's closet with finer gear and selectively upgrade his on-court abilities. For example, if you want a master dunker, put the bulk of your points into his dunk skills. Prefer a three-point sharpshooter? Load up that long-range shooting ability. Of all the feature additions and refinements in NBA 08, the Upside Progression System adds by far the greatest value.
Games of the Week challenges, playable highlights from top NBA games of the real-world season, also survived the annual update, along with a new Season challenge feature packaged with a slew of scenarios from the 2006-07 NBA season. The challenge mode can be picky: You'll have to make many difficult plays the real NBA players pulled off during a game, often having to make those plays from the exact spot on the court the real player made them, and under the gun of a time limit, too. For example, you may have 90 seconds to make two three-pointers, a field goal and four assists with a particular player, and you'll have to drop the three-point shots and field goal from the exact positions on the court the real NBA players did. This may range anywhere from tough to excruciatingly tough. Fortunately, Sony allows you to configure your challenges at a wide range of difficulty levels, easing some of the effort in meeting the goals required to advance.
Play mechanics remain much the same. The circular power-bar-style shot meter implemented for assessing difficulty of, and actually executing, field goals and jumpers is there and still quite good; dunks and lay-ups are as always push and pray. Sony has added a feature called Key Control Play Calling, which allows you to rather easily identify go-to players, who then often, but not always, become the focus of offensive mini-plays directed via the d-pad. The feature works well, alleviating much of the burden associated with keeping your two eyes on all four of your teammates, all the time while on the offensive. The downside is that Key Control readily becomes a crutch: Even if, say, an isolation play for an inside lay-up does properly focus on your selected go-to guy, you'll miss an easy two-point outside shot from an unguarded teammate because you're paying him no attention, never realizing he's so wide open he could swing a 10-foot pole without so much as grazing an opposing player. Otherwise, Key Control Play Calling is a welcome addition, and at the higher game difficulty settings, using it well easily means the difference between winning and losing.
Defensive play is essentially the same as NBA 07. The flashing rebound indicators around the basket are still there and work well, guiding you to put a pair of hands at the right spot to steal the opposition's messy rim-hoppers. Quick-witted defensive play-calling results in deft steals and demoralizing pass pick-offs, while merely mashing away at the steal button will get you the ball a couple of times, but continue this blind aggression and you'll foul out by the fourth quarter. Principally, good defense relies on keeping your selected player, the man you're controlling, in line with the defensive play you've called, not running off rogue to triple-team the ball handler, dropping your coverage assignment.
SixAxis motion-sensing technology for player control remains dependable and accessible but has been enhanced this year. The new deal is christened Free6. In addition to the familiar jukes and evasive maneuvers on the horizontal axis, defensive and offensive player stances can be controlled along the vertical axis, making it harder for the opposition to take clear shots at the basket and launch accurate passes, or steal balls and block shots, respectively.
NBA 08 is otherwise uncomplicated. While four can play offline multiplayer, online competition is strictly one-on-one in exhibition mode. There is no franchise mode whatsoever. Roster management and the other fine-grained details of team management are quite limited.
Graphics and animations are generally improved, especially in the area of player models, which no longer look a bit grotesque, like Stepford mannequin substitutes for real NBA players. The game runs in 1080p at a 60 frames per second if your HDTV can handle it. The menu soundtrack is better than most sports games, but of course Sony has their own music catalog from which to enlist a diverse range of artists. To much critical dismay, NBA 07 was devoid of any announcing, save the arena's public address. I rather liked it in a "Hoosiers" sort of way, but even I admit in contemporary context that it was far more suited to non-existent high school basketball video games than professional or even collegiate sports titles.
NBA 08 adds the expected broadcast-style announcing; although it's not bad for a few minutes, the stock dialog isn't deep — you'll soon know the entire lexicon by heart. Unlike the repetitive wit of announcing in games like EA's Tiger Woods golf franchise, they won't still make you chuckle when you've heard them all a thousand times before. The announcing is the only weak spot in NBA 08's audio; the background crowd noise, from disinterested murmur to cheering roar, is realistic and effective, as are the game's on-court sound effects.
Ultimately, the deciding factor for NBA 08 isn't the game, it's you. If you're NBA-obsessed, or even just a serious, longtime fan of American pro basketball, and you want a truly simulative experience, you don't want NBA 08. If you better favor a street-simple sort of basketball title, but instead of low-slung jeans, mesh T-shirts and asphalt courts, you prefer NBA rules, real players, real uniforms and real arenas, the game's limitations will likely suit you just fine. NBA 08 is roundly good at what it does; it just doesn't do much. In today's top-tier sports games market, it's not a bad game. It's just, save the engaging Upside Progression System and unique Games of the Week challenges, behind the times.