Release Date: April 21, 2008
For as long as there have been traditional sports games there have been over-the-top arcade titles meant to enhance events that can, quite honestly, get a little boring when played repeatedly. Perhaps the best known arcade sports game is NBA Jam. This series (also created by Midway) broke barriers by introducing incredibly hard fouls, impossible shots, and physics-breaking dunks all in a fast-paced, take-no-prisoners environment. Truly, it was the game for anyone who wouldn't be caught dead playing a sim-style title.
Sadly, the NBA Jam franchise is dead and buried, and in its place, Midway has created NBA Ballers. You would assume that the studio that perfected arcade basketball all those years ago would be able to deliver a downright earth-shattering, pants-wetting, backboard-breaking b-ball experience on the new generation of consoles, but you would be wrong. NBA Ballers: Chosen One is a game that is so oversold on its own importance that it forgot the most important tenet of gaming: It's supposed to be fun.
I can best summarize my feelings toward Chosen One with one word: frustration. I'm not frustrated with the dodgy controls or broken gameplay, but with a game that thinks it's so special, so unique, and so above all others that it takes every possible moment it can to revel in its own glory and hype itself to no end. The game truly emphasizes sizzle over substance, with the entrance videos of superstar players and the overly long, unskippable cut scenes every time someone pulls a special move taking precedence over anything remotely related to playing a game of basketball. By the time I neared the end of my experience with Chosen One, I couldn't help but sneer every time the game cut away from the sport to bask in the shenanigans that were taking place after every made basket.
The title's inflated sense of self is most on display in story mode. After you create a character (with a purely middle-of-the road character modeler) and distribute your ability points, it's off to various courts around the world to challenge some of today's best NBA players to games with a laundry list of ridiculous rules.
The story mode consists of six chapters, each broken up into five stages. The challenges within the stages consist of 1v1, 2v2, and 1v1v1 games, but you almost never play a straight up match because most of them feature some sort of added twist. Some rules, such as dunks being worth three points, or being required to block three shots and win, are fair and add a bit of spice to the game. Others, such as coming back from 20 points down with three minutes to play, or winning a game without getting blocked or letting your opponent score once, are downright ridiculous.
The absolute worst stipulation is the "no checks" rule, so that every time a basket is scored, the ball remains live. Well, if your character is slightly out of position or not a good rebounder, you're left with little to do other than simply stand there and watch your opponent rack up the points and win the match. To further enrage already irritated players, you only get three continues per stage (whether there be one match to get through, or five), and failure to win the entire bracket in three tries means you get tossed back to the beginning and must do the whole thing over again. And let me tell you, nothing makes you want to shatter a game disc quite like going back to the old continue system I thought we'd abandoned 10 years ago.
Arcade sports games are based on characters being able to perform larger-than-life moves. In that respect Chosen One nearly succeeds, but not quite. The game forces you into such an overreliance on the "Act a Fool" combo system that you'll likely find every possession playing out the same way. You see, when you successfully perform the combo (triggered by pressing the on-screen button faster than your opponent), you fill up your special meter. Once the meter is filled, you're allowed to perform a "Shut 'Em Down Super Move." Level one specials grant you a super juke or steal, level two awards a special shot or block, and level three offers you a game-ending super dunk. That's right, no matter what the score or how much time is left, a level-three dunk is an instant game over, and you win. If that isn't a balancing issue, I don't know what is. Anyhow, most possessions will consist of you performing an "Act a Fool" combo, scoring, using your level-one super move to steal the ball, and then repeating the process ad infinitum until the game is over. If it sounds boring, that's because it truly is; you'll likely grow tired of the whole experience in under an hour.
Perhaps the repetition of the game could have been offset with a sleek, stylish look, but Chosen One falls flat in the visual department. While the faces of NBA superstars look convincing, everything else, from their generic body types to their herky-jerky animations, look stiff and uninspired. Perhaps the most egregious case of awful animation comes during a super shot. Whenever the shot is actually taken (after five seconds of the same cut scene that you've already watched 30 times), the ball will travel completely parallel to the rim, and then drop through the net at a 90-degree angle. You have to see it to understand just how dumb it looks, but suffice it to say that not only is it obvious that whoever created the animation doesn't understand the flight path of a basketball, but said individual also doesn't seem too keen on physics in general.
On top of all that, the clothing, which is meant to be the most eye-catching affair in the experience, is about as flat, boring, and non-textured as can be. After playing around with my new threads after nearly every match early on, I quickly learned that nothing actually looks any good, and I just gave up. Thinking that perhaps I had missed something, I checked back late in the game when my closet was deeper, and still found that the duds offered were just as drab as they had been in the beginning. It's truly unfortunate when a game that revels in the excess of the multimillionaire pro athlete lifestyle can't even show off the lifestyle in a manner that is convincing or enticing.
You know there is a problem with your title when the highlight of the whole experience is the commentary, which is provided Chuck D. of Public Enemy fame. He introduces every chapter from a slick TV show set and delivers his lines in such a way that you could truly believe that he has a future as a studio show host. Once you're on the court, he provides the play-by-play, dropping compliments when you make an impressive move or admonishing you for goaltending or taking a bad shot. While there are still some slip-ups (he has a lot of trouble calling 1v1v1 games), he actually does a very good job of staying in the background and adding to the experience, rather than trying to take it over like so many sports game announcers tend to do.
As expressed above, NBA Ballers: Chosen One is frustrating in many respects, not the least of which is that if you cut through the clutter, you can see that the core is there for an enjoyable game. The most basic mechanics ? shooting, stealing, juking ? are all in place, but all of the layers that are piled on top ruin the experience. The title tries to do too much, and the entire thing collapses under the weight of it all. Due to the unique licensing agreements of the NBA, it will be two years before we see another NBA Ballers game. Hopefully during that time, the staff at Midway will actually get out on the court and shoot some hoops and remember what made NBA Jam a success so many years ago. If you really need a basketball fix this spring, you'd be better served grabbing one of the more traditional NBA games, as Chosen One has chosen to be a waste of time and money.
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