I've always believed that portable gaming platforms — and the PSP in particular — are well-suited to lighter weight sports simulations. By their nature, especially using the default accelerated period timers, sports games are handy for pick-up-and-play scenarios, when you have an idle few minutes or a whole hour. Likewise, unlike some ridiculously addictive puzzle games, particularly those in which your progress is cumulative but cannot be saved, they're easy to put away when work or other life responsibilities intercede.
Nothing is perfect: Although robust in features, great in graphics and excellent in sound, PSPs cannot approach the fully realized team sports experiences of today's home console generation. Online leagues are difficult to implement, and immediate download of roster changes, playbooks and the like may not always be possible. Also, while superior in quality and size for portable consoles, the PSP's screen is still quite tiny compared to most televisions, requiring perspective and level of detail in team sports titles be adjusted and constrained so as not to overwhelm on-the-go playability.
PSP sports titles also beg something extra to make up for more limited features in the central game, something to fill in for modes that sports gaming fans will miss from the full-size console versions of the games. NBA 10 The Inside was developed with these limitations in mind, presenting a rich but playable environment and a score of mini-games, most of them nicely tailored to the short bursts of playtime that PSPs get. Though the overall basketball simulation experience is good, you'll likely find most of your time with NBA 10 The Inside spent on the 20+ basketball-based mini-games — and perhaps the returning Conquest mode.
This is not to say that The Inside comes up sorely lacking in the principal basketball simulation. Indeed, the game includes a deep franchise mode, and, if you'd like to play a lot of related games but don't like to keep going forever, a thoroughly competent playoff mode. If you're not a total basketball fanatic and you can live without infrastructure (online) multiplayer modes, NBA 10 The Inside could easily fill the space in your gaming library reserved for a basketball simulation.
The Inside also retains the accustomed exhibition game mode, in which you pick a matchup, choose which side to play, and, well, just play. It's the core point of recreational sports sims. Hardcore fans may spend a great deal of time in season and franchise modes, but the vast amount of sports gaming offline takes place in some form of exhibition mode. It's an easy way to get into a game, and there's no great time commitment required. You're not even penalized for quitting the game altogether and coming back later to start over again. The Inside's exhibition mode is where you can play the familiar single-player matchup, but you can also create your own tournament ladder, save the ladder and return to it over and over again to finish the competition, as your gaming time permits.
Exhibition mode is also the route to The Inside's only multiplayer mode, the ad-hoc competitive proposition (there is no ad-hoc co-op mode), in which you can square off against a nearby opponent with his own PSP and copy of the game. (Note: The game manual indicates you can play multiplayer matches over "wireless Internet." While technically true — an ad-hoc connection between one PSP and another is a "wireless Internet" — it's easily confused with the notion you can play online over the Internet. That is not the case; it's local wireless multiplayer only.) There's also a traditional quick-play mode, even simpler than exhibition mode, which lets you match up a couple of teams and hit the court with no options other than lineups and the basic gameplay settings. It's a straight-up game without any frills, and it drops you right into the action.
The Inside doesn't skimp on some more favored sports sim features, either. For example, you can edit rosters, move players around, handle free agents and edit team lineups. In addition, although the PSP has yet to have official Trophy support like the PS3, NBA 10 The Inside has the essential core of a Trophy system, with awards handed out based on achieving certain goals set forth in gameplay. Between games, you can view your trophies and review what you did to earn them in the Trophy Room.
Graphics in the title are about what you'd expect for a solid PSP sports game. That's hardly descriptive, but what I mean is in these days of HD sports franchises, you will not see near the graphical fidelity of those games. However, The Inside's opening broadcast-style sequences are quite impressive, as are the individual player animations. The crowds are varied, though static. The electronic advertising banners erected at courtside periodically change, creating a strong sense of place, like a real NBA arena. With the exception of dribbling while a player moves up the court solo — it's a bit stiff and unnatural — almost all of the basketball gameplay animations are good. Sometimes, while I was under the basket, setting up a shot while a lot was happening on-screen, I'd expect some jerky motion, but I was surprised at how fluid the layup and field goal animations were, along with the attendants' attempts to block my shots. NBA 10 The Inside is a nice-looking game, and the more you play, the more you appreciate the work that went into those visuals.
Audio and sound effects are also quite good. However, as is often the case with PSP games, this part of the presentation is better appreciated through a low-end pair of headphones. The experience through the speakers isn't terrible; in fact, the front-facing speakers on the Slim and 3000 PSP revisions do a fair job with the overall audio. But elements like roaring crowd noise and an announcer raising his voice to be heard don't come through too well via the limited-range speakers, making for more of a cacophonous din than a noisy, exciting arena atmosphere. Otherwise, the entire audio effort is round and well done.
As necessitated by the PSP platform, the controls are a simplified version of the type you'd find on full-size console versions of basketball sims. There's only one analog stick, so it has to be reserved for player movement. Obviously, there's no way to implement any kind of shot-stick scheme, but The Inside does the next best thing, one-upping even some HD console titles when using face buttons to shoot. Your shot accuracy is based on how long you hold the Circle face button. There's a glowing aura around the ball as you shoot while holding down the button: Red when your chances are slim; most often yellow when it may swoosh or may rebound off the rim; and, rarely, green, when that ball is almost surely going in, chiefly at close-in layups and fast-break dunks. It's an imperfect shooting mechanism, but it certainly requires more skill and practice than a mere tap-and-shoot scheme.
Overall, NBA 10 The Inside provides a thorough basketball experience, with a nice franchise mode and, via the exhibition option, customizable tournaments and the like. However, if you're playing most of this season's basketball on a home console, you, like I, will probably be more entranced by the mini-games. H.O.R.S.E. makes sense, but some of them, like versions of bowling and even pinball, are a bit odd considering the sports title with which the mini-games are included. They're fun diversions, nonetheless. Those familiar with the franchise from last year will be glad to know there's an enhanced version of Conquest mode in this year's game. For those yet not indoctrinated in The Inside, Conquest mode is a type of territory-capturing strategy game in which you progress by winning in some of the more basketball-oriented mini-games. Trust me; it's more fun than it sounds, and it creates a clear goal orientation in the mini-games, suited to people who appreciate the more competitive aspects of gaming. Between the many alternative modes, mini-games and an almost full-scale NBA basketball simulation, there's a lot to do, and NBA 10 The Inside will likely earn a top spot in the PSP library of sports fans this year. Just don't expect every little nuance of real-world basketball to be present in a purely recreational PSP sports title.
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