Players thought they had seen everything when it came to peripheral-based rhythm games, including dance mats, drum machines, guitars, keyboards, maracas, microphones and even turntables. The one thing they had in common, though, was the fact that most were representative of real instruments that were used to make the music. Just when it looked like gamers are done with peripheral-based rhythm games, Majesco and HB Studios present NBA Baller Beats to buck the trend. The instrument of choice is even more unusual: a regulation NBA basketball.
The core gameplay is standard rhythm game fare, with icons coming down the familiar note highway, which is split up into two sections. In the middle of the highway stands a hit bar, and the rest of the highway gives you scoring zones so you can see how many points the note is worth when you hit it. Scores are multiplied when you hit the notes consecutively without missing, and the score is translated into a star grade for your performance.
In lieu of a plastic instrument or a regular controller is a basketball. Each of the vertical lanes represents either your left or right hand, and the accuracy of the note hit is dependent on when the basketball makes contact with the ground. To break up the monotony of rhythmic dribbling, you also have to perform moves that are worth big points and can significantly increase the multiplier. There are several different moves that span three difficulty levels; some are as easy as a pump fake or side pass, but others are much harder to execute, like a behind-the-back crossover or a flow dribble.
There are two things that will work against you in regards to having fun with the game. The first is your initial skill with a basketball. The game is both a rhythm game and a teaching tool for those who want to improve in the art of dribbling. Unless you already possess a decent amount of skill with a basketball, even something as simple as dribbling with your off-hand can be frustrating. Get that done, and you'll find that the flashy moves will require practice for a long time. While there is a ball school mode to help you learn the basics, it doesn't do a very good job of teaching you how to perform things like a between-the-legs crossover since you only get one diagram picture. Casual players or those who have no interest in learning anything beyond simple dribbling will find it frustrating that they can't get out of the easy songs in rookie difficulty.
The other item working against the game is the requirements needed to make the game work. Owners of the Kinect may be used to clearing out some room to make the experience worthwhile, and those who pick up this game will certainly need a little more room on all sides so that the camera catches you. Since you're bouncing an actual basketball, you'll need a hard surface to get some good bounce from the ball. Even though you can bounce it on carpet, no one does such a thing. Also, it is best if you make sure breakables are out of the way since one errant pass or slip can cause unnecessary damage. With all of those issues, apartments and cramped living rooms are certainly out of the question. The most suitable places seem to be garages with high ceilings, driveways or backyards with cement — so long as you have access to a power strip and have room for a sizeable TV and Xbox 360 with Kinect. It is a severely limiting set of requirements, and those who don't plan on making this setup permanent will grow weary of the setup required before reaching the game's main menu.
Get past those two hurdles, and NBA Baller Beats really lives up to its promise. Even if you can barely dribble a ball, the game is a big motivating factor for learning the basics, and it does so by recognizing your moves with very high accuracy. There are a few times when the trickier moves somehow weren't detected and scored, but for the most part, moves were recognized almost immediately. The movement recognition is so good that the only time you can complain about the detection system is during the menus. Even then, the complaint stems from the design choice of distance-sensitive arrows as opposed to a swipe system. Without a doubt, this is one of the more responsive titles for the Kinect peripheral, and it makes a strong case for doing imaginative things with it.
Beyond the main single-player mode, there isn't much else to the game. Aside from the aforementioned ball school mode, you have a versus mode where up to eight players can take turns playing to 30-second snippets of a song. It's fun for a few tries and good for those who only want to try the game without committing to even one short song, but don't expect it to be part of your party game rotation. There's also a shop where you can spend the stars earned from the single-player mode on items. Most of them are just for show, such as the ability to buy different themed balls and note lanes. You can even buy virtual posters of each team's star player and short clips of the players performing some slick moves on the court. The most treasured items in the store are the songs. While there aren't any new songs beyond the ones you already have available, you can purchase the full-length versions of the songs, so you always have a choice of playing that or the regular truncated version.
The look is both Spartan and nice. The backgrounds interact with the music quite well. Aside from coming alive when you earn more stars, they tend to bounce to the beat of the music similarly to how it was handled in Def Jam Icon. There aren't that many backgrounds to choose from, and none make much of an impact since the majority of the screen is covered by essential gameplay elements. All of the backgrounds contain the same elements, such as favorite team logo, themed basketballs and a wavy tube man dancing in the background, but that's about it.
Like most rhythm games, the soundtrack provides a good mix of most musical genres. You can expect a few classic songs, like Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and Run-DMC's "It's Tricky" as well as some genre standbys such as Young MC's "Bust A Move," but the majority of the soundtrack leans toward modern artists and pop. B.o.B., Cee-Lo, Janelle Monae and Kanye West may be expected artists, but the songs by Interpol, Justice, Skrillex and Tiesto are surprisingly complementary songs for the gameplay. The selection of 31 songs may not seem like much, especially if you don't count the artificial doubling when you unlock the full versions of each song, but the hooks are in for some DLC, so I'd expect the soundtrack to expand. The only complaint about the tunes is that they're heavily edited beyond the standard radio cut. Odd lyrical choices are cut, and anything referencing firearms and bullets are also gone, making one of Queen's notable songs sound odd under the censorship knife. Even if this had been done to get the game an E10+ rating, the songs sound off-putting and less impactful.
No one can fault NBA Baller Beats for being ambitious, especially since it actually works. It's a fun rhythm game, but it also works as a teaching tool for those who are motivated enough to want to improve their game. If it weren't for the insanely specific requirements to get a basic game going, this would qualify as a must-have title for the Kinect. As it stands, basketball fans who have lots of room and little to break will enjoy this title.
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