Review: NBA Jam

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Boomshakalaka! NBA Jam is back, baby – and it took what appeared to be an awful lot of work to reach this point. First planned as a Wii exclusive, this latest reincarnation of NBA Jam was later confirmed to also be a downloadable pack-in freebie to be included with PS3 and Xbox 360 copies of NBA Elite 11. But after the sudden and disastrous delay and subsequent cancellation of Elite, NBA Jam’s HD future was uncertain. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for EA to announce plans to release the game as a full retail product just like the Wii version, which has already been out for over a month. And now after a bit of a bumpy road traveled, NBA Jam is rocking rims on the PS3 and Xbox 360, and boy was it ever worth the wait.

EA Sports’ NBA Jam reboot is a game that revels in its ability to marry the old with the new. Like any good retro throwback, it stays true to the core values Midway established the franchise with oh so many years ago, while also managing to sneak in modern touches without disrupting the old school simplicity and challenge a game like this thrives on.

NBA Jam in 2010 is virtually indistinguishable from NBA Jam circa the 1993 arcade scene. The game is a two-on-two arcade hoop-it-up, complete with all of the backboard-shattering dunks, high-flying alley-oops, dizzying spin moves, ankle-breaking crossovers, and pride-crushing shot blocks you can handle. There are only two rules: goaltending is not allowed, and the 24 second shot clock is enforced. Other than that, you can push and elbow opposing players to your heart’s content, and slam it down in their faces without fear of being whistled for an offensive foul. Jump shots can be had in certain situations, but if you aren’t playing above the rim in a game like this, expect to lose often.

You can also expect a stiff challenge from this game. On certain plays the opposing team will steal the ball from you or block your shot no matter what you try to do to avoid it, to the point where the announcer might as well just come out and say “you aren’t going to score on this play, so don’t even try.” So yes, sometimes the difficulty does cross the line and beat you with cheap tactics, which can be frustrating. But it’s also part of NBA Jam’s old school charm, so it’s one of those double-edged sword deals that you love and hate at the same time.

Thankfully, EA didn’t forget about the over-the-top personality that has always made NBA Jam such a timeless favorite. The game uses digitized head shots of real NBA players superimposed on 3D character models for great comedic effect, and the silly head wobble and facial expressions bring even more levity to an already slapstick hoops game. Of course, NBA Jam also wouldn’t be NBA Jam without the voice of Tim Kitzrow, the franchise’s iconic play-by-play announcer. He’s back and in top form with classic catchphrases and plenty of new ones too, ensuring that every time you step on the hardwood you will be entertained in some form — even if you end up losing the game. Per usual, fun Easter Eggs (big head mode!) and secret characters (Sarah Palin vs. Barack Obama, anyone?) abound as well, and true to old school gaming, you have to figure out different cheat codes to unlock many of them.

So, what’s new this time around? Many things, actually. Similarly to many modern sports games, NBA Jam works in a slick analog stick control scheme for greater ease of use. Traditional face button commands are still available for purists, but if you prefer your controls to be more streamlined, you can use simple flicks of the right analog stick to perform pretty much every action in the game aside from passing the rock and activating turbo. The controls are instantly accessible whichever method you choose.

Everything else that’s new has to do with volume of content – and I tell you, NBA Jam is one voluminous video game. A list of the basic play modes should speak for itself:

– Classic Campaign: Go through a full season of 36 matches against all 30 NBA franchises plus bonus teams.

– Remix Tour: Hop from division to division on a map of the US, beating teams in different challenges to earn Remix Points and bronze/silver/gold trophies.

– Smash: First team to break the opposing team’s backboard with dunks and alley-oops wins.

– Domination: Different target spots are placed around the court, and by making shots from within them you assume control of the court and earn points based on the number of spots in your team’s possession.

– Elimination: A free-for-all battle in which the player with the least amount of points at the end of each timed round is eliminated until one player is left standing.

– Remix 2 v 2: Classic two-on-two gameplay made even more over the top by the addition of on-court power-ups.

– 21: Everyone knows 21, right? Next to H.O.R.S.E., it’s probably the most popular playground basketball game. It’s as simple as this: a group of players get together and play to be the first to reach 21 points.

– Boss Battles: Face off against legendary NBA superstars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Dr. J one on one.

On top of these offline modes, the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of NBA Jam finally bring the franchise online for the first time (the Wii version is offline only). Initially, EA said that the game would only have two-on-two play and leaderboards at launch, and that additional modes and features would be patched in via a free DLC update in December. But good news; that patch was finished up in time for launch day, so after a quick download you can play against up to three other players in 2 v 2, 2 v 2 Remix, Smash, Domination and 21 right out of the box. Your online profile is also attached to a ‘Jam Card’, and by completing matches (win or lose) you earn points, rise in level and unlock new icons and titles that show off your accomplishments to other players.

Unfortunately, the online performance is a bit spotty in the early goings from what I’ve seen playing the PS3 version. Once I’ve been able to get into a match, the game has run without noticeable lag. However, the problem I’ve had is simply being able to connect to the EA Sports servers and stay connected long enough to search for a match. I routinely get error messages telling me that the servers are not available when attempting to sign in, and then when I do manage to sign in I get booted back to the main offline menu while I’m looking at my profile or sorting through the mode selection menu. And I’m not sure if it’s a server issue or the simple fact that most of the gaming world is too busy playing Call of Duty: Black Ops online, but I’ve also received many matchmaking failures telling me that no other players are available. Before release, there already seemed to be a pretty strong fan base of players waiting to go online with the game, so I just find it hard to believe that there aren’t other players out there looking for matches. And for the purposes of full disclosure, I’ve had my review copy since Monday, but didn’t start trying out the online content until after Wednesday’s retail launch.

Another concern I know many prospective players probably have has to do with the game being sold as a full retail product as opposed to a cheaper PSN / XBLA title, which is understandable given the game’s roots as a simplistic arcade game. But trust me, this game is packed with more than enough content to keep you slammin’ and jammin’ for days, weeks and months to come, especially once EA gets the server situation stabilized and the online community settles in.

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Pros:
+ Classic NBA Jam gameplay is endlessly fun and replayable
+ Bountiful play modes, online and offline
+ Digitized player faces, bonus characters, and Easter Eggs lay on the retro charm
+ Tim Kitzrow is the best video game sports announcer EVER!

Cons:
– AI tactics can be overly cheap at times
– Online connectivity issues

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for Wii and Xbox 360
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: 11/17/2010
Genre: Sports – Arcade Basketball
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!