NBA Street

NBA Street

Somehow this finished review slipped through the cracks. If you haven't had a chance to play the latest effort the house that SSX built, go rent it and then read up.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: October 14, 2001
I really don't know what kind of Super-Programmer serum the guys over the Big branch of EA Sports have been fed, but I wish to God it could be handed out to everyone else in the industry. SSX essentially did for snowboarding games what Tony Hawk did for the skateboarding genre - helped it reach levels of innovation nobody thought was possible. But it was. Likewise, the benchmark for arcade basketball has always been the NBA Jam games. Sure, Midway has tried to rekindle that flame of excitement with NBA Showtime, but they're still relying on a foundation that was created over 10 years ago. For there to be a big shift in the genre, there needs to be an injection of innovation.

Enter NBA Street, a game that on every level, takes the previous conventions of an arcade basketball game and obliterates them, throwing innovation into places that didn't seem like they needed it. If it seems like we're freaking out over NBA Street, well, we are. Much in the same way SSX took a genre that was sorely lacking in freshness and made it seem as if we had never really played a game that did the genre justice, Street paints the basketball genre in a new light, and explores an area of it that's largely uncharted, but makes up in integral part of any real-life, non-pro baller's gametime: street ball.

It's not like the game completely upends the whole genre. In many ways, it sticks to well-paved, tried-and-true strong points of the game. It's the little interjections of new blood that give it addictive qualities that keep it interesting. There are so many areas of the game that are done improv and on-the-fly, that an attempt to recreate the whole of professional basketball is just about impossible. Instead, the boys over at EA Big decided to focus on the three-on-three game, and what better place to start than on the streets. They ditched the eagle eye of sideline refs and leaned towards the usual street ball rules of "no blood, no foul," and stripped the game down to 21 points, leaving the shot clock to keep things moving. Shots behind the arc are two points, and everything else is worth one. First one to hit that magical 2-1 wins. In grand street ball tradition, if you're tied up by the time you hit 21, you have to win it by two.

Now here's where the innovation comes in. By pressing the square button in conjunction with any combo of the shoulders (a la SSX), you can pull off different moves to fake out and show off. Each successful shot, whether field goal, dunk or three, nets you points, and works to slowly build your Boost Meter while taking from your opponents'. When that meter tops out, you can pull off a Gamebreaker shot or dunk, which scores you points, and takes off the equivalent from the other team. Combos of dishes, fakes, and shots will build the Boost Meter faster (and, of course, look cool), but just doing individual tricks and shots will help build it as well - just not as quickly. Both teams have a turbo meter (thanks to NBA Jam, now a basketball staple), which is depleted with the usual turbo-powered runs, swipes, etc., or by doing tricks. The turbo constantly replenishes, but it's a slow build, so you can't just run around going full bore on the shoulder buttons. This forces you to play a balance game, using the turbo when necessary and limits how much you can show off, but keeps you eager to use it so you can build your Boost Meter faster for that all-important Gamebreaker.

But the name of the game is NBA Street, and those three little letters at the beginning of the title do mean something. While you'll take on street ball "legends" from all over the US, the bulk of your balling will be spent tussling with the best the 29 teams of the NBA has to offer. The roster of players is HUGE, and you can pick and choose your team in any way you want, including dropping your custom player into the game. Of course, there's no way EA would let Michael Jordan squeak by without an appearance in every basketball game they make - especially after they went to so much trouble to obtain the license. So, if you, like me, feel that MJ, Gary Payton, and Sam Bishop would make the best team in basketball history, you'll get a chance to prove it.

Street is a pretty game. It's not oh-my-God-I-can-die-a-happy-man-after-seeing-this-game-in-action pretty, but it's obvious that progress has been made in the halls of EA since the first-generation PlayStation 2 efforts. The framerate is nearly always locked in at 60 fps, and when it does drop, it's usually for good reason, such as an overabundance of effects. The player models are well-done, with a variety of different body types, so identifying players (which isn't exactly a Herculean task in a 3-on-3 game) is as easy as a glance.

Each of the courts borrows from major landmarks in the city (i.e. San Francisco's Golden Gate Bride), and helps ground the courts in their respective regions. After all, a street court in say, Seattle, could just as easily belong in New York if it weren't for recognizable metropolitan icons. The differences aren't reserved to buildings or bridges, either. Each locale is drenched in unique textures, from the courts (ranging from sun-baked concrete to cracked and craggy asphalt) to their surroundings (chain-link cages, open-air roadsides, fog drenched waterfronts). Each court has a very distinct, unique feel that meshes perfectly with their surroundings. You'll be hard-pressed to find any two courts that share a single texture other than the ones wrapping themselves around the players.

Street's sound is good, but the one aspect that was supposed to add a little extra oomph may be the one you don't even listen to. Joe "The Show", Street's in-game commentator is constantly spitting out one-liners, but they don't exactly have anything to do with what on screen. It's not like they don't match up, but it's not really move-specific either. Most of the time it's just repetitious and doesn't really add anything to the game, but then again, it's going to come down to personal opinion.

Otherwise, the audio department pushes all the correct aural buttons. The slap of the ball on the court, the squeak of shoes as players change direction, hell, even the sound of the ball bouncing on the rim is dead-on. It's not on the same level as the Live series, but street and pro ball almost never sound the same anyway. What you do get fits perfectly with the on-screen action, and never, ever interferes or sounds like it shouldn't be there. If anything, the effects hang back and let what's happening to interest your sight hog the stage. This includes the music, which is little more than hip-hop beat loops with a couple of well-placed notes. Again, it doesn't intrude, just adds another layer of subtlety that helps shape what you see and hear.

NBA Street should appeal to almost anyone who can't handle the more sim-styled gameplay of the Live, or as PS2 gamers will experience in a few months, the NBA2K games. It's got a perfect blend of tricks/moves and fantastic visuals. Just as SSX and Tony Hawk helped inject a whole new idea of how a genre should play, NBA Street blends tried-and-true styles of gameplay while tossing in enough originality to stay away from stale territory. It'll be interesting to see what the folks over at EA Big can do with the almost inevitable sequels.
The Verdict