NBA '08

Three Flavors of Roundball

Sony's newest basketball sim mixes in platform-specific goodies to produce three games that should probably have been just one.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: October 5, 2007
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The days when Sony was considered a top cross-sport competitor in the sports arena on the level of a 2K Sports or an EA Sports are about as long dead as the 989 Sports brand itself (that and my ability to refrain from using the word "sports" 20 times in a sentence). Granted, MLB: The Show is arguably the best baseball game out there right now, but the glory days of Sony's internal pro and college football, soccer, hockey and, yes, basketball all on being on par with the EAs and the 2Ks out there are past us.

It's that latter one that has been the source of some rather interesting advancements over the past few years, however. Sony's San Diego Sports Studio has slowly started to craft a game of a basketball that is, for lack of a better description, the "un-sim." While other studios work on perfecting visual fidelity and a broadcast-level presentation, Sony has gone a completely different route, building around their core basketball sim with modes that are arguably better than anything they've ever done as a straight b-ball game.

On the one hand, this means that, frankly, the basic game of basketball across all three platforms isn't something to get terribly excited about. However, Sony has done something rather unorthodox: instead of creating a game that was the same across all three platforms, they've presented a different take catered specifically to the strengths of each system. Some are better than others, but as a value proposition, it's actually one of the smartest moves they could have made. Sure, the core basketball game ranges from competent to buggy and lackluster, but if the stuff that surrounds it is solid, does it actually make for a decent game?

In the case of the PlayStation 2 version, the only one that contains the much-vaunted "The Life" Mode, a story-driven take on a career mode that has you balancing goals that help the team vs. goals that pain your created characters as poster fodder and highlight reel material, the system-specific goodies aren't nearly good enough to excuse the fact that the main game is buggy, choppy and frankly rather painful to play. Because the biggest attractor is also most intrinsically linked with the core mechanics of the basketball engine, the flaws are that much more apparent.

Sure, linking a branching storyline and forcing players to constantly walk the line between building up the team (especially now that the coach that helped hone a bunch of rookies into championship material is retiring at the end of the season) and making a name for themselves is a novel concept, but with the sparsely populated virtual sets and the PS2's aging hardware, it's impossible to escape the feeling that the mode probably should have graduated to the PS3 this year. The result is the relative end of an arc that first began with Sony's new take on making a basketball game, but it's done more with a whimper than a bang.

With the PlayStation 3 version, though, the game is far more polished. It's not just the bullet points of the game running at 1080p and 60fps (they're nice numbers, but put the next-gen version of NBA 08 up against any of the other next-gen basketball games and you'll see a massive gulf in presentation and visuals), but the AI is far better. Though it's by no means required, using the SIXAXIS to pull off offensive and defensive moves, as well as switch stances while guarding to head off passes or better block shots is a novel, if ultimately pointless, little distraction.

No, the real draw here is that the PS3's internet connection is tapped to great effect to allow constant downloads from this year's NBA season. It was a feature that was introduced in the last PS3 game, but NBA Replay this year is far more fleshed out and given a proper stand-alone entry from the main menu. Depending on your challenge level, you'll be asked to perform specific goals for each week of the season, and future downloads will be matched up with the new season to keep the game constantly fresh.

It's not just NBA Replay, though. With a stronger core game of basketball, main career mode goals could also be included, allowing you to literally earn experience for pulling off specific moves. Some of them are one-time, but by running a solid game, going on points rallies and pulling off showy moves, you'll be able to bank experience points to level up your created character. To more easily collect all of the data from the disparate goals, a basic progress hub has been buried under a press of the Start Button, and it really does work well, allowing you to easily unlock better stats from any of the game's different modes, which in turn makes things like mini-games (these are nowhere near as varied as the PSP version, which I'll get to in a moment, but they're good nonetheless) and pulling off late-season goals that much easier. The difficulty, too, scales enough that even a complete sports game retard like me can actually pull off wins.
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