Platform – 360 (reviewed) | PS3 | Wii
Developed by EA Canada | Published by EA Sports
Growing up, I had the privilege of playing NBA Jam on the Mega Drive (aka Genesis). Never one for sports sims, having an arcade basketball game where you could easily score in excess of 100 points whilst you left your AI challengers hopelessly trailing was entirely fun. The lack of challenge from the AI didn’t really make much of a difference, as it was more of a case of seeing if you could beat yourself. That was of course when you weren’t playing with someone else like you really should do. There were few modes and being English, I had absolutely no idea who the teams were just what kits looked cool and what stats seemed good.
To this day, I still pick the team with the best looking kit and stats. And why not? In fact, not much has changed. You can still get a large amount of points, although perhaps not quite as many. You can still perform ridiculous dunks, especially when ‘On Fire’, the game’s reward for one of your players getting the ball through the hoop three times without opponent interruption. Being on fire makes your player better, giving you the often hilariously depicted scenario where a good player will get even better. This is limited though as you only get three hoops before you’ve stopped being combustible. Like actual basketball, you gain 2 points for a shot within the arc and 3 for outside. Running up and shooting will net you a dunk, a more stylish and harder to block move, whilst standing still will do a simple and efficient shot.
Dunks are pretty crazy gravity defying events. This is made even more ridiculous, and thus brilliant, when on fire where your liberal disregard for physics gets blown out of proportion. What I’m saying is the camera will pan back a hell of a long way as the player will launch several dozen feet into the air, before slamming the ball down into the net. “Is it the shoes?!” the announcer shouts as camera flashes appear all around. Which is another thing; the original announcer is back and armed with a few more phrases, but it feels underused and many phrases get repeated, some several times in one game (about 10 minutes on default). Of course, it’s always entertaining to hear “He’s on fire!” and “Boomshakalaka!” so if you don’t mind a fair bit of repetition, the comedy should win out.
The base game is fine. A faithful recreation of the original with upgraded graphics…but something is missing. For lack of a better word, the game lacks soul. There are few background tracks and in a longer session, you will hear them all several times. This isn’t necessarily a problem per se; none of them are memorable and they do fill up the audio pretty well, however would it have really killed them to have added more? Addition does indeed seem to be the trouble with this game, considering online matchmaking seems largely broken and unusable. That’s not to say it never works, but when it did I seemed to be battling against those with a clearly higher skill than myself, or when the opposition were losing they would quit out. As the game has no penalty for quitting, this can become pretty commonplace.
There are ‘remix’ modes that give you alternative things to do, such as a mode where you have to break the board the hoop is attached to by dunking, or where you have half a court and two competing AI and must score 21 points. The AI’s rubber banding (this is where a player, human or computer controlled, is given means to get back into the fight abnormally so) makes Mario Kart’s look like a joke, as in normal games your half-time 20 point lead can diminish to 2 by the end or in the ‘remixed’ modes completely ruin your chances.
If the rubber banding isn’t painful enough, on higher difficulty settings the AI basically goes into God-mode with every player becoming Michael Jordan/*insert famous skilful basketball player here* apart from your own and as some modes have the last point scorer to start off with the ball, well, I’m sure you can see how that would get frustrating. Jam was never supposed to be about frustration and yes, some might enjoy the challenge but I can’t help think they might be better with actual simulation titles.
The raw gameplay though is solid. On the PS3 or 360, the controls can either be done by one of the shoulder buttons and the two sticks, or the left stick (movement) and the face buttons for actions, although I find the dual-stick set-up works (surprisingly) well. The Wii version has various control methods including Waggle™ if you are so inclined. The control simplicity makes the game very easy to pick up and play which adds fuel to this fire; if you want to play this game and have fun with it you need other people around. Pure and simple. Having other people around to mock as you get in a dunk or score an almightily lucky 3-pointer as the end of the quarter hooter goes will never cease to be of great entertainment.
Two people can play on the same team against the AI or go against each other with an AI partner of their own. One of the good online features though is that a pair can go online as a team and try and jam it against another pair, but of course that’s subject to the matchmaking actually working. All platforms support 4 players. As a side note the Wii version is technically the worst with lower quality graphics (although for this game, I can’t really see that being an issue) and a lack of online play whatsoever. These are balanced out by a cheaper price, but consider also that the cost of Jam on one of the other consoles isn’t exactly high to begin with either. If you do have choice the Wii version is probably not the one to go for.
There are a few customisation options you get through completing certain in-game tasks, such as not letting the AI score at all or blocking X amount of moves per game and some of these double up for achievements/trophies. These options mostly boil down to extra players to choose from for teams, with some variations on ball colours and so on in that manner. The players are what you want and for the most part, you’ll get these awards through standard play after enough time.
Some of the achievements/trophies though are a bit of a joke, requiring you to essentially grind through the games modes to completion or accomplish some pretty stupid tasks that require luck more than skill. These are the kinds of achievements that just annoy me, as well as many others I’m sure, but if you like grinding against unbalanced AI, go for them, sure! You’ll also be rewarded with some pretty special unlockable characters that can make the game become even more hilarious.
NBA Jam despite its faults is a complete package, but ultimately I feel like something is just missing from making the game as fun as it should be. The AI is a serious flaw in the game if you want to play it by yourself, but the core gameplay is definitely great. Should you have the people around, this game is extremely fun. Whether or not you feel that’s enough to buy the game on is really what it comes down to.
Boring stuff: Game was played for about 15 hours in various modes. Several attempts at online play was attempted, but eventually abandoned. Several 4-controller sessions helped test it out further and proved to be extremely fun.