I haven’t played a handheld basketball game since NBA JAM days on the Game Gear. I usually stick with the big brother versions on the game consoles. So when I was asked to preview NBA 09 for the PSP, it was a nice surprise. Let me start by saying there is a lot of content in this game. So many modes and extras, it isn’t funny. The game feels like an arcade style b-ball game with a touch of simulation for the hardcore fans. Unlike the PS3 version that features “The Life” mode, the PSP version has omitted this feature. Instead we get a meaty Franchise mode that has been revamped from last year’s version. It also includes Quick Play, Exhibition, Playoffs, Practice, All-Star Weekend (skills challenge, 3pt contest, all-star game, etc.) and Block Party (Carnival Games, Team Games, Solo Games, Pinball and Quests). Just the Block Party portion alone will keep you busy for hours.
The Franchise mode gives you exactly what you would expect, with player’s performance changing, playing time being tracked, trades, salaries, team performance, starting rosters, scouting, player’s morale, stats and skills are all part of the full season. Conquest mode has returned from last year as you play for territorial domination, while Elimiquest mode has you trying to take over teams and cities as you progress in an elimination type mini-game. It’s a lot of fun and I can see gamers diving deep into these modes. Other stuff like Carnival Games, which include skee-ball, Shootout and other style of carnival games with basketball elements, are a nice diversion from the regular full court scene. There are even pinball games in here as well. It’s a bit of out of place, but still fun and a nice break from the real game.
The games graphics are colorful, smooth and very fluid. The animation is looking good, but some of the animation, like lay-ups and hook shots, look quirky and still needs to be smoothed out. The player models are nicely designed, but on the small screen it’s tough to recognize who is who. I don’t think there’s much the developers can do to fix that either. Sometimes a popup of the players face will appear when he scores or does an incredible dunk, so you know who did the move. Knowing each players number will help. The stadiums look ok and are adequate enough for this game. The red, yellow, green highlights that appears around the ball when you shoot is still there, but can be turned off. I suggest you leave it one for the first season until you get a feel for the game.
The sound is nice, especially the commentary. Looks like Kenny Smith jumped ship from 2K Sports to San Diego Studios to provide his voice for this game. At least it sounds like K.S. to me. He does a great job as usual. The sound effects of the ball, the backboard, the crowd, etc.., are all represented pretty well here. Even the hip-hop style music at the menus and during timeouts are easy to listen to. It all fits nicely into the game.
The game play has its pros and cons from what I’ve seen so far. While it’s easy to move around the court and pass the ball, I had a hard time getting rebounds and blocking shots because of the camera angles. I could never tell how close or far the player or ball was from my active player. The computer easily out rebounded me. There needs to be more camera views and ways to adjust them. Shooting will take some time to get use to. Even with the multi-colored light around the ball, timing your shot and release still isn’t easy. Each player has a different timing and a different range. For example shooting a 3pt with Steve Nash is easy because the green highlight will appear every time at the height of his shot, but if you have Shaq, and try the same 3pt shot, his light will never turn green and barely turn yellow when he reaches the top of his jump shot. That’s because Shaq isn’t a 3pt shooter. So you need to find your players range and shot to shoot accurate shots. Also, the ball sometimes got lost in front of players and I had no idea who had the ball. Again, better camera angles will fix this. The menu system is pretty easy to follow and all the stats are right there at your finger tips. Getting to where you want to be is just a few flicks of the D-Pad to the left or right.
I didn’t get a chance to play online yet, but the game will offer both Internet and Ad-Hoc wireless multiplayer action. So you’ll be able to play against other friends in your home or even out of state. Surprisingly enough, the developers have even added a Trophy achievement feature for this game. So the replay value is really off the charts. I’m looking forward to playing the full version of this and its big brother on the PS3. Sony has come a long way since they started this series and seems to keep getting better and better.