It’s that time of year again, sports fans…The time when the boys of summer retire to the south for the winter, when the men on turf prepare to dig into frozen tundra, and lords of ice dig in their blades for a few more hard hits. It’s also the time when men take to the air, suspended gracefully in midair before gliding back to earth. That’s right, basketball season is here, and the high-octane action of the NBA has returned to entertain and excite fans across the country. Along with the first string players for each game comes the first basketball titles of the year, led by Sony’s NBA Shootout 2003.
Shootout comes with the typical set of options for a basketball title: People interested in leaping into a quick match up with friends or the computer can jump into an exhibition game, choosing teams and stadiums. Players that want to experience the ups and downs of a team can opt for Season mode, ranging anywhere from 28 up to 82 games. Season mode also features aspects of management similar to front office or GM modes in other games, allowing you to trade players, sign and release free agents, and participate in a draft. Obviously, having a winning record is important, but the playoffs and championships are even more important, so for pressure players you can jump straight into Playoff mode.
Even the best teams in the playoffs need work, and for those of you who are new to Shootout, or want to refine your touch, Practice mode is invaluable. While you won’t be practicing plays or working against defenders, you’ll work on two solid fundamentals of the game, the free throw shot and the timing of a jump shot. Free throws are handled differently than most basketball games. Instead of trying to line your shots up with button presses and scrolling ball icons, Shootout forces you to rely more on trajectory, using the right and left analog sticks to determine placement of a shot. If you manage to line up and release the ball at the right time, the shot will usually go in. Similarly, shot timing is just as critical, because each attempt should be released at the top of a player’s jump. With the right touch, shots should fall easily.
Once you feel ready to take on the NBA’s finest, you might want to try Career mode, which takes a new approach to the typical Franchise mode found in other games. Instead of being cast as a coach or a GM of a team, managing and leading players to victory, Shootout’s Career mode casts you as a up and coming ball player seeking a career within the NBA. Much more than your typical “Create a Player” mode (which we’ll get to in a second), Shootout allows you to craft your player practically from the ground up and choose a particular team to align yourself with.
However, just because you’ve picked the Nets or the Lakers doesn’t mean that you’re automatically on the team. You initially start out in the NBA’s Summer League, playing games and demonstrating your skills in a Combine-like series of games. If your created character exhibits talent within these games, you’ll most likely be signed to a team and play alongside the team as a signed free agent, seeking to fully entrench yourself into a lineup. Perform poorly in the pickup games or the NBA, however, and you’ll find yourself quickly demoted to the NBDL, the basketball equivalent to baseball’s minor leagues. You won’t cool your heels here, as you’ll be expected to hone and improve your skills in these games to resign with a team or get yourself into enough demand for another team to offer you a contract.
Players interested in completely controlling their experience will probably get deep into the create player function, allowing for multiple skin tones, body shape and accessories ranging from tattoos to head gear. This allows complete control over what a player wants to be, so creating a tall, muscular player will often be suited for center, while thin and wiry characters are better guards. Yet while a well -laced 3 usually gets the crowd pumped, it’s the jams that help rip the roof of arenas. To that end, you can create a signature dunk for your players, tweaking the angle of approach, hand placement, and finish to your personal taste. Everything from one-handed tomahawk slams to 360 two-handed slams are available to you.
Graphically, NBA Shootout is slightly above average. The few cutscenes that you’ll find within the game aren’t too bad, and there’s some decent facial animation for characters. However, there are some major drawbacks, such as players that don’t look like their real life counterparts, or character models that can look rather chunky, as if polygons were slammed together. Camera angles within the game are pretty bad also. While Shootout provides you with numerous camera angles, only one of them seemed to be truly useful for any kind of play calling or court setup. It’s a little hard to know whether or not your full court press or man-to-man defense is taking away any passing lanes if you can’t see the other players. I do give some props for attempting to approximate the opening roll calls for each team, with downplayed emphasis for visitors and fireworks for the home team. However, I do know that each stadium has completely different opens for each team, and to see the same one for the Lakers that I see for the Trailblazers is a bit disappointing. Finally, there’s an unbelievable amount of clipping and chop within the player animation, especially on dunks or during defensive setups, causing action to become jerky even though the frame rate hasn’t dropped at all.
Shootout does make up a little bit for the graphics by the sound, which has pretty decent effects. Speaking of the opens, the announcer within the game does a good job of setting up the game and calling out points. Hearing them get hyped for each hometeam player that scores is integral to any basketball experience, and it works well here. The commentary isn’t too bad either. Ian Eagle, fresh from commentary on 989’s football titles, joins Bill Walton with play-by-play duty, and they both do a fair job. Walton’s most tired lines in real life have been retired for newer statements, and while you might hear a few repeats now and then, you won’t get as annoyed as you might in real life. Additionally, you hear some of the organ music to rally fans, other background music, and slight cheers from the fans. If anything, the fans probably break some of the believability of the game, as you never truly believe that you can take the crowd out of a game by running up the score.
Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Shootout comes from the gameplay, specifically the control. Attempting to pull off a fake, crossover step or spin move is, for lack of a better word, abysmal. One of the key facets of the game of basketball is the speed and alacrity of movement that players exhibit. The fast break, the breakaway, and the crossover: these are all supposed to capitalize upon the fact that the tide of the game can change hands at any given moment. Theoretically this is supposed to happen within Shootout; however, the execution of these moves are more elusive than it seems. Performing a move with the requisite right analog stick exhibits a delayed reaction at best, no action at all at the worst. Additionally inhibiting the speed of the game is the simplest movement of a defensive player. Posting up, filling a lane, even making brief contact with another player is enough to break a sweep to the basket or a quick fake move.
Even worse, firing off a jump shot is no guarantee of making a bucket, even if you’re not covered. Take anyone of the deadliest 3-point shooters in the NBA today, get them a good screen, and let them pop off a shot. Odds are, you’ll brick the shot, even if your timing was perfect. This is part of the additional frustration you’ll deal with. This is truly illustrated within the Practice mode, where you can take a shooter and drill your timing. A large percentage of the time, even if the game says you’re dead on, you’re not. It’s enough to break a disc. Finally, there’s no online capability, which seems totally inexcusable now that the network adapter has been out for a while. Sports titles seem to be natural games for continual updates, so, for example, having the ability to remove Rick Fox and Doug Christie because of their suspension should be an option. Regrettably, this is not provided.
All in all, Shootout could’ve been a solid basketball experience, were the controls tighter. The Career mode is a very creative addition to the sports genre, and a welcome one at that, because it has a more realistic view as to what happens to players who can’t perform. However, with the other features basically being the standard items that you find in any sports title, it makes it hard for anyone but the most rabid fan of the series to pick up this iteration.