It’s been eleven years since Midway took the crown of arcade basketball games with NBA Jam. Thanks to their innovative 2-on-2 gameplay in 1993, including the echoing cry of “He’s On Fire,” it took imitators and admirers another 8 years before NBA Street offered even half of the originality and flavor that Jam brought to the sport, incorporating a taste of the playground to the league. Well, Midway’s latest evolution of basketball brings more than just the street to the court, it also brings the lifestyle of the players to the game. Get ready to leave your apartment and compact car behind for the mansions and luxury rides in NBA Ballers.
First off, this ain’t yo daddy’s basketball game. Ballers is all about mad skillz on the court while hyping the rich and famous lifestyle of the pros. This should be apparent by Stephon Marbury’s slickness with the rock in one of the intro sequences. In fact, busting flashy moves and faking opponents out of their shoes is just part of the game. The other side of the coin is looking good as you embarrass your challengers, wearing some of the best gear as you drain threes and rock the rim at the sweetest mansions. Get ready to rack up some frequent flier miles as you travel everywhere from Iverson’s recording studio to the Duncan estate in the Virgin Islands playing against 24 legends and 60 current superstars.
Most matches in Ballers are a mix between playground rules and arcade controls. Each game is a best two out of three round race to 11 points within a three minute time limit. While you have to be ahead of your opponent by two points to win the round, you can also win by having more points than your rival when the time runs out. Unlike the NBA, goaltending is somewhat liberally allowed, and fierce contact in the paint or on the court is loosely tolerated up to a point. Players have up to five flagrant fouls to give before their opponent is sent up to the line to possibly sink a free throw worth three points. Even more damaging to the ego, successful players keep the ball, possibly turning a block into a play worth up to six points. This can sometimes be the difference between a blowout and a massive comeback. Aside from these standard rounds, there are unique bouts with differing rules, such as restricting your opponent under a set number of points or eliminating rules altogether.
You’ll have a number of tools at your disposal to rack up the points on the court, along with the usual jump shots, dunks and lay-ups. This is important because every NBA star has their own playing style, along with their own specialties that makes them deadly on the court. For instance, Steve Nash and John Stockton have mad handles, while Larry Legend and Pistol Pete have three point range in their sights. Every player has the ability to perform pump fakes and jukes, as well as 30 “Act A Fool” moves that can humiliate your foes. Some of these include rolling the ball between the opposing player’s legs, bouncing the ball off a rival’s head and even passing the ball to a friend who’s hanging out on the sidelines watching the game, who can then dish the ball back to you.
The more extravagant the move, the more points are generated and placed in a jackpot until someone scores and claims them. Since moves can also be chained together for a boosted number of points, increasing both your score and your “House” meter (which gets the crowd on your side and gives your player a burst of adrenaline), it’s often worth it to make three or four moves before pulling up for a shot. However, being exorbitant with your style can be costly. Strong defenders can not only time their own set of moves correctly and steal the ball, but they can also steal your points and reduce your House meter as they clown you on their way to the bucket. This imbues a sense of strategy to the game, as players have to determine if they can afford to be stylish at the possible expense of a round, or simply play the sport and get the job done.
You’ll have the option to take on friends in two separate modes, both of which seem tailor made for trash talking: Versus mode and 1 vs. 1 vs. 1. Versus mode is just like the one you’d find in other games, while 1 vs. 1 vs. 1 lets three players fight it out on the court at the same time. It may seem weird to the average basketball gamer, but if you’ve ever played street ball, you’ve got fond memories of this “every man for himself” style play. The two largest modes of play within Ballers are the TV Tournament and Rags To Riches. While you’re initially granted a pool of 25 players, the TV Tournament is where you’ll do a majority of the unlocking of the other players, bling and movies. This bonus spree occurs only after you’ve defeated a number of the league’s best that’ve been segregated into specific groups. This ranges from groups featuring rookies of the year to tourneys featuring legendary players from the Celtics, Knicks and Lakers, amongst others.
But while acquiring magazine covers, entourage and mansions are nice, the true meat of the game is Rags to Riches. The story behind this mode is that a pair of corrupt TV Execs, trying to fend off waning ratings and looking for the next hot thing, decides to put on a number of televised tournaments to see who’s the best baller in the country. As your player advances through the competition, you’ll receive points that improve your stats. However, unlike other games, your points are distributed based upon the skills you use in matches against opponents. For example, if you want to be a dominant force in the paint, you’ll have to perform a lot of blocks or steals down in the post. If you want to drain threes all day, you’ll have to take a lot of shots from downtown. You’ll also receive money that you can use to unlock stronger talents, like alley-oops and Midway’s patented “catching on fire.” But you’re not only enhancing your skills, you’re also acquiring items for your player’s new lifestyle, including pieces of his own house, complete with cars and other items to show off his new impressive lifestyle.
Usually, it’s easy to point out a game with solid graphics, mentioning how realistic some images look and where some of the flaws lie. No so with Ballers. The amount of detail found in each player’s face and physical models is simply astounding. If you choose LeBron, he really looks like LeBron on the court. Cooler still is the amount of emotion conveyed by these character models, ranging from elation after a strong dunk to disgust when a round is lost. This is understandable if you consider the extraordinary animation that’s been included for moves in Ballers. From the sweetest finger roll to the biggest shake and bake juke, these moves look very slick, evoking the And 1 street ball tournaments that have become a cultural phenomenon. By comparison, Ballers’ moves are so tight, it makes NBA Street look more like the Harlem Globetrotters on an off day. Everything from player’s cornrows to their set of tattoos has been accurately captured, and the amount of gear that is included for players is truly impressive. You’ll also get an impressive number of replays during spectacular moves, along with blur effects and interestingly, on some courts, a Doppler effect within the widescreen TV’s scattered in the background. The job is so well done, at times it doesn’t seem like you’re actually playing a game as much as you’re imagining a battle between two ballers on a court somewhere.
This is supported with a soundtrack packed with rappers giving shout outs to the court life. Full of original titles related to being a big baller and shot caller, this is overseen by MC Supernatural, who pulls triple duty as a rapper, host and color commentator in the game. Although there is a point where his comments become repetitive, they’re contained and not annoying as many other street-influenced titles have been. Even better, the sound effects, from the comments of bystanders to the banging of the two (or three) titans in a game feels like you’ve just stepped out on your local court.
While the gameplay is rather rock solid, there are a few things that could’ve made Ballers an even better title. Obviously, a larger roster of players, particularly an increase in the amount of legends, would’ve increased the number of dream matchups significantly, but this is a rather minor request. Similarly, having a larger number of items available to players, especially stat boosting or crowd pleasing gear, might’ve been nice, along with the possibility of spectators trying to copy your style as you become more successful would’ve been a great touch – again, a minor request. The inclusion of additional modes, such as slam-dunk competitions, H-O-R-S-E (or P-I-G for gamers who want shorter matches), or three point shootouts would’ve been appreciated as well. The inclusion of a wagering system would’ve been perfect for this game as well. Can you imagine going up against King James, who’s just put up the pink slip for the Hummer that his Mom bought him as a present for making it into the NBA? You know that LeBron’s going to bring his A-Game to keep the keys to that car, and that match would be incredible. The addition of rivals would’ve been a nice touch as well. Think about recent opponents, like L.A. versus Sacramento or New Orleans versus Miami, and imagine the battles back and forth between players on those teams in Ballers.
Rags to Riches could’ve been tweaked as well. First of all, there isn’t really a penalty to losing a match in this game, which doesn’t seem particularly accurate in a tournament situation. Inclusion of a loser’s bracket, having to re-qualify or even having to prove yourself again to the competition managers would’ve been a natural and more pressure filled experience for each match. While having an entourage courtside is a nice touch, and having a friend that’ll feed you the ball for an ally-oop helps, it’d be even better if they also affected the game in other ways. For instance, if you chose a group entirely compromised of ladies, maybe they’d distract the opposing player at a critical moment in the game. You could also possibly have players get challenged by other ballers as you moved up the ranks, wanting to test your skills and see just what the big deal is surrounding your character. There’s a number of ways it could’ve gone, and while it wasn’t included in this game, based on the strength of Ballers’ gameplay, we can keep our fingers crossed that some of these will be included in the sequel.
Minor gripes aside, welcome to basketball in the new millennium. Ballers is the title for basketball fanatics and sports fiends alike. Designed for trash talking, fast paced, above the rim action, Ballers surpasses the attitude that all other NBA games have come out with this far, injecting the soul of the street with the cash of the league. Move over NBA Jam, your younger brother has just come on the scene and taken your crown. Only thing is, now it’s platinum, dripping with diamonds and totally pimped out with hydraulics.