For every good basketball player, there’s a court where they learned their first crossover, made their first lay-up, or threw down their first dunk. Removed from the borders of sportsmanlike conduct, penalties or referees, the only thing that mattered was the game, a player’s skill, and the score when it was all over. That, and a healthy dose of trash talking. I’m not talking about the simplistic waving of hands in front of faces or shouting as a shot is made. I mean lines like, “My dead grandma shoots better than you.” These are the kind of matches where making a fool of your opponent is just as important as running up the score. Black Ops and Activision attempt to capture the spirit of the street with their eponymous title, Street Hoops.
In Street Hoops, you take your team of 3-point specialists, defensive threats and dunk masters into battle with the best of the blacktop. You’re offered three options of play. World Tournament sends you on a quest to knock off opposing teams on some of the most famous courts in the world. The Cage, The Rucker and Venice Courts are among those featured in the game. Lord of the Court brings these fools to your turf for a little punishment. And for those of you who just want to jump in and throw down, you can jump into a Half- or Full-Court Pickup game.
Of course, if you’re going to focus a title on the energy and vitality of the street, you’d better be able to back it up. The obvious choices are the removal of fouls, over-the-top shake ‘n’ bake moves and the inclusion of trash talking, features that have been seen in every “extreme” title from NBA Jam to NBA Street. However, Street Hoops establishes its cred by breaking out in a new direction, including a few, “unique” ways of customizing play. Pickup games on courts around the country are notorious for the wagers placed upon their outcome. Street Hoops is no exception, quite possibly becoming the first game where you can increase your bank account by placing bets with bookies. You can then take your winnings and unlock teams, courts, or hire some of the legendary street players. You can also outfit your team with new accessories. Aside from dissing your opponents, looking good on the court is everything. You can equip your players with new tattoos or haircuts to keep them looking “So Fresh And So Clean,” as OutKast might say. For that “Bling-Bling” factor, big ballers will definitely want to rock some ice from the jeweler, and complete their image with some new gear from Footaction USA. There, players can pick and choose items from 16 clothing lines, like Sean John, Triple Five Soul, and Rocawear.
At first glance, this seems like a great feature for players to express their individual style, which it is. However, that’s all the clothes and accessories are for. Bonuses to character abilities, like speed boosts, strengthened defense or better shot accuracy aren’t conveyed with the purchase of any items, literally reducing their usefulness to little more than a court fashion show. Plus, once you’ve unlocked or purchased your way through all of the stadiums and street legends, the gimmick of betting on games and acquiring money becomes little more than an afterthought, at best. It would be fine if this weren’t such a major part of the game, but considering the obvious lengths that Black Ops went to for the in-game endorsements, you’d hope there would be more of a benefit to owning a new pair of And 1 shoes or an Enyce jumpsuit.
More frugal players might decide to invest their money into augmenting the stats of players on their team to make them better three point shooters or dunkers. This makes sense, until you run into one of the other fundamental problems with the gameplay. Control of the players, and the actual balance of the game, is abysmal. The first indicator of this is with the control scheme for the game, which is automatically set. Can’t get used to the controls? Too bad, because there’s no way you can change it.
The second pitfall is that issued commands and completed shots on both sides of the ball are spotty at best. Take for example a classic play of the sport, the fast break. I can’t count the number of times I had a man sprinting down the court to make a play, only to have an errant pass intended for him go sailing out of bounds. No matter how many times you try to pass carefully, at least forty percent of your passes seem to go wide left or right of their targets. Similar frustration occurs with taking jump shots, especially from downtown. I created a player whose entire existence was designed to hit the outside 3, raining points from the sky. To reflect this, I pumped up his shooting stats, and prepared to unleash my shooter. Instead, I unleashed so many bricks I could’ve built the Great Wall of China. Outside shots for some reason are nigh impossible to hit. And at times, so are dunks, even with slam specialists.
Which leads to the third problem, which is the massive game imbalance towards the computer. Even with the default difficulty level, it’s not uncommon to find the computer up by a sizable amount at any point in the game. For some reason, an incredibly high percentage of their shots always go in, while you have to work to get your two (or 3, if your lucky!) points. Even fielding an advanced team against the computer can give you a serious workout, but if you couple that with the previous two issues, this quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. I thought I’d grind the disc into power when I’d ripped it out of the Xbox after one particularly annoying loss.
Graphically, Street Hoops is decent, but definitely not taking full advantage of the power of the Xbox. Stadiums are defined with the regional flavor of the country, and stand out as a backdrop for the action. However, the few civilians standing around not banging the boards are rather static, cardboard figures who don’t move, even for the largest slam, which is a downer. Character models are nicely animated, especially when performing a Mad Skill or celebrating after good plays, but otherwise are slightly nondescript. With the exception of the names that identify players and the specific customized accessories, it’s easy to overlook one player for another. The in-game camera is decent, and you can choose one of a number of configurations to play the game with. However, the continual slow Matrix-like creep around characters when they take it to the hole can be a bit excessive, although it does manage to provide a close up of the player celebrating enthusiastically afterward.
Aurally, Street Hoops provides a feast for the hip-hop fan. Over 20 songs, ranging from Redman and Method Man to Cypress Hill and DMX are represented in their full glory, allowing you to bump tracks while you box out in the low post. Plus, there are multiple music videos on the disc, so when you decide you need a rest, you can head to the options menu and check them out. The ambient basketball noise is also decently done. In fact, the biggest problem lies in Big Boy, one of the announcing personalities within the title. I don’t want it to sound like I’m a hater at all. In fact, I’ve met him once or twice and also think he’s one of the funniest guys with a radio show in L.A. But the scripted dialogue they gave him for his recording can quickly get stale, turning his game avatar into a forced, monotonous caricature of his usually vibrant, quick-witted self. Like Joe the Show and numerous announcers in sports games that have come before, you’ll find yourself hitting mute for this one after a few minutes.
Street Hoops is a strong title, in theory. Full of endorsed products, music from hot rap stars and a creative concept to bring basketball back to its gritty, primal roots, the basic formula for creating an awesome franchise was almost all but insured. (Besides, how can you argue placing bets with a bookie?) However, poor controls, imbalanced play and arbitrary items helped turn it into a shadow of what it could have been. If you’re rabid about b-ball, or love certain musical acts, I can see you snagging a copy of this. Otherwise, you might find yourself veering more towards NBA Street, NBA Live or NBA Showdown.