NBA Jam On Fire Edition: EA Canada’s heating up

October 21, 2011

NBA Jam‘s 2010 revival was long-awaited for fans of the venerable arcade basketball series. Though there had been a few somewhat-successful attempts at over-the-top gameplay in Showtime and Street, no one had really captured that playable quality. The new Jam was a lot of fun, but some said it relied too much on nostalgia, and others had a poor taste in their mouths from the NBA Elite debacle that gave it an unexpected retail appearance on 360 and PS3.

With NBA Jam: On Fire Edition, the team looked to address both of the first game’s detractors. A $15 downloadable product, OFE embraces its smaller status, focusing on what it does best: regular Jam. Gone are last year’s boss battles and special game types, ambitious but largely disappointing attempts at innovation that were a big part of the game’s justification as a full retail product. Instead, there are now variations on how many points various shots get, and those manage to make the game’s Road Trip campaign mode varied enough. There have only been some slight gameplay tweaks, adding a few flashy trick moves and an alley-oop fueled Team Fire. Just like the addition of dribble moves last year, these are subtle inclusions and don’t disrupt what makes Jam fun.

Don’t get us wrong, though: OFE still brings the nostalgia. This time, there’s just a bit less adherence to the old game’s structures. Tag Mode, only in the console versions of the originals, makes a comeback as an option, and all of the game’s unlockables have moved from obtuse tasks and cheat codes to a Jam Store, where you can buy what you want with currency earned in-game. There are a few more things here too, from unnecessary stuff like decorations and titles to extra players. Our favorite, though? The new teams. Joining returning favorites like politicians and The Beastie Boys are EA characters (like SSX and NBA Street teams) and a few Euroleague squads (such as our current favorite, Maccabi Tel Aviv.)

Earning the cash for these unlockables is largely focused on a Jam Challenges system, awarding bonuses for reaching certain milestones in dunks, wins and other stats. You also get bonuses for weekly online goals, and these little rewards do a good job of making playing basketball over and over less monotonous.

The game does a good job making things interesting, anyway. We mentioned the Road Trip mode earlier, but what makes it fun isn’t the “oh, now I need to dunk a lot” scoring changes. It’s the player choices the game makes. How would you approach a jump-shot battle with Larry Bird and Ray Allen? What’s your strategy for beating Dwight Howard and Shaq when you need to dunk? How are you going to discern between a raptor mascot that can dunk but has trouble with passing and defense and ’90s-era Vince Carter? These are the things you’ll have to deal with.

It’s simple, really: last year’s Jam was a great game, and this year’s iteration takes out the weak parts, works on the strong ones and hits a price point that largely negates the complaints you could have. If you don’t like Jam, we’d guess that you may not have fun, but we’d also guess that you no longer have the capacity to experience joy and live in a world of perpetual sorrow.

Pros: Refined core experience, good progression system, smart mode pruning
Cons: Maybe you’re just dead inside, in which case we really do feel bad for you

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.