November 28, 2010

There are defining installments in game series. With most, there’s a rise to greatness and a fall from grace. Somewhere in the middle is the game’s peak, where the right elements fell together in the best combination. For Midway’s basketball games, this effect was more pronounced than most. The original title, Arch Rivals, had that special something, but it was a rough title that lacked polish. Then there was NBA Jam. After that, the series tried and failed with new ideas in Hangtime, Showtime and the disastrous Hoopz

So now that EA has revived the Jam moniker and gameplay, we have a lot of attempts to compare it to, and a lot of cautionary tales. 

So let’s get this out of the way: the game’s amazing. 

EA Canada worked hard to become students of the original, duplicating as many elements as possible that made that version special. The core is the same: two-man teams face off with crazy dunks, frequent blocks and a bit more pushing than is allowed in the actual sport. They brought back the obvious structural elements like going “on fire” and turbo shoes, but it doesn’t stop there. The team signed many of the players in the original title as unlockable “legends” (including secret characters like the Clintons and the Beastie Boys), added many of the powerups and Big Head Mode and signed Tim Kitzrow as announcer.

Kitzrow’s return was huge for the title’s nostalgia factor. Now that he’s less restricted by memory, he can go on a little longer and with more variety, and it works well. As for the rest of the sound, well…it’s adequate. The soundtrack won’t wow you. It’s unobtrusive, though, and it’s better that way. The visuals are crisp, with everything running at 60 frames per second and the styled graphics polished up to look nice at any resolution.

Just as the announcing benefited from technological advances, the gameplay can too. Added to combat the effectiveness of blocks, pushes and steals are pump fakes, spins and crossovers. It’s subtle, but it makes the game a bit less abusive to the new player. Also added is an alley-oop, but it feels right at home in the Jam festivities.

The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of NBA Jam are practically identical, aside from the differences in controls, an HD makeover, and the addition of online multiplayer. The use of the right analog stick substitutes the motion controls of the Wii Remote. You flick the stick up to start shooting, then push it down to release the shot. Most will end up sticking with the buttons for the majority of my game time. The online features seem robust, but there just aren’t enough people actually playing the game online, which is troubling.

The game has two campaigns: Classic Campaign, modeled after the old title and consisting solely of vanilla two-on-two matches, and Remix Tour, which shakes up the formula pretty radically. Remix Tour has five game types: Elimination, a free-for-all scoring competition where the low scorer is eliminated each round; 21, another free-for-all where the winner is the first to score that number;  Backboard Smash, in which the boards have hit points and more violent dunks do more damage; Remix 2v2, which adds powerups to the base Jam game; and Domination, where teams try to control points on the court by being the last to score there. The three half-court modes (Elimination, 21 and Domination) are interesting minigames but hold no long-term potential.  Remix 2v2 is not that much more interesting than normal Jam, but can be fun. Backboard Smash is a cool change to the gameplay, especially if you’re frustrated by goaltending. None of them are clear improvements, though. All in all, Remix Tour was a nice try, but it was smart for the team to set it aside in its own mode.

A few gripes: Tag Mode is gone (though you can still tell opponents to shoot and pass), the traditional controls don’t have the exhilarating feel of the Wii’s motion-based ones and the team didn’t implement quite as much password record-keeping as was in the arcade classic. 

Ultimately, you want this game, and you should play it with three friends. It’s not an epic title to play on your own, but there are other games that do that. This is tailor-made for groups, and it works as well as it did in 1994. 

Staff writer Andrew Passafiume contributed to this review.

Score: 5/5

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