NBA Ballers Phenom Scores at Stores
Midway again invites players to own the courts and the lifestyle.
by David Adams

March 31, 2006 - Midway Games today announced the arrival of NBA Ballers: Phenom, the follow-up to 2004's original NBA Ballers, for PlayStation 2 and Xbox. A portable version of the action, NBA Ballers: Rebound, is slated to reach the PSP on May 2.

With NBA Ballers: Phenom, Midway introduces "an entirely new open world" and richer player customization. Set in Los Angeles and offering a detailed story mode, Phenom will have you working both on and off the court to establish your reputation and hoops skills -- with the goal of making it into the NBA. The new Ballers offers 2-on-2 action, in addition to the 1-on-1 matches of the original. Style's still important, of course: you'll eventually have a chance to start your own clothing line, record label, and movie deal.

April 4, 2006 - Two years ago, Midway gave gamers a taste of the luxurious life of a sports star, complete with flashy cars, large mansions in exotic locales and plenty of jewelry. NBA Ballers approached the sport of basketball in an extravagant way, hosting pickup games on the literal "home courts" of star player's boats, penthouses and backyards. It also provided a story mode for playground stars to take on the ranks of NBA superstardom thanks to its Rags to Riches mode. Now, exactly two years to the day, Midway is releasing their sequel in NBA Ballers: Phenom, and the biggest surprise (and some might argue, disappointment) is that while it expands some features, it's almost exactly like the first title, glitches and all.

For starters, there is an expanded roster in Phenom that you can take into the standalone play modes. More than 120 professional players and legends are now included in the game, broken down by their individual play style. That means that you might find your favorite player categorized as a floor general, a high flyer, or a power big man. You'll even find mascots and personalities of the game included, setting up the option for you to take on NBA players with Benny the Bull or Squatch from the Supersonics. Those of you who happen to be rusty on your b-ball technique can warm up thanks to the newly included Practice Your Skills feature. This places you and up to three other players on one of the courts, where you can get your timing down on things like your alley-oops, three point shots and your trick moves. Even if you go into the game without a secondary player, the AI won't stand still, actively going after loose balls and sometimes pulling tricks on you so you can also get in a session of defense.

Apart from the Versus and 1 vs. 1 vs. 1 modes from the original game, 2 vs. 2 matches are also included, which expands play from the standard half-court play of the game into a full court match up with a team. All of these can have different rules assessed to them, such as five second shot clocks, fouls don't count, or legalized goaltending. If you're looking for something different, you can try the new mini-game known as the Ballers Shootout Challenge, where you try to shoot from different colored areas on the court for various points. These areas change, move and even double in value, giving you an added test to your basketball skills. What's more, since there are five separate stages of the mini-game, you'll have plenty to keep you occupied as a mild diversion from the primary thrust of the game, the newly retooled Story Mode.

The basic idea behind the story mode of the first title was to take a street baller and turn him into the star of a new reality series known as "Rags to Riches." However, unbeknownst to him, the businessmen behind the series are corrupt and really only want ratings instead of his well-being. Phenom takes a completely different approach with its storyline, focusing instead on a rivalry between two former best friends, your created player and Hot Sauce, the popular player best known from the And 1 tour. Apparently, the two of you were close until he screwed you out of a deal for a ton of money with some sponsors, making it to the big time while leaving you behind to sleep in your car. Even worse, he took your girlfriend, leaving the desire for payback fresh in the back of your mind. Fortunately for you, the NBA Finals week held in Los Angeles is providing you with the opportunity you need to exact your revenge on Hot Sauce, with a million dollar prize to the winner of their street tournament series.

After creating a player and tailoring his appearance, you'll be given a Sidekick with a map of the city and the locations of four separate areas where a tournament might be held. You'll travel to L.A.X., Venice Beach, Hollywood and Beverly Hills, entering yourself in various matches and trying to get closer to dethroning Sauce. Unlike the previous game, you're no longer forced to go through preset tournaments one after the other. In Phenom, you are allowed to pick and choose which tournaments you feel like entering, which lets you determine whether or not the group of athletes you face are relatively comparable to your skill set. It also winds up playing a large factor in your character's "progression." See, tournaments have both an Entertainment level and an NBA level: enter and win a lot more of the Entertainment level events, and Ludacris (who makes a guest appearance in the game) tries to take you under his wing and make you a savvy entrepreneur, while the NBA side leads to you joining the league and becoming a player thanks to cover man Chauncey Billups.

Although the plot progresses after every tournament, you won't simply be competing in contest after contest. You'll also have the option to explore your environments, getting a sense of the surrounding locales and performing a variety of jobs in them. Some of them are relatively straightforward, such as finding scattered diamonds for a jeweler or postering walls around the city. Others can be much more complex, such as taking photographs of certain NBA stars after you've embarrassed them on the court during a game. There are also a number of mini-games, including spelling bees of some of the trickiest last names in the NBA, rhythm based mini-games and even shooting practice akin to firing up a free throw during a match. For the hardcore fan, you can also find and test your league knowledge thanks to the NBA trivia kiosks scattered around the town.

For the most part, you'll need to purchase just about everything that you'll interact with in the cities or the game. Oftentimes, you'll pay to enter tournaments and buy tickets at stands to enter the "mini-games." However, you'll also be able to spend your hard earned cash in a variety of shops to help outfit your baller. You can change up the basketball you play with, the kinds of clothes you wear and the tattoos you have. You can even purchase food to go with you on your journey. These purchases aren't necessarily for show either, as certain items have beneficial traits that can be used to bolster your character's stats. For instance, eating one kind of food will increase your shot accuracy, while wearing a certain kind of hat increases your defense.

The story of Phenom, while it shows promise, ultimately doesn't fulfill it. After a while, you start to not care about anyone, including (at times) your character. Why does he care so much about this harpy of a woman that sounds like a bad Wanda Sykes imitation? Believe me, after playing this through for the 10 or more hours you'll spend beating the game, you'll be thanking Hot Sauce that he took this annoyance off your hands. What's more, while the additions of these elements in the cities are nice, they're by no means necessary. In fact, it's possible to completely skip over many of these stores and mini-games entirely, focusing solely on your goal. The thing is, it isn't necessarily adding that much to the game experience. There are a couple of mini-games or side "missions" that wind up helping you if you happen to be leaning more towards the entrepreneur mode (such as putting up the posters), but for the most part, participating in something like the spelling bee only provides you with money. What you'll discover is that many of these are mild diversions that are engaging at first, and quickly forgotten a few turns later.

The same could be said about some of the purchasing options, such as the clothes. Unfortunately, instead of being able to spend your hard earned money on unlocking things in the Inside Stuff like you did in the first game, you'll find the amount of luxury items between the first game and the second game has been dramatically reduced. No longer are you actively trying to purchase and unlock new homes, collect new items or buy new cars with your hard fought money. Instead you're basically only be given a choice between upgrading your special abilities and buying a large number of pants. Even the Inside Stuff section that's been included in the game is relatively sparse, primarily hosting a number of making of features and items that you'll already see upon starting up the game. All in all, extremely disappointing compared to the original title, because it moves away from the focus on bling into the focus of pettier things.

The same can be said of the gameplay found in Phenom as well: With the exception of deciding to include the 2 vs. 2 play in the story mode and extremely minor adjustments (Such as taking photographs during matches, and there are now 30 locations to play on, including Yao Ming's academy in China and Ludacris' house), every matchup plays exactly the same way that the prior Ballers did. The moves that are available to players are the same, the way you wind up unlocking them are the same -- there's practically no difference. This is great for players that are used to the first game, because you can jump into the game and feel relatively comfortable faking out your opponents or breaking the backboard. But this means that you're more often than not too strong on offense to be effectively guarded or handled, with the only recourse being to perform a hard foul or a strong steal attempt. Even the few moves that I think might be new (although I could be completely mistaken) feel and look exactly like the originals.

This is a double edged sword, because it comes with all of the previous titles problems. For one, the load times are just as bad, if not worse. While the load screens of stars look extremely slick, I stopped timing once it took longer than 35 seconds to move to the next game screen. Unfortunately, that can be said on both Xbox and PS2, which raises a significant question: Why? What is taking so long, and why wasn't the load time addressed in the two years it took to develop the sequel? The game also demonstrates a number of animation glitches and skips during play; I've found a number of teleporting players from one side of the court to the other, basketballs that mysteriously appear and then disappear from someone's hands when no one is near them, and other quirky glitches.

There are a number of collision detection issues that have never been addressed, and you'll discover that the camera, as well as other players, phase in and out of the character models often. While the faces of the character models look exceptional, I didn't know that basketball players could be so hollow...The same can be said about the control issues. For instance, one command will sometimes be interpreted as a chained string of moves, which can put you out of position to make an accurate play for a ball. Again, if the animation and control scheme was going to be directly pulled from the original, why couldn't these issues have been fixed to make the entire game better? The cheapest example of this that I noticed was the animation set for an intro of a match by MC Supernatural from the first game was copied exactly, only the character model was that of Trikz, the MC for Phenom.

For the most part, the sound has remained the same as well, including recycling the same sound effects and court sounds. Trikz sounds relatively similar to that of another basketball replacement, Bobbito Garcia from the NBA Street franchise, and his cadence and continual repetition of "My main man," or "My homey," will quickly make you reach for the mute slider so you don't have to hear what he has to say. While the dialogue is decent, there are plenty of lines that really fall flat. Fortunately to take your mind off of these hiccups, there's more than 35 songs included in the game, so you can enjoy music from artists like Chingy, Freeway and the Nappy Roots.

Closing Comments
This is one of those series that showed so much promise, but seems to have gotten stuck in a rut its second time around. NBA Ballers: Phenom does a couple of minor additions to its formula, like the story mode and the bolstering of the roster, but the control, graphical and gameplay issues from the original title haven't been addressed at all, leaving a title that doesn't feel like an improvement; rather, it's more like a tame departure from the original formula.

im gonna get this game next looks pretty good