It's been a bad basketball season for EA Sports.
Announcing the shelving of Elite 11 was hardly an ideal response to the excellence of 2KSports’ NBA2K11. Fortunately, EA have at least been able to throw up a possible pre-Christmas buzzer-beater in the form of NBA Jam.
Much like NBA2K11 draws heavily on Jordan nostalgia, NBA Jam draws deeply on it's own '90s heritage. The 1993 original was a classic of arcade and console gameplay with its quick-fire, two-on-two play, stylised dunks and over-the-top commentary. For those who remember it fondly, the good news is that this new iteration of the title is a faithful 2010 reworking that loses little of the original's charm whilst providing, well, fun for the whole family.
As with the original, NBA Jam is based around two-a-side game play, allowing players to pick their favourites from each NBA franchise and compete in a range of different game types. The Classic Campaign sees players marching through match-ups against each NBA franchise, interspersed with mystery match-ups against unlockable legends of the past. The commentary is irreverent and the graphics are slick but appropriately cartoonish, with humour, not realism, the order of the day. In an era of increasingly realistic sports simulators there is no small amount of entertainment to be gained from watching a player who is on fire (that is, has scored three consecutive shots) soar to the rafters with a flaming basketball in hand.
This light-hearted approach is taken even further in Remix Tour, which offers a range of variations on the standard Jam approach, including player power-ups, a game based around smashing the backboard, half-court boss battles, and an array of other options that in another title might be called 'mini-games' but here serve as a core part of NBA Jam's appeal. In short, NBA Jam is Mario-Kart to NBA2K11's Gran Turismo.
Gameplay is entertaining, with controls simplified for arcade-style play and the two-on-two approach removing the need for complex strategy, or mastering or tactical plays. You can dunk in ways even Jordan couldn't imagine, shove opponents off the ball at will, and block like a nine-foot tall spider-monkey (I'm assured they can block like crazy). It's easy to pick up, great for younger/less patient players and a blast to play with friends (either co-operatively or competitively).
Also, whilst the reliance on team-mate AI in single-player mode can at times be frustrating, it also serves to spur you on to dominate not only the opposition, but your spotlight-stealing compadre as well.
However, NBA Jam is not overly challenging. While the wide array of game options are great, they become repetitive, and none really give you much to sink your teeth into. Likewise, while gimmicks like the option to have bobble-headed players and the ability to line up as either the Democrats (Obama, Biden, Hilary Clinton) or Republicans (Cheney, Bush, Palin), give the game legs, they can't disguise the fact that NBA Jam's gameplay becomes increasingly less rewarding as time progresses
This is the only real chink in the game's armour but it is a fairly major one. As much as I have enjoyed playing NBA Jam these last few days, I can't imagine it being a game I'll return to with great regularity. Sure, it is fun, and sure it is funny too, but once you've seen the all the crazy moves, you've seen them, and the gameplay itself doesn't evolve enough to keep a player engaged for any length of time
This may be slightly unfair criticism of course. NBA Jam is meant to be dumb fun, rather than a nuanced simulation of a professional sport. Comparing it to 'true' basketball games is unfair, and unwarranted. There's plenty here that will appeal to people who would have little interest in the train-spotterish accuracy of NBA2K11, and it is a great blast of nostalgia for those who remember previous iterations of the game fondly. In reality, it is a complement to, rather than competitor with, more serious basketball titles. Sometimes you want filet mignon; sometimes you want to throw a few sausages on the BBQ.
However, it is telling that EA initially envisaged NBA Jam not as a stand-alone title, but as a download only option for owners of the ill-fated Elite 11. No doubt some tweaking occurred once it became evident NBA Jam was to be presented as sale title in its own right, but it still feels a little light for the investment. Some sort of more engaging season mode might have added to the game's long-term playability, but the reality is that what would have been a sweet bonus to get alongside another game, or a great affordable download title, just doesn't feel like a strong stand-alone title.
Misgivings aside, NBA Jam is an ideal rental title, a great option for the kids, and a great catalyst for intense flat-rivalries. It's also a nice piece of nostalgia in a traditionally future-facing industry. However, I am not convinced it is the late game 3-pointer EA were hoping for.