Ever since the introduction of NBA Jam some gamers have grown to love the over-the-top style of arcade basketball. Two years ago Midway resurrected this fascination with the surprisingly excellent NBA Ballers, which put you into the shoes of an up and coming baller that you could eventually corrupt with the flashy lifestyle of being in the NBA. The idea was certainly fresh and chock full of potential which is what made the anticipation for the sequel so high. Now almost precisely two years after the fact Midway brings us NBA Ballers Phenom and to be honest not much has changed aside from the expansion of some of the older features. While this may come as a disappointment to some fans rest assured that if you loved the first one, the second outing will have more than enough to satisfy your appetite and if this is your first experience with the series there is certainly not a better place to start.
For starters Midway has beefed up the roster for Phenom; the game now contains over 120 superstars and legends all broken down by their individual play style. You will also find a bevy of mascots and personalities unique to the game so there is certainly no lack of inimitable match-ups for you to partake in. Midway has also been generous enough to throw in a practice mode for you to hone your mad skills, think of it as a virtual playground ala NBA Live 2006 for the Xbox 360 where you and up to three other players can just play around and practice moves such as alley-oops and even defense.
As far as the general modes of the game are concerned Midway has brought back the traditional Vs. and three player free for all as well as expanding with a 2 on 2 match that can be played full court now as opposed to the standard half-court style. You can even customize the rules to make the game as realistic or unrealistic as you choose changing everything from foul regulations to legalizing goaltending. While the new mode is nice probably the best new feature is the shooting challenge. Think of it as sort of a mini-game where you can take shots from different colored areas of the court for pre-set point amounts. It is sort of like hot potato because the areas can move at any time and even change point value completely on the fly.
The main story mode, fittingly called Rags to Riches, remains pretty much intact. You will begin the game by creating your avatar and slowly taking them from the streets to the big life by winning games and earning reputation amongst other ballers. This time around you will be dumped into the city with a Sidekick that contains a map of the area along with locations to find tournaments to enter. Along your journey you will visit locales such as L.A.X., Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and even Venice Beach. Each area has specific tournaments you can win to work your way towards defeating the reigning king and your arch rival Hot Sauce, yes I said his name is Hot Sauce!
Along your way you will find plenty to do outside of dunking basketballs. Phenom also gives you the ability to explore each area and even do odd jobs around town to earn extra cash. These can range from extremely simple collection tasks to the more complex such as taking a picture of a famous NBA player immediately after you have schooled him on the court. There are also some mini games to be found within each arena such as trying to spell some of the trickier names in the NBA, shooting drills, and even trivia machines for those of you who are vast in the knowledge that is the NBA. You will certainly find plenty to do in the world of Phenom just don’t expect to find anything that you haven’t done before.
The better part of your hard earned money will be spent on upgrades and items for your baller. Unfortunately unlike the first game the options and items seem a bit less expansive in this new iteration. Instead of working your way up the ladder to buy fancier cars and houses you are now forced to spend it on upgrades mostly, which really takes away from the fantasy of being a spoiled player in the NBA. The biggest problem though is that after a while you simply just don’t care about your character or even why they are going through all of this in the first place. Simply put the game does lack a certain sense of depth that draws players in and creates a memorable experience. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much, but when a game relies so heavily on these features as its selling point, it’s hard not to point out there shortcomings.
What is perfectly solid though is the game play; Phenom simply works on all levels of arcade basketball. Performing complicated moves and shots feels natural and the response time is spot on. If you have played the previous version you will feel right at home as soon as you dive into the game, in fact you may skip the story mode altogether and simply work on the standard one on one games and shooting drills. Thankfully even if you decide to just play this portion of the game there is plenty to see and do with over 30 locales and an abundance of players to choose from the game has plenty to offer for either the casual or hardcore player. The downside is that if you already own the original there isn’t much here to warrant a brand new purchase.
The visual presentation for Ballers is pretty standard stuff. Both the PS2 and Xbox versions are almost identical minus a bit cleaner picture and some higher res textures on the Xbox versions. What is appalling though are the load times, regardless of system this game takes entirely too long between sessions that you almost lose interest in what you were doing. There are also a few glitches and hiccups in the animations but nothing unexpected and the sound design could easily be mistaken for the previous incarnation. Overall the game is far from ugly, but it could have used a little pizzazz to differentiate it from the original Ballers.
The bottom line is that fans of the series and arcade b-ball will find plenty to love with Phenom. Whether you are looking for the story driven single-player or simply want to fool around with the multi-player this game will satisfy your hunger for over-the-top style street ball. While you may be more familiar with the NBA Street series, Ballers does a nice job of changing the pace. If you really enjoyed the original then give this game a try, if you have never been down this block Phenom is a great place to start, and if you hate basketball then there really is no reason for you to read this review now is there? NBA Ballers Phenom is a good addition to the series, I just hope to see a laundry list of improvements when it finally hits the next-gen consoles.