Version tested: Xbox 360
"He threw his balls between her legs like he was playin' for the Globetrotters," rapped basketball fan and one half of The Bosshog Barbarians, J-Zone, on "Spoiled Rotton". Which is just my way of catching your attention with a sexist lyric in the hope of attracting you to a review of an average-at-best basketball game.
EA's NBA Live and 2K Sports' NBA 2K series have got the basketball market sewn up, quite simply. Just for good measure add EA's NBA Street series - the arcade champ - and if you're a serious basketball fan you've got all you need to binge on the sport. Which leaves Midway's NBA Ballers: Chosen One in that void where average sports games go to limp across hard concrete, playing with flat-as-a-fart balls and wearing cast-off shorts where if you sit down in them they ride up and reveal a wizened old gonad.
It starts off well - quick edits of some high roller stepping out of his helicopter onto the roof of a penthouse, homies and homettes hollering at their boy, and Just Blaze scratching the hell out of "Head Crack". Presentation is one of Chosen One's strongest points, with the meat of the game - Story mode - linked by TV show snippets hosted by rap legend Chuck D. All the right ingredients are certainly in place as players are invited to create their character, with a ridiculous amount of choice on offer. I'm all for customisation, but honestly, asking me to tweak nostril width and chin height is taking it too far. What next, schlong girth and number of elbow calluses?
Story mode proper is split into six episodes with five chapters in each, and concerns your boy as he tries to become the chosen one in a street competition. Obviously, no one plays a sports game for the story, but I'm willing to put up with it, and I welcome a new way of presenting challenges if it's done well. Unfortunately it all falls apart on the court.
Repetition is a big problem. The majority of the game is one-on-one play with small variations to the scoring, or the player will be charged with pulling off a specific special move. Variety supposedly comes from the 80-odd NBA players and range of moves - blocking and stealing - and Shut 'Em Down moves and combos that are meant to deliver a slick, cocky arcade show.
Granted, bouncing the ball off your opponent's head never gets old, nor does passing the ball to a spectator in the audience for them to throw it back before you pull an alley oop, leaving you grinning like a twat. And simply slamming a dunk feels right, it feels weighty, with the accompanying clattering audio boosting the braggadocious feelings. But controls are clumsy, they don't feel right for an arcade sports game, and a couple of poor design decisions are about as welcome and user-friendly as someone vacuuming in front of the TV.
The first of these is quick-time events. I'm not a big fan of these in many games. Maybe God of War got it right where you can watch Kratos pluck eyeballs out as he wrestles a sea-serpent and you hammer a face button, but they don't fit in a sports game when you've already got your hands full with three or four actions on the court even before the QTE begins. Hold down the left bumper and hit X and you're off with three or four on-screen prompts. As the player intimating the action it feels too easy to pluck these moves out of the air, while the defending player, who has to match the same moves, is left fumbling with all the grace of humping a doorknob.
Score quickly following the QTE and you'll bag an extra two points too. Pulling off the combos leaves your opponent standing around fiddling with his hampton, while you bag a super-move, and if you rack up three of these in a row you can hit a Shut 'Em Down move, which ends the game no matter what the score. With these in mind, you're likely to blaze through the Story mode with very little skill or contest.
The second of the jarring game-breakers is the cut-scenes that accompany the super-moves. When you're doing your best to stop a juggernaut of a player - really concentrating on the fudgy controls - the last thing you need is for all the action to stop for a five-second cut-scene as your opponent skips around the court flinging his stiff limbs in all directions. It just makes you want to punch the screen.
What else is wrong with Chosen One? Well, the game automatically assigns points to upgrade your skills after winning a game - speed, stamina, rebounding, dunks etc - with the intention that it rewards the way you play. But it seems random more than anything and feels like the game is trying to keep you in check if you favour one style over another. There's an argument for auto-assigning, especially for players that don't want to get lost in stats, but it doesn't work in Chosen One.
There are a bunch of smaller issues too, that don't help the overall package. From ropey animation, a couple of glitches that will have you wondering "did that ball go through the rim or in the basket?" just long enough for your rival to get the jump on you, to AI that barely adapts to repetitive moves, and some plain odd rule-changes.
All of which doesn't bode well for online play. When the virtual tumble weed isn't blowing across your screen as you wait for a match by staring at your own chubby reflection, games are limited to one-on-one play, even though there are two-on-two matches in the Story mode. Obviously you get a better game as you're dealing with real live humans somewhere in Germany rather than the unchallenging AI, but when the mechanics of the game are this stiff to begin with, you can only expect minimal fun.
There's even a disappointing note about the soundtrack, because music is important for the overall atmosphere of a b-ball game. 2K Sports skillfully ropes in beat-makers like Dan the Automator or Stone's Throw label boss Madlib for musical credibility, while Electronic Arts has pretty much single-handedly pioneered the use of licensed music in videogames. Chosen One's soundtrack is all instrumental joints from Just Blaze, and while they ain't bad, it's reflective of the overall attention to detail in the game - you've got to come with everything to match the competition, you can't do this half-heartedly.
It's not NBA Live, it's not NBA Street and it's not NBA 2K. And playing Chosen One you'll be reminded of this every couple of minutes. If you need a fourth basketball title then NBA Ballers will pass a couple of hours, but you'll be constantly thinking of the elements that are better in the other b-ball games you've got on your shelf.
5 / 10