You might think that writing a review of an annual sports title would be as easy as creating the game itself. In other words, take last year's version, include a few new elements, fix what people didn't like last time...or ignore it if it cannot be fixed...slap the relevant year on it, and voila! Isn't that how publishers usually do it?
Unfortunately, even if I was desperate and lazy enough to resort to this method, no one at Eurogamer appears to have reviewed NBA '07 last year. I can only assume that my fellow editors were too busy playing football, cricket, rugby, snooker, darts or any one of a dozen sports which are more popular than basketball in the UK. But we like to give everything a fair crack , so we thought we'd see how one the US' most popular games is fairing these days.
Let's get the new features out of the way first. Chief among them is player progression, in which you earn "achievement points" for your athlete as you take him through a season. Points are awarded for everything from your first double-double to scoring a set number of points at a certain position to winning a mini-game by a certain margin. And why would you care about these points? Well, you can use them to unlock a lot of nifty extras such as different floor patterns and jerseys, or to upgrade the abilities of your created character.
Another new option is the ability to designate one of your team-mates as a "go to" guy, which focuses all the plays around that one particular player. Sort of like what Kobe Bryant does in every game with the Lakers. I suppose this is supposed to help you pull off "showtime" moves such as alley-oops, but it seems unnecessary as most gamers aren't going to designate one of their weaker players as the "go to" guy anyway.
One final improvement from last year is the addition of play-by-play and colour commentary, from Kevin Calabro and Mark Jackson. While adequate, and certainly better than just a PA announcer, the commentary never fools you into thinking that they are watching the very game you are playing rather than sitting in a recording studio reading off a piece of paper. The commentary sometimes doesn't match up well against the action, and it doesn't help that you'll hear the same phrases repeated, and not just over the course of a season, but often within a few minutes of each other.
NBA '08's modes of play include Quick Play (self-explanatory), NBA Replay, Online, and League. Right away you'll notice there is no franchise mode, so if you are the type of hoops fan who wants to draft players, manage a salary cap, and otherwise simulate team ownership, you're out of luck. All you can really do is trade players between teams, but without any restrictions you can customise squads that are far from realistic.
NBA Replay, which has been expanded a bit from last year, not only allows you to play a set number of scenarios from last season, but also lets you download new scenarios each week from the 2007-08 season.
I'd love to be able to tell you about online play, but as is often the case with reviews, the lobbies were empty when I tried to log in. It looks like the standard online features are present, though: quick matches, lobbies, leaderboards and player pages. Unfortunately, I can't say whether or not there are any issues with lag.
Along with the exhibition, season, and playoff games under the League mode, you'll find three mini-games which have been repeated from last year. Own the Court "paints" point values on the floor where you are required to make shots, the 3 Point contest is your standard timed challenge from beyond the arc, and the Skills Challenge requires you to dribble, pass, and shoot around obstacles and into targets. While entertaining, there are too few of them and you probably won't find yourself coming back to them very often for the long term.
Graphically, the game looks great, running at a smooth 60 frames per second in 1080p. It's no wonder that Sony used this game as an example of what the PS3 is capable of when gamers complained about the technical deficiencies of EA's titles. You'll notice the cloth physics of the uniforms, the detailed arena crowds, and the variety of player animation. Still, the game has a slight jerky feeling when a player transitions from one move to another, so there is room for improvement.
Although it is still not perfect, NBA '08 does give you a good feeling of weight and momentum as your players bump into each other. And they'll definitely bump each other a lot, as the CPU-controlled defence sticks to your players like glue. Unfortunately, there is a bit of clipping where players (and parts of players) appear to pass through each other from time to time.
For my money, the shot meter that Sony has been using for its basketball games is still the best way to go. It still requires a certain level of skill, but not to the point that you find yourself required to rhythmically juggle the analog sticks like a crane operator just to sink a free throw.
And is it just me, or is the Sixaxis controller always the "second best" choice in almost every game that tries to implement it? Here, a quick shake of the controller performs a crossover dribble, a hesitation move, a shoulder charge, or a spin move on offence. On defence, you can move the controller to raise and lower your arms. But why bother when you can perform them just as easily, if not easier, using the right analog stick?
NBA Live was AWOL on the PlayStation last year, but it should be out shortly, with EA promising the ability to create online tournaments. NBA 2K, meanwhile, was highly praised last year and offered a franchise mode and 24/7 mode which NBA '08 lacks.
Overall, NBA '08 is not a bad game. It just tries to make up in presentation what it lacks in depth. But I'd venture to guess that most basketball fans would probably choose a title with a larger variety of options over one that looks slightly prettier.