I have absolutely no interest in snowboarding, skateboarding or ice hockey. I really don't. And yet SSX, Tony Hawk and NHL are all games that all grace my TV screen with indecent regularity. Why? Because the artistry of a truly brilliant arcade sports game can slam dunk apathetic ignorance without breaking a sweat. NBA Street Volume 2 is one of those.
James Worthy, Darryl Dawkins, Rick Barry, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Earvin Johnson - who are these people? The point is that it really doesn't matter. EA Canada has concocted a game that caters to everybody, from those who ignore basketball in its entirety to those who know the difference between Michael Jordan in 1985 and 1996 - just two of the different versions of the man waiting to be unlocked via the game's two main single player modes.
But what makes it so good isn't the constant stream of unlockables (players, shirts, shorts, shoes, courts, etc), nor the vast array of play modes (Be a Legend, NBA Challenge, Pick-up, Street School, two-on-two multiplayer, edit mode, etc), but the way things unfold on the court. Once you've gotten the hang of the basics of dribbling (bounce, bounce, bounce), passing and shooting, you'll start to tackle the tougher, button-combo based moves like Off The Heezay (a psycho-out move where the ball is played off an opposing player's head), Back 2 Papa (passing to yourself or a team-mate off the backboard) and all manner of dunks - and the game rewards you for it.
As you play, your Gamebreaker meter gradually fills up with each successful trick, and it'll fill up faster if you can manage to string several together and finish on a slam dunk. Once the Gamebreaker meter is full, you can opt to unleash the move, which is an almost guaranteed three points and light show, or stow it away and continue building up the bar to try and finish on a totally unstoppable level two Gamebreaker. Heck, you can even strip your opponent of his Gamebreaker if you're suffering at his hands.
This SSX-style performance enhancer not only encourages you to do more tricks, but it also encourages you to line them up. Just as we'd restart the Elysium Alps stage of SSX hundreds of times just to get the maximum possible point total from the first massive cliff drop jump, we found ourselves navigating the streets of New York, Seattle and LA in particular ways, questing for an even more audacious string of passes and shots than the last effort.
And as with EA Sports BIG's other successful titles, the game lets you do more and more as your skills guide you further into the game. Throughout Volume 2 you're given a mixture of development and reward points, which can be spent on improving your custom player, or your custom team. And as you gradually unlock the vast roster of NBA legends past and present, you'll be able to adopt their signature moves for your own ends, like Michael Jordan's slam dunk from the free throw line.
What's more, unlike the original Street, Volume 2 lets you play the game either by nurturing your own original player, or by guiding a pre-rolled or custom team through the various courts of the US, soaring past all manner of Afros, baggy shorts and upside down ball skills. And by allowing you to use players all over the game - whether it's developing your own legendary baller for use in a multiplayer game, or unlocking new characters for your NBA Challenge team - the game feels a lot more open-minded about our play habits than its predecessor. Undoubtedly a good thing.
Of course no BIG game would be complete without EA's trademark glossy presentation, and Volume 2's incessant funk and 'street' stylings are nothing less than we expected. Pretty much the entire game is commentated on by a memorable chap called Bobbito Garcia (one half of the best hip-hop radio show of all time according to The Source magazine), who lends the game all sorts of 'cred' and does a fine job of 'calling' the 'plays' and so on. He even gives you a funky nickname after a while if you play well enough.
Elsewhere the presentation is some of EA's best yet. The menus are a bit overdone, but the constant scratching and low-level funk in the background is always nice, and the soundtrack is full of all sorts of hip-hop we've never even heard of. We even liked some of it. You can look forward to Black Sheep, Lords of the Underground, Nelly, MC Lyte and others, if that means anything to any of you. Perhaps the game could have done with some lower-key numbers (particularly given the retro-chic feel of the production and player listing), but with so many tracks being thrown about you're unlikely to get bored - or even run into a repeat - for quite some time. God bless DVDs, eh?
Graphically the game is bright and distinctive, and sufficiently different to regular basketball outings that it doesn't feel like a product of EA's frenzied licensing. Things look slightly rounder and smoother on the Xbox than they do on the Cube and PS2, but all three versions stand up quite admirably, with finely detailed and bendy but realistic players, and all sorts of court designs. Even different-era versions of the same courts bear only a passing resemblance. It's clear EA Canada went to great lengths to make the game look good - our only complaint being that the high poly-count in front of the camera hasn't left much for the dishevelled, cardboard cut-out spectators.
A little bit taller
In fact, we haven't much to say against NBA Street Volume 2 on any level. Even if you're stuck on your lonesome, this should occupy you for several days' solid play, with hundreds of moves to tap and a combo system that requires SSX/THPS-style dedication to get the most from, and if you can find some other players then the two-on-two mode is a must. It might have been nice to get four players on one side, but rather like Sega Soccer Slam, the co-operative aspect seems to work very well with two players facing off against the AI. Being able to have your mates bring in their top-ranking custom characters is also bound to be a plus.
And basketball fans, we haven't forgotten about you. You're going to find that the strategic aspect of Street more than lives up to your expectations. Admittedly, we don't know the first thing about triple threats and don't understand exactly what all the different lines mean, but even we can see that there are a huge range of dynamics at work here.
For example, we picked a team headed up by Shaq (having seen him in the play-offs on hotel TV last month, we quite like the burly dunker), who was flanked by several equally lofty ballers. We subsequently found that we couldn't steal the ball much and generally lost points whenever we conceded possession. And yet, for the first time in the game we could block all manner of shots, and anything more than a few feet off the ground usually meant a basket for us. Swapping roles, we had to adapt our style of play significantly. There should be great scope here for experimentation, and we can see basketball nuts losing months and months trying to perfect their intergenerational line-ups.
As we said at the top of the review, NBA Street Volume 2 is one of those games that truly can appeal to anybody, despite throwing around more big names than Operation Ore and offering true fans of the sport a virtual masterclass. If you don't have the patience to learn button combinations and toil over the fine points, then perhaps there's no hope for you, but for the rest of us, the reward structure is tuned finer than Dennis Rodman's haircut, it's funkier than a jazz sandwich, and if you don't like basketball, then this is more than likely to convert you.