NBA Jam for the PS3 and 360 was at one time a highly anticipated game. The remake, with the license having been acquired by EA Sports, would originally be announced as a Wii exclusive. Everyone though fully expected it would make its way to the HD consoles.
Soon it was announced as being a “free” pack-in with NBA Elite 11. Even at that time there were many people who planned on buying Elite in order to obtain NBA Jam. Over the following months the desire for the game dissipated at an alarming rate. When EA canceled Elite and revealed they would be releasing NBA Jam as a standalone retail offering the news was largely dismissed as consumers turned their attention elsewhere.
Would a game that was marketed as being “free” be able to sell for $50 even with added content? Would online play, absent in the Wii version, be the selling point needed to make it a hit? Unfortunately for EA they dug a hole they couldn’t get out of and most importantly the game just didn’t turn out to be compelling enough to succeed in the current economic climate.
EA Sports succeeded at updating NBA Jam with a fresh feel that still kept the charm and appeal of the original. The strategy, pacing, inclusion of mascots, legends, and unlockables all delivered. The nostalgia felt for the series was not damaged by the new release. Pretty much every other attempt at reinventing popular sports games of the past have failed miserably so this represents an accomplishment.
In an attempt to add content there are new modes delivered, most important of which is the Remix Mode. That makes for a nice complimentary option to the standard Campaign mode. The mini-games within Remix are enjoyable in short bursts and provide some much needed variety. The powerups in Remix 2v2 games however are not a good fit. Elimination, Domination, 21, and Smash tend to be completely chaotic which is fun in a way but becomes tiring quickly.
Where NBA Jam really came through is in this area. The graphics are very slick and the animated backgrounds and coaches are amusing. Using real photos to express emotions for the players was an ingenious decision, however when actually playing the game they tend to go unnoticed. Tim Kitzrow really ties the feeling of playing NBA Jam back to the days of the original. His commentary is very often amusing though it does begin to become repetitive.
This was likely scrapped due to time constraints, but the “Online Pass” would have potentially killed whatever online community the game has. With sales sluggish, many consumers are either disinterested in the game or are waiting for the price to drop. At least there is no “Online Pass” block in effect that will stop those who buy the game used from playing online. Without those playing online it may have been even more difficult to find opponents, leading to more people deciding to part with the game earlier than expected.
Going in it was online play that appealed to me the most and it was immediately a disappointment. The one positive is that there has been no lag in any of the games played. However there are very few opponents online, and those that are end up getting spread between the different modes. There should have been a lobby room where users could have congregated to find matches. The ability to quit games without receiving losses, freezing of the gameplay in several instances when leading big (and getting a loss for exiting), and an issue now being seen once Level 49 is reached where only losses count on a user’s record, have made for anything but a desirable online experience. Outside of that the games against other users just haven’t been as fun as anticipated. Silence from EA regarding roster updates is troubling as well.
Easily the most frustrating part of the gameplay in NBA Jam is how poor the CPU teammate AI plays. They can not be relied upon for anything, and often it feels like the user is left playing one on two. The CPU teammate will often not even make attempts to block shots. There is nothing more maddening then watching a small guard slash into the lane and your “big guy” just stand there as he lays it in or dunks it. On offense they turn the ball over like crazy, big men rarely go for alley-oops, and guards have trouble scoring on their own.
While EA Sports was able to revive the feel of NBA Jam there have been a few changes that have proven detrimental to the experience. Removing “Tag Mode”, the ability to control whoever has the ball on your team, is a big one. This is especially troublesome given the issues with CPU teammate AI. Being on “Fire” is not as effective for shooters (seems like I actually miss more threes while on “Fire”) and doesn’t carry over to the defensive end for blocking shots. On defense the ability to push shooters while in mid-air is gone and that has changed quite a bit in the way of defensive strategy.
The new controls function well for the most part however the decision to not allow for a customizable scheme is indefensible. Putting “Turbo” on the LB/LT has proven to be awkward for many used to it being on the RT. What makes it worse though is RB/RT are left completely unused. At the very least they could have mapped “Turbo” to both sides and no one would be complaining. While I’ve enjoyed using the stick to shoot there are drawbacks like not being able to pass out of shots as easily and removing the ability to pump fake.
Much has been made of how NBA Jam’s tie-in as a “free” game included with NBA Elite 11 has damaged the brand. Even though EA had planned to offer different modes as paid DLC, it is hard not to evaluate NBA Jam with the thought of it being “free” or at least represented as such. Needless to say consumers have spoken as the game has failed to gain traction at retail. It has been remarkable to see the shift from widespread excitement when the remake was announced to pure indifference in just a matter of months.
I still don’t take issue with the amount of content provided in NBA Jam for its asking price. The value would be there had online play reached its potential and had the CPU teammate AI been competent. Unfortunately the drawbacks of NBA Jam have made it anything but a must-have game and consumers are more aware now than ever of what they are spending their money on.
In this case with the way EA Sports fumbled the handling of NBA Jam since its original announcement it was just too much to overcome. For more on NBA Jam check out my initial impressions article as well as full online impressions.