When NBA Ballers was shown off for the first time last year, it created a good number of skeptics. Despite the fact that Ballers is a one-on-one game instead of three-on-three, the hip-hop soundtrack and streetball theme may have led some to believe that Midway was just trying to cash in on the success Electronic Arts had with the NBA Street series. While it's natural to draw comparisons between the two franchises, NBA Ballers offers a unique gameplay experience, with a high quality presentation overlaid on a solid game design.
The faces of players in NBA Ballers are astonishingly lifelike.
Ballers' excellent visuals give a great first impression. Even before you load the game, you'll see plenty of original, high quality photographs of the NBA stars you'll find in the game just by navigating through the menus. Once you reach the character-select screens, you'll see the amazing work the modelers have done with player faces, which are quite possibly the best we've ever seen in a sports game. If you're at all familiar with the NBA, the players will be instantly recognizable to you. The excellent graphics extend to the in-game engine, which features little to no drop-off in the quality of player faces, and presents great-looking body models. The artists have done a pretty good job at scaling the sizes of the various players, who look appropriately lean, muscular, or bulky depending on their real-life physiques. There's also a ton of detail in the game's various venues, most of which are set in player cribs that range from Kevin Garnett's home (which is surrounded by man-made waterfalls) to Jason Kidd's sprawling estate.
Perhaps more important than the great player models and flashy courts are the game's excellent animations. Whether you're throwing down a windmill dunk or pulling off an ankle-breaking move to get open, everything looks smooth and authentic. The fact that Midway used real streetballers to motion-capture the game's seemingly dozens of different dribbling moves shows clearly in the final product. There are also some nice-looking special effects used when you pull off the most powerful dribbling maneuvers. Specifically, the game zooms in close to the action and applies slow motion and a blur filter.
Ballers' presentation doesn't fall short in the sound department either. The included hip-hop soundtrack offers some great beats that fit well with the game's theme; it's just too bad there isn't any way to selectively remove tracks from the rotation (for those who wish to do so). In-game, you'll hear sideline commentary from MC Supernatural as you play. Although his comments do become repetitive after a short while, the basic sound effects of dribbling, bumping, and dunking are good. It's also fun to hear crowd and mechanical chatter from the sideline spectators and from the sounds of camera shutters going off whenever a player pulls off a spectacular move.
As mentioned earlier, NBA Ballers is primarily a one-on-one game. The standard match is set up like a fighting game, so the first to win two out of three rounds wins. Each round goes up to 11 points, and there's a two-minute time limit. Scoring is done by twos and threes, and ball possession changes after made baskets (aka "loser's outs"). You must win by two to win the match, or you can just be ahead when the time limit is up. Goaltending is loosely enforced, and like NBA Jam, you can push and foul players to take the ball away. However, like NBA Showtime, you're limited to four fouls per match without penalty. On every fifth foul, your opponent is awarded a free throw that's good for three points, and he keeps possession of the ball, which is a massive penalty in rounds that are played only up to 11 points. As you play through the game, you'll play a good number of special-rules matches during which you'll need to meet or overcome additional challenges or twists, such as beating a five-second shot clock, playing winner's outs, and more.
Depending on what player you're using, you'll have an array of street moves at your disposal. A slick guard like Steve Nash obviously has a lot more options when dribbling than a big center like Ben Wallace, but in exchange, "Big Ben" has power dunks, and he can easily back down smaller players in the paint. Though there are some superficial differences like these between big men and guards, there still isn't quite enough differentiation in feel between big and small players. We would have liked to have seen guards be a little faster so that they could blow by big men off the dribble, in exchange for how much they give up in power and rebounding. Ballers is supposed to be somewhat grounded in reality, so it can also be somewhat unnerving to see lumbering Yao Ming throwing oops to himself, in addition to watching low-flying guards, like Gary Payton, throwing down dunks.
Ankle-breaking moves are the staple of NBA Ballers.
On offense, you can use the right thumbstick to execute basic juke moves, not unlike other basketball games on the market. Beyond this, Ballers takes a page out of NBA Street's playbook by allowing you to execute more-effective juke moves by pressing various combinations of "juice" (turbo) buttons along with another button. Once you master this, you'll be performing killer crossovers, going behind the back, spinning, and more. The most powerful moves, called "act-a-fool" moves, allow you to do all the crazy streetball tricks you've seen on TV, such as dribbling the ball back and forth between your opponent's legs, throwing the ball up behind your back and over your man, and other "now you see it, now you don't" ball tricks. These act-a-fool moves aren't all-powerful though. If you can anticipate your opponent's execution of one, you can press a button to counter the move, and then you can instantly steal the ball.
You can also perform other tricks on offense, like passing the ball to yourself off of the glass or tossing the ball to a friend in the crowd and then taking an alley-oop pass from him. You can also embarrass your opponent by throwing the ball off his face, and you can even bounce an oop to yourself off of his head. Depending on the player's dunk skill, there are other self-thrown oops at your disposal, which include bouncing the ball off the ground, tossing it up gently, or banking it to yourself off the glass (as was popularized by Tracy McGrady in the 2002 NBA All-Star Game). Tip dunks are also included in Ballers, in addition to "stunt dunks," like vaulting off your opponent's chest and then high into the air for a dunk.