When I think of jam, I think of strawberries and blueberries. Maybe some of you think of a garage session with guitars and drums. Others might think of getting that last bit of clothing into the cupboard before you squeeze it shut. Maybe jam reminds you of morning rush-hour traffic on the way to work. For those military-minded amongst us it could spark thoughts of radar interference. Perhaps others have images of retired rugby-players’ knees?
All I know for sure is jam means so many different things to so many different people so I don’t really see what jam has to do with basketball! Heaven forbid the developers chose the term ‘jam’ because we should expect a torrent of freezes and hang-ups in the game! Truly, I say to you, the ‘jam’ part of the title does not do much to inform the uninformed but rest assured this trusty game reviewer will dutifully unravel the mystery for you, if you would just so kindly sit back and enjoy the read…
So what’s all the hoopla?
As a sport, I honestly don’t find basketball at all intriguing. I’ve played it a bit in my time and my best strategy was always to flail my hands in front of my opponent’s face whenever they were about to make a pass or a shot and hope to distract them. This tactic actually worked out more often than it should have and even with internationally-based opposition I managed to salvage some degree of respect (or perhaps contempt). Nonetheless, as far as sports-I’d-enjoy-playing-and-watching go, basketball is just not up my alley.
Now that we’ve managed to get the pleasantries and introductions aside, let’s get down to business. If I were to shoot from the hip with my established impressions on basketball I’d wager that this game wouldn’t impress me much and I’d find it as dull to play on my Xbox 360 as it is for me to watch it on TV. Surprisingly not so in retrospect! NBA Jam – although not the most engrossing or dynamic game to play – can be great fun in a group and, as it turns out, not completely devoid of entertainment value.
As with most sports games coming out of the EA stable, NBA Jam presents you with a no-nonsense menu at start up with the standard fare of ‘Play Now’ and ‘Campaign’ options so you can get right into the action. With ‘Play Now’ you’re able to choose the two teams that will battle it out on the glory fields of an indoor sports arena and, more specifically, you can choose the two pro players that will comprise your team.
The… – excuse me? What was that? Yes, only two professionals, that’s right. No, you didn’t hear me wrong. Two professionals to comprise your team, yes. You’re still confused? Oh my apologies! Did I fail to mention that NBA Jam is two-on-two basketball with ludicrously over-the-top graphics and two-dimensional cardboard cut-out fans? I do so apologise for that minor faux pas – you see, that’s the ‘Jam’ part in NBA Jam: frantic two-on-two arcade-styled basketball battles duked out in front of no-frills cardboard cut-out spectators, cheerleaders and teammates in only a matter of minutes!
EA is putting all of their eggs in one basket
… And now back to the serious stuff: NBA JAM is fairly simple in its design – provide a kid-friendly game that doesn’t detract on quality or gaming appeal and hopefully has enough variety from the standard fare to keep things interesting. Whether you go into a ‘Campaign or ‘Play Now’ or ‘Remix’ battles, you’ll always be able to choose any of the pro teams you want to play and after that, the two players you want to control.
Each player has a unique set of statistics that will either give them an edge on passing, dribbling, stealing, 2-pointers, 3-pointers, dunking, speed and so on. Depending on the tactical situation at half-time you may want to swap out a good attacking player for a good defensive player or vice versa. The first and third quarters don’t give you the luxury of substitutions so you will need to ensure you choose your team wisely – and in multiplayer make sure you agree on a strategy with your team mate beforehand!
The game itself is very frenetic and has lots of energy. From the moment I began playing I was excited; NBA Jam looks and feels like a traditional coin-op arcade game (and I’m sure it WAS a coin-op many years ago…) and there’s no shortage of crazy antics and commentary. Working together, you and your partner will easily be able to produce a mouth-watering display of alley-oops and team-assisted dunks that will make even Michael Jordan dribble. In ‘Campaign’ mode you will be able to progress through various divisions and fight in boss battles against some old (and more recent) legends of the game.
Unfortunately, after playing four or five games I soon realised that there’s a reason for my apathy towards basketball and it was starting to show itself during my game time.
Despite the manic show-downs and Newton-defying slam dunks, it still feels like more of the same. The ludicrous novelty is short-lived and the campaign soon becomes a drag. Once I obtained a good enough lead in a match I would just spend the rest of the time passing to-and-fro to deny my opposition any ball possession so I could run the clock down. I was determined to try the multiplayer to see if I could revive the game and embarked on a two-player co-op campaign. The support of a buddy was appreciated and did revive the monotony for a little bit but again it soon became the same old stuff again.
You dribble. You pass. You shoot. You score. Rinse. Spit. Repeat. Dribble. Pass. Shoot. Score. Yawn.
NBA JAM makes a brief rebound with the multiplayer!
Undeterred, I then shifted my focus to the alternative modes which include challenges for ‘Domination,’ ‘Smash,’ ‘Elimination,’ ‘21’ and ‘Remix Battles.’
In ‘Domination,’ players are challenged with taking control of areas of a half-court by making shots from demarcated spots. If you make the shot then you take ownership of that spot and you start to generate points for every second that you own the spot. Other players can shoot from that same spot to reclaim ownership from you or after a few moments the spot will automatically become neutral again and open for anyone to claim. A bit of fun but as I came to realise, very open to abuse and a cycle of death (see below).
‘Elimination’ mode sees players shooting for points in a half-court and after a pre-allocated amount of time the trailing player(s) will be eliminated from the competition until there is only one player left to be declared the winner. ‘21’ is the typical half-court game where you have to carry the ball over the three-point line before you can make a legitimate shot so there’s not much new there. The ‘Remix Battle’ modes see players battling it out on a normal court with normal scoring, only this time with power-ups scattered randomly throughout the court which can boost a player’s speed, strength, agility, and so on. Nothing more than a normal NBA JAM game with power-ups.
‘Smash’ was the mode that gave me the most fun – in this mode teams compete to obliterate the opposition’s glass backboard through a series of well-placed dunks and alley-oops. The more effective the timing and skill of your scoring-performance the more damage you inflict on the backboard until eventually it shatters. With all of these modes there is a 2-player, 3-player or 4-player option but even with my much-favoured ‘Smash’ mode, there’s only so much game time you can dedicate before you start to find the whole process becoming repetitive.
The cycle of death = one jump forward, two leaps back
Probably the biggest trouble with NBA JAM is experienced in the half-court battles. Most assuredly this was unintentional but there is a tremendous advantage to being the player with first possession of the ball. Once the half-court battle starts – and provided you’ve picked a pretty decent 3-point shooter – there’s not much anyone else can do to stop you from shooting on the starting buzzer and scoring.
This is immensely frustrating in a ‘21’ game or an ‘Elimination’ game where the opponents have to pretty much hope you somehow miss a hoop for them to have any chance of a game. I remember many a free-for-all four player game being horrendously lopsided and much to my friends’ angst I would win a game of ‘21’ with no points scored against me. It truly is appropriate to call it a cycle of death because once you’ve scored you start with the ball on the next round and all you need to do is tap ‘X’ and you’ve scored again! There’s no time for anyone to block or to steal so you may as well give up. A very disappointing oversight that ruins the potential for some variety.
Despite all the mutterings and grumblings about a game that is repetitive, NBA Jam still somehow manages to be an entertaining stint for a few isolated hours here and there. I certainly wouldn’t recommend sitting down for long stretches playing this because your brain will probably fall asleep and I especially don’t recommend it for its single player.
If you manage to get a few mates together for an hour or two then you will undoubtedly derive some satisfaction from a 2-on-2 battle but don’t get your hoops up for a revolutionary NBA title here, because you won’t get it. NBA Jams has been designed from the ground up to look and feel like an arcade title and to this end it succeeds spectacularly, but my suspicions are that the frustrating cycle of death glitch will diminish much of the game’s potential to be a regular haunt for the basketball fanatics out there. This game is recommended, but only in small doses.
The Good: Refreshing take on NBA; 2-on-2 multiplayer; A plethora of game mode options
The Bad: Can become stale quite quickly; Cycle of death oversight; Is lonely and unrewarding in single player