Growing up, I had a love hate relationship with 989 Sports and its various franchises. While some years I loved ShootOut and GameDay and FaceOff, other years they just left me cold. As time went on, I would look more towards EA or Sega's alternatives. But after playing the amazing MLB on the PSP, I truly hoped that this was a turning point for 989 and I was eagerly awaiting NBA. Unfortunately, while this may be a valiant effort (on a new console no less), the game simply feels too empty and uninspired to recommend.
While not the biggest b-ball fan in the world (I'm a football junkie), I've played enough titles and seen enough games on TV and in person to realize that pacing is as important an aspect as any when it comes to basketball. You'd assume that any game trying to capture the essence of the game would pay close attention to this. But NBA fowls this one up royally and it hurts every aspect of the game. You see, there is no turbo/sprint button to be found anywhere. Yes, this may sound like an "arcade-y" concept, but running and sprinting and breaking away and slamming on the breaks are a large aspect of the game. So what does NBA look like then? Well, picture turtles playing basketball and that's sometimes how this game feels. S-L-O-W. And what this slowness creates is an impossibility to ever out-race a defender or breakaway from the pact. Add to that the almost terminator-like defense and you have ample opportunity to get frustrated. Luckily, you can three-pointer it until the cows come home.
This momentum issue, along with NBA's unintuitive shooting style are really what keep this title down. To shoot, you have to press the Circle Button once to initiate the shot (jump) and instead of letting go at the apex of your jump, you have to press again when the accuracy indicator turns green (red and yellow are the other colors). This really wouldn't be such a big deal if every other game ever made wasn't built around a more "natural" way of shooting. And try as I might, I found myself countless times trying to hold-release the button.
It really is a shame because the rest of the controls are well implemented; passing uses the X Button (Icon passing is also available), left/right spin by tapping the Square/Triangle Buttons (Cross-Over left/right by holding them down) and the directional buttons are used very well for play calling. Holding down the Right Trigger allows you a few special moves which are easy to pull off. Defense, however well implemented mechanically, never translates fluidly to the hardwood. Defense feels like an exercise in masochism, simply because no matter how hard you try, the A.I. will always be better at it then you and this feels really unfair. Remember; three-pointers are your friends.
In Game Modes you will find Practice (Offensive Moves and Free Throws - might as well, you'll need it), Exhibition, Season (with 29, 58 or 82 games and rosters/players to manage/trade/sign), Playoffs (where you can customize as many of the rules/settings/brackets as you want) and Mini-Games. Seeing as the actual gameplay had me so incredibly uninterested, I was hoping that the Mini-Games would be a great diversion. Unfortunately, they weren't. Paint is a shooting contest versus another player. You shoot from various locations on the floor (which will be painted blue or red depending on your color) and whoever has the most points after one minute wins. The Three-Point Contest is very much set-up like the All-Star Showdowns. You have five ball racks set-up around the court (with five balls each) and you have 60 seconds to score as many three-pointers as you can. This is a good way to get a feel for them since you'll need them a lot in the game. Finally you have the 989 Skills Challenge which is a timed "shooting, passing, dribbling obstacle course". In reality, you shoot a basket, run around in no particularly coherent way, use an aiming cursor to get a ball through hoops and then repeat. The incentive is to use various players in order to beat your best time (or your friends) but the mode (like all the Mini-Games) feels hollow and empty. You'll try it once, remember how much fun the Dunking Contest was in NBA Street V3, and never play it again.
On a brighter note, the graphics range from good to great. During the game the players don't seem very distinguishable at all (the arenas look better, even if they are nondescript) but during close-ups and replays, the players truly look amazing, from their tattoos to their various hairstyles. In the audio department, the arena announcer tries hard when he's on, but the overall his commentary sounds like it was recorded in a coma ward. There's no other commentary to speak of. The crowd sounds bored and the effects sound canned. The music is adequate but not very varied or memorable.
The best part of NBA is truly when you're playing against friends. NBA supports WLAN Ad-Hoc and Infrastructure modes, which means if you know anyone else with a PSP, you'll be able to play against them. While you'll only have access to Exhibition and Mini-Games, that's more than enough. Exhibition games against friends tend to be more evenly matched since you're both playing on leveled playing fields (no terminator-defense). And even the Mini-Games can be fun in small bursts. Online play is quasi-lag-free and the online lobby makes it easy to find a game.
In the end, NBA feels like a title with a lot of potential that just fell short in too many areas. It doesn't help matters that there are now quite a few other basketball games on the PSP that play better and are a lot more fun. No turbo, dull Mini-Games, an unintuitive shooting system and an audio presentation that is sorely lacking... rent this one at best (but give MLB a try for sure).