Replay Value: 6
Number Of Players: 1-8 (2 online)
NBA '06 is the newest entry in a series once developed by 989 Studios, a traditionally less-than-stellar performer in the world of sports game development. While the in-house development team has long since been dissolved and absorbed back into Sony Computer Entertainment America, the series doesn't really seem to be any better for it; though to its credit it does at least try to offer something new this time around.
Let's start with what (sort of) works, though. In an effort to differentiate itself from other b-ball titles, “The Life” is SCEA's attempt at experiential cinema; a sort of scripted form of storytelling in which key, pre-determined advances in the plot are forwarded by the player. This is slightly different from most games which use the cinematic cutscene as a compliment or reward for actions taken during play. In other words, it doesn't matter how you reach the end of the level, just that you get there. “The Life,” thus, remains estranged from this kind of storytelling. It really attempts to guide the player through the ups and downs of a rookie baller as he comes to grip with fame and fortune. Each step requires that a certain combination of goals is met, or the plot will not advance. In other games, if you fail, you can go back and try things a different way. It's a subtle difference, but a crucial one, serving as the clincher for the ultimate success of “The Life.”
Scripting has its virtues, for sure. Some of the most dramatic and exhilarating moments in video game history can be found in pre-programmed sequences or cinematic cutscenes. However, in “The Life,” it falters; not so much due to the intentions of the mode, but to the drawbacks and problems riddling the fundamentals of the gameplay. Put simply, the game does not control well.
There are several ways in which “The Life” specifically fails. The first is the loading. It's hard to be cinematic when a 30-40 second loading screen separates you from the next cutscene or gameplay sequence. Especially when the graphics don't seem particularly taxing on the PS2's processor, it's hard to excuse these excruciating waits as anything more than sloppy programming. Perhaps “excruciating” isn't the proper word to use in this sense, considering it implies that there is something worth waiting for on the other end. What does await the player are tedious pass/fail challenges. While the first few are admittedly easy, these training-camp-drills-masquerading-as-tutorials quickly break the cardinal rule of hand-holding instructional design: Don't make it too hard!
After your first few missions of simply getting a handle on the basic controls (and, I should mention before I go on, that these challenges make NO effort to familiarize the player with defensive controls), you are thrown headfirst into a 5-minute scrimmage. You're required to score 8 points, make an assist, and pull off a steal using your created character all while dealing with team members that act as if they've just fallen down the stairs while trying to get off the short bus. The AI is literally no help here, offering little to no resistance to the opposite team. Meanwhile, your opponents work together like the uncanny offspring of the '92 “Dream Team” and the Harlem Globetrotters. They dance around the court like performers in a well-choreographed Broadway musical, while your teammates are hamming it up in an elementary-school production of “Oklahoma.” I can't come up with enough metaphors for how horrendous, or rather, unfair the AI is in this game.
Assuming you pass the 5-minute scrimmage, you're thrown into a challenge which has you playing a game of 2-on-2 which requires the player to beat the opposing duo to 11 points. Your AI partner is as equally incompetent as before; usually circling around his man, sometimes flailing at him in an attempt to steal (which almost never works). Once the other team gets on a streak, forget it. Since the rules of 2-on-2 dictate that a scoring team retains the ball, prepare to spend a couple frustrating hours passing a tutorial challenge.
Of course, you can switch to other players on your team and manually control them. This helps alleviate the AI woes, but only a tad, because play control is an entirely different problem altogether. What I liked was that most of the offensive moves like cross-overs and spins are mapped to the right analog stick, making them fairly intuitive to pull off. A quick flick to the right or left will make you break, or a quarter-circle motion in either direction sends your on-screen avatar spinning away from the defense. Also, NBA 06 brings back the nifty and helpful shot indicator. When you go up for a basket, a semi-circle appears around the ball, prompting the player to release the circle button when the meter turns green. This guarantees that the shot will be made (unless it is blocked by the defense). If you release it on the yellow area, it has a small chance of being made, while red means you're completely off base. The size of the green area changes depending on the shooting ability of the player and their distance from the net. It proves quite useful, though some purists may eschew the on-screen help. There's also “showtime,” a newly developed system that rewards the player for well-rounded and stylish play. Alley-oops, no-look passing, and assists will all increase your team's “showtime” meter, offering temporary performance boosts. In other words, if you play well, your team will react in tandem, pumped up by the reaction of the crowd. Hogging the ball or missing “showtime” plays will penalize your team instead.
However, each of these improvements has their own dark side, which keeps them from becoming hallmark gameplay additions. The moves mapped to the right analog stick (as well as almost any other move in the game), have lengthy animations which can't be broken until they're finished, leaving your players open to steals more often than not. The shot meter is helpful, but will sometimes randomly turn completely red, rendering a good shot completely useless. The “showtime” rewards, while interesting, never seem to have a noticeable impact on the flow of the game. You might be getting stat boosts, but the action doesn't reflect these changes.
As for defensive play, it is completely broken. Steals hardly work, pushing against opponents usually ends up with your player moving right around them (allowing them to break straight for the basket), your teammates do nothing, and most of the time you feel like you're flailing around instead of actually covering your man. Once again, if the other team gets on a streak, the best you can hope for is a random Act of God to turn things back in your favor.
NBA 06 is just plain sloppy. All of the usual basketball game features are there (such as league mode and quick play), but there just isn't anything that makes them more compelling than those found in other franchises. It does offer a few mini-games, like HORSE, 1-on-1, and 21, and a few variations of them (as well as some only playable online), but why spend money on just that? Even if “The Life” could be entertaining in the long run, unfair challenges, bad AI, and frustrating play control make it a chore more than anything else. Plus, the character creation is utterly barren, offering only a few aesthetic changes, while omitting changes in player position, size, or weight. The options that are there have scant choices, leaving no room for creativity or embellishment. Well, you can give your avatar a naughty last name which will show up on the back of his jersey. That's good for a few laughs.
Graphics are passable – smooth, but not complex or intensive enough to justify the loading times. While the character models seem accurate, they are not as detailed or well-made as they could be, and the arenas aren't much to look at, either. Crowds are boring and made up of about three different people. I'm convinced the framerate is only so good because there just isn't that much going on to break it.
There is a soundtrack with a paltry 10 rap/hip-hop songs which, while they don't appeal to me and actually became somewhat grating, will no doubt appeal to some. The lack of good crowd chants or arena songs is also a downside. Forget color commentary or play-by-play - they're completely absent. There also seems to be a lack of player introductions. Instead of all of these things, which feel like they should be standard by now, you get to deal with the same repetitive comments and insults that the on-court players throw out.
SCEA tries, they really do. Not even the almost requisite Eye-Toy support (put your face in the game) is all that compelling. The online is decent if you can stomach the gameplay enough to get into it; and the mini-games do offer some fun diversions. But “The Life” is undercut by poor fundamentals and the restrictive nature of the animations and controls. You'll just end up frustrated as there are undoubtedly better ways to spend your money as a sports gamer. If for some reason, though, you feel compelled to play NBA 06, go for the PSP version. It is a passable game, though you'll miss out on “The Life.” Otherwise, don't bother.