NBA 09: The Inside
Let's hope NBA 09 plays more like the Celtics and less like the Bobcats.
When it comes to handheld basketball action, Sony hasn't exactly been on its "A" game. For the past two years, its first-party NBA games missed the rim, so to speak. The mini-games were satisfying, particularly the pinball table and the always entertaining Block A Shot, but the on court action, with color-coding around the ball to indicate the success of the shot, weren't up to snuff. That isn't stopping the team from giving it another try with this year's NBA 09: The Inside, which will hopefully be a little more successful.
Yes, the carnival games make a return, including Pinball, Block a Shot, Shootin' Bricks, Hot Shot and the Skee-Ball-like Big Shooter. A new addition this year is Alley Oop, a bowling-style game where you roll balls along a tabletop alley into goals and over multipliers to boost the score. From what we've seen of this game, it's somewhat promising, even though it's weird trying to roll a basketball along the ground.
On-court mini games are also available, including HORSE, Dodgeball and the spot-stealing Own the Court. Bang the Boards and Give and Go are new this time around, testing your five-on-five basketball and rebounding skills.
Aside from mini-games, SCEA San Diego added some comprehensive new features to the main game. A brand new Franchise Mode lets you control your team on every level, balancing their morale while also watching salaries, playing time and other management duties. All of these tie in to your team's overall performance.
Along with the returning Conquest Mode, there is also a new Elimiquest Mode. Here, you take on team by team across a series of venues, eliminating them from competition by beating them. The goal, obviously, is to be the last team standing. It's a strong addition to an already competitive product.
NBA 09's presentation looks decent. The build we saw ran at a smooth 60 frames per second, with barely any hitches. Players animate nicely and the basketball courts look just like the real things, right down to the glimmer on the floor. The colors surrounding the ball return, so you can see how good or bad your shot is when it flies from your hands. Ian Eagle returns for the play-by-play commentary, assisted by new addition Kenny Smith from TNT. It sounds good thus far, although the dialogue grows repetitive.
All this is for nothing if the gameplay doesn't improve. NBA 09 doesn't have the same level of near-impossible difficulty as its predecessors, but there are still a few noticeable problems with timing, shooting and defensive techniques. However, if you don't feel like taking on quirky computer opponents, you can hook up with others through AdHoc local play. Can't find an opponent locally? Go Infrastructure and challenge people online.
Sony still has a ways to go before it can dominate the basketball court. However, if it can clean things up and keep leaning on the appeal of its carnival and mini games, it has a great chance of winning the portable championship. We'll find out if the company shot a brick or sank the three when the game ships next month.