When we reviewed the Wii version of NBA Jam last month, we found it to be a remarkable return for a long-lost arcade franchise, one that stuck to the basics in terms of gameplay while introducing a few new tricks of the trade. However, we couldn’t help but knock it down score-wise due to its lack of online play and high-definition visuals. Shortly after that game’s releae, though, EA Sports put NBA Elite 11 on hold (permanently) and announced that the previously online-only version of NBA Jam for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 was shifting to retail format. So, it looked as if we were going to get the version of Jam we wanted all along. And now that it’s here, we certainly have.
Turn on Big Head mode ASAP to see great reactions like this one. Do it.
NBA Jam is, without a doubt, one of the best party games you’ll ever get your hands on this year. Over on the Wii, it’s addictive and great fun for local multiplayer sessions. On the Xbox 360 and PS3, however, it’s even better.
First off, let’s get the big feature out of the way — online play. This will no doubt be a huge draw to Jam players everywhere, as you can randomly match up with fellow players or join up with friends in an all-out Jam-fest. From the sessions we took part in, the online play runs incredibly smooth, with barely any hints of lag. There were a couple of mild hiccups during some of the more intense high-flying jams, but overall this is as good as you’ll want an arcade game to get. Furthermore, you aren’t just limited to quick match-ups, as you would’ve been with the game’s previous downloadable format. No, sir, a patch enables you to play Remix Tour online, work together with friends in Classic Campaign, see how you’re faring in online leaderboards, and take part in a quick Jam Online party. It really does open up a whole new world for this game…and makes us feel bad that Wii owners are missing out on all of it.
Plus, to be honest, there’s something about playing NBA Jam with a regular controller, rather than the Wii Remote and Nunchuk configuration. The controls are excellent, once you get used to the notion that the turbo is set up on the left shoulder buttons (something you’ll get used to, especially if you’re using the right analog stick for gameplay). You can either use buttons to execute your steals, blocks, jump shots and passes, or map everything with the analog stick. Either way, we found very little error with the gameplay, as it sticks to the stuff that made NBA Jam so appealing in the first place. The old notion here is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The new content in the game doesn’t quite hold up compared to the simple two-on-two sessions, but basketball fans will appreciate it anyway. The boss battles are utterly engaging, as you compete with current and past NBA legends on a one-on-one court, watching out for power-up usages and trying to keep the lead from getting out of hand. The background design for these stages truly sparkle, almost to the point that they’ll distract you from what’s happening on-court. Focus, sharpshooter, focus.
There is one word of warning with NBA Jam — the Ai is aggressive. Even on the game’s easiest setting, it’s almost like the opposing AI players are telepathic in reading what you’ll do next. They’ll intercept the ball in passing lanes, dart ahead of you when it goes free on the court, and somehow magically jump up and block your shot at the worst time imaginable, especially if you’re going for the game winner. It’s a little hard to accept at first (how in the blue hell did the Clippers beat the Lakers?!), but once you get an idea of what they bring to the court, you can prepare accordingly. Besides, you’ll probably be busy with online sessions too much to care anyway. That’s where we live.
One major change to NBA Jam with the Xbox 360/PS3 versions is the inclusion of high-definition graphics — and what a difference this really makes. The Wii version is nice, so don’t fret that, but these editions really shine. You can see player reactions and court details (such as whether you’re on the line or not for a shot) way better, and the facial expressions they go through on a dunk — especially in Big Head mode — are hilarious. We’ve included a couple of screens in this review to give you a better idea, but you’re in for a treat with these guys. Again, there are some minor hiccups when you play online, but overall, this is a true peak performer. We also like the menu system and the simplistic look of the game in Jam Camp, using wireframe models so you can see just how much detail went into the engine. Anyone can look good on the court — even Barkley. (Yeah, we said it.)
Of course, it’s not NBA Jam if the audio package isn’t intact. Tim Kitzrow’s commentary is still as magnificient as ever, featuring plenty of new zingers that go along with the old ones. It seems more random this time around, so you always hear something new from him. The sound effects are good as well, but the music does have a tendency to repeat every now and again. Hey, we don’t mind, it’s still Jam-worthy.
And here comes the nail in the coffin.
And we’re still scratching the surface on this game. Along with the gameplay, presentation and online modes, NBA Jam features unlockable goodies galore, including NBA mascots (Rockyyyyy!), legends and secret characters. We still haven’t unlocked everyone.
It’s shocking that we have not one great NBA game to play this holiday season, but two. We’re sure simulation fans will stick to their NBA 2K11 like a religion, but you’d be a fool to pass up NBA Jam. What we have here is one of the best party games ever made, and a return to form for one of the all-time arcade greats. We want more.