Usually if someone receives a 989 Sports game as a gift, it's almost surprising that they don't scream, "BOMB!," and then proceed to run and hide. Since the late 1990's, Sony's in-house sports development team, 989 Sports, could be described as the Los Angeles Clippers of video gaming -- they're never a winner and most of the time, its down right embarrassing. Even when a 989 game was good, it really wasn't that good. So with Sony's release of their second NBA title for the PSP, simply titled NBA '06, it appears Sony decided to drop the 989 Sports brand -- knowing that 989 has become the most dreaded number in videogames. The decision, along with some obvious improvements from its predecessor, makes NBA '06 a surprisingly better than average basketball game.
The first thing that will grab you with NBA '06 is how good it looks. The graphics are about as good as I could possibly fathom on a portable system. With smooth animations and exceptional player models, I didn't feel like the PSP's graphics were a step back from the current home consoles. The only detraction to the visuals is when they show Upper Deck player cards after big plays -- where the close up of the player's face is merely average. Still, overall, I am quite impressed and would be surprised if Sony could actually improve the visuals next year. More than anything, I'd prefer they take out the Upper Deck elements, as they are a distraction to the game.
It's got game
Hopefully with next year's game, Sony will put more focus into improving the gameplay. I don't say that because NBA '06 plays poorly, but rather, I thoroughly enjoyed the gameplay's basic components. The game's tempo is perfect and the control scheme is instantly comfortable. By the time you finish a half, you'll already feel comfortable driving the lane off a pump fake or using icon-passing to kick the ball out for a three a three-pointer.
To add to the enjoyment, the game's shot control feels perfect. A combination of visual cues help you determine if you are open and if the timing on your shot is correct. For instance, if you are open after a pump fake and release the ball at the top of your jump, you will see a green indicator for your position on the floor and for your shot. If your timing or position is less than desirable, you'll see orange. If you play like Darko Milicic, you'll see red all night. The system really lets you get your players in a zone, where if you time everything right, you'll hear the sound of a cash register -- and then you know you're money.
Technical foul ups
As alluded to above, there are some glitches and minor setbacks that sometimes make you want to pull a Ron Artest on your PSP. First off, the game's AI (and I'm not talking about Allen Iverson) feels pretty dated. If you take the ball up the court with your point guard, all your players will set up the same way when you go up to the court. The only way you can really get them to move is with the limited play selection via the D-Pad -- but even that doesn't help too much.
Other glitches include players most frequently getting fouled while shooting threes, players occasionally not taking the ball out of bounds after a shot is made, and defenders constantly biting on pump fakes. These problems, along some very basic commentary and a complete lack of instant replay, will sometimes remind you that NBA '06 isn't quite on par with the NBA Live series and the NBA 2K series.
If the regular gameplay doesn't make you want to pound some thunder sticks with delight, NBA'06 does have several mini-games that will likely consume more of your time than the typical exhibition and season modes. The five mini games are Own the Court, H-O-R-S-E, Three Point Competition, Skill Competition and even Dodgeball with NBA players. The best of these are the Three Point Competition and the Skills Competition, which have you frantically playing against the clock to make the most threes or make it through the gauntlet, respectively. With all the modes, you can climb through a ladder of several opponents in which you will need to nearly perfect the events to win.
It should also be noted that NBA '06 also offers online play where you can not only play with someone else in the room, but with anyone else with the game across the country. As one of the few PSP games with full online capability, I was excited to see how I would fare against others in the regular game or even the game's mini games. Unfortunately, it appears that Sony's reputation with sports games has scared off quite a few, as I was never able to find a single online opponent. Chances are, if they're playing a basketball game on their PSP, they're probably more inclined to get EA's NBA Live. But still, at least for a change, this is one Sony developed sports title that you won't be ashamed to play.