Review: NBA 09: The Inside

Sony has kept their portable NBA title very “casual” over the past few years, engulfing the core gameplay with a variety of mini-games. This year looks to be no different. NBA 09: The Inside continues to expand on its growing library of mini-games, while finally delivering on a Franchise mode for the PSP.

With the growing number of mini-games, the San Diego developer went ahead and redesigned the games interface (which now feels much more accessible). The mini-games have been filed under the Block Party tab, which now includes: Conquest, Pinball, Carnival, Team Games and Solo Games. Pinball comes with 7 different basketball themed tables—including a trash-talking robot—each with their own style and challenges.

The popular Conquest returns again this year, along with its new counterpart Elimiquest, which combines the arcade style of the Elimination mini-game with Conquest’s turn based strategy. In Elimination, players take control of a five-man (starters only) NBA team of their choosing. Scoring 6 points with any one player will result in their immediate dismissal from the court. However, with each departing player you’ll receive a valuable power-up. Eliminate four of your starters and you will be declared the winner. In turn based strategy, Conquest, the player is controlling a five-man (once again, starters only) NBA team of their choosing. Your goal is to capture all of the other 31 NBA teams. To do so you’ll have to challenge other cities—each team gets one challenge per turn—while defending your own. Defend your city successfully and you’ll get to “steal” one of your challenger’s players; defeat a city and take control of it and its players. If you can capture all the cities within a region, you’ll unlock a legendary player to add to your line up.

Give & Go is the newest member of Team Games, where the more you pass the rock, the more points you score. First team to reach a predetermined score is declared the winner. In Solo Games, Bang The Boards joins the ranks, where you bid on the number of points you think you will score—reach your bid and you’ll double your score—the player with the highest score after 2 minutes is the winner. Alley Oop, the final addition of mini-games, is a basketball theme bowling game. The catch: Instead of attempting to knock down a set of 10 pins, you are attempting to hit multipliers and teammates for a high score.

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With all the new mini-games, it seems Sony found little time to add any really new features to the core experience of NBA 09. Yes, Franchise mode is new. However, it feels just like an extended Season mode. You’re given 25 seasons to draft, trade and sign players to build your own Dream, or Redeem, Team. It’s not all that difficult a task, although it’s more of a challenge than last year’s Season mode. You can still take advantage of a weak trading AI. The hard part will be meeting the salary requirements, and some players will have a “no trade clause” in their contract. Free agents will sign for pennies as long as you give them a long term contract with an increasing salary. As for the draft, player ratings are given to you so all you need to do is draft for positions you need. It all adds up to make winning the Championship, feel less than rewarding.

The core gameplay saw only a few moderate changes, leaving the same problems that plagued the game last season. The revised icon passing is slow to react to your demands, often giving the defense enough time to pick up the open man. AI has slightly improved over last season. Opponents will occasionally double team, are quicker to react, and will occasionally get into passing lanes to disrupt passes. Offensively, your teammates don’t always make the proper adjustments. On fast breaks, they often fade off to the three point line instead of cutting towards an open rim. That being said, the average gamer will still have no problem out-scoring the computer. This is where the online component comes in handy. Ad Hoc will allow you local wireless play with friends, while Infrastructure will take your game global with online functionality. Ten mini-games, as well as the core game (exhibition mode), are available for online play.

Presentation, like most of NBA 09: The Inside, remains unchanged. The animations and on-court actions—like diving for a loose ball—are replays of last season. Play-by-play and color commentary are once again brought to you by Mark Jackson and the charismatic Ian Eagle. Instant replay, highlight reels, and gameplay that runs at an eye-pleasing 60 fps are also back.

Running a game at a constant 60 fps seems have its downsides. Load times have been my biggest gripe for NBA 09, taking up to 20 seconds to load a single mini-game. This wouldn’t be as big of a problem if it weren’t for the frequency of these loads. The Skills Contest took nearly 20 seconds to boot up and all of 30 seconds to complete, where I was then unceremoniously removed from the mini-game back to the main lobby. If I decide I want to best my score I would have to reload the mini-game and take another 20-second timeout.

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Closing Comments:

With each passing year, the San Diego developer seems to focus more on the casual (mini-games) and less on the actual NBA experience. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is defiantly disappointing. Except for a few barely noticeable tweaks, the core gameplay remains unchanged for yet another year. Franchise mode, though nice to have, feels very shallow. This game still lacks create-a-player and “The Life” mode, and for a second straight year a “Dunk Contest” is not a part of the All-Star festivities. Where NBA 09: The Inside shines is in its library of mini-games, more than making up for the lackluster core gameplay. The new ticket-dispensing, mini-games give incentive to keep playing, and it’s definitely time well wasted.
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Version Reviewed: PS3