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NBA Jam, in its current Xbox 360 incarnation, was never meant to see the light of day. While expected to be released as a full retail game exclusively on the Wii console, the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions were supposed to come in the form of downloadable "freebies" with EA's NBA Elite 11. Turns out that when the demo of NBA Elite 11 hit PSN and XBL, it was universally panned, and left EA scrambling with what to do. EA, in a bold move, scrapped the buggy mess that was Elite and opted to release NBA Jam as a full retail game on all major consoles, instead of the stripped down "freebie" that was supposed to be included in Elite.
This may have been the best move for EA because this game is nostalgia in a box. If you have ever liked the Jam series or like basketball in general, then you will love this game. NBA Jam is a re-imagining of the classic franchise that takes the over the top arcade action of the original titles and ramps it up with new players, more dunks, and updated controls.
The premise of NBA Jam is simple, score more than your opponent. You can achieve this by a variety of shots tailored to your team's strengths. If you're playing with a team such as the Orlando Magic, you would probably play as Dwight Howard or Vince Carter, and most of your points would come from dunks. The game displays a variety of stats for each player, such as Dunk and 3-pt. The stats are set on a 1 to 10 scale and affect your stats in a variety of ways. If you have a weak Strength stat, you will not be able to push players over and steal the ball from them, instead only making them stumble and giving them a chance to pass this ball. This gives the game a layer of realism to counteract the insanity of the gameplay. It’s unlikely that you will see Steve Nash push down a larger player like Lebron James, because he is not built for it.
Fans of the first game may notice an extra layer of complexity from the original titles. For instance, a button has been designated on offense for performing crossovers and for spinning around defenders. This counteracts the all too familiar strategy of running up and shoving the player until they give up the ball, and allows a smaller player to make a bigger difference by creating some space and maybe sinking some quick threes. The most interesting part is that after a player makes 3 consecutive shots, he will become on fire and the ball is engulfed in flames. This gives him a huge percentage boost to his shots and allows him to perform dunks that rise high into the air. The fire will continue until the opposing team makes a shot or the on fire player makes 5 shots in a row.
NBA Jam would get boring pretty fast if it all it had was this simple gameplay, but it extends its welcome by adding a plethora of modes and gameplay types. There’s the classic campaign mode, which allows you to select a team and then battle through every team in the NBA one by one. Other gameplay types include 21, Domination, and 2v2 Remix, with the latter having powerups randomly spawn on the field, some which are helpful and others which are harmful. These modes all culminate in the Remix Tour mode, in which you complete a set of challenges for each NBA team. This mode is really a good mix-up to the tried and tested formula and keeps the rest of the game from becoming stagnated.
A mode that is completely new to the Jam franchise is the online mode. It is pure and simple just like the rest of the game. Matchmaking is as easy as you press a button and are instantly matched to an opposing team. You get matchmaking points for certain achievements in online games, such as catching on fire and winning the game. These points correspond to levels. As you level up you have access to new titles and new emblems for your digital nameplate. All the game modes are available to play online, but you should not expect more than a handful of people playing game modes that aren’t 2v2 variants.
NBA Jam is close to perfect, but it does show a few chinks in the armor that tarnish an otherwise stellar game. The players and court look great, but the audience and mascot look almost like cardboard cutouts with only a few animations that play. Plus the mascot, whichever mascot it happens to be, always does an extremely awkward dance. The NBA Jam series is also notorious for “catch-up” AI. That means that when the AI is down by about a dozen points, they will rally and catch up. While that is meant to keep the game interesting, it often causes frustration because the AI basically ramps up the difficulty. In many cases, it will corner your drone teammate and beat him half to death and steal the ball over and over. You will lose at least a couple of games that you were winning by 20 or more points because of this.
NBA Jam is a worthy reboot to this franchise and manages to stretch a simple arcade game to at least a 20 hour experience. Jam adds classic Legends from the game and most of the players’ stats are a great representation of how they play. With Tim Kitzrow returning to voice the announcer, you have something that equates to a modern classic and a better way to spend your time than NBA Elite ever would have been.