I was never really a huge fan of sports. I played some, knew the basic rules for a lot of sports, and made sure I was clear on which sports had “touchdowns” and which didn’t. When it comes to sports games, though, I have a deeper appreciation- especially if they’re of the arcade-style. They’re the most fun I can have with sports, and NBA Jam was always the cream of the crop. While there were a few things wrong with last years reboot of the series, this years On Fire Edition returns NBA Jam to the lean, arcadey, ridiculously fun game it always deserved to be.
If you’ve played Jam, you know what to expect. There’s not really much to surprise you in the basic feel of the game, so it’s probably easiest to just run down the changes that went in this year as compared to last year.
First, and most importantly, is the AI has been completely revamped. Hallelujah! Hasta la vista, rubber banding, which has been replaced by actual AI! EA Canada actually recorded themselves playing real games and programmed in their actions to the AI to help it adapt to what’s going on (for example, seeing the AI take more 3-point shots if they were far behind), and it’s a much better single-player experience as a result.
It also introduces Real AI, which actually takes the playing styles of you and your friends and programs them into the computer opponents, and the game gets very difficult when it’s turned on. When your play style comes back to bite you like that, it can be a real eye opener- but it can also help you learn to adapt your play style and be more competitive.
A few gameplay tweaks have been added as well. Most interesting is “Team On Fire” which is achieved by doing 3 alley-oops in a row. There’s a hard timer of 20 seconds on it, but that only counts when you’re on offense- so score quickly. Next is the “Razzle Dazzle” move set, which is activated by holding both turbos and pressing a button, resulting in a long taunt, or a fancy shot depending on the button you pressed. They’re really for showing off, though, and don’t get you any more points. Last is tag-mode, which lets you swap between players when you pass the ball. Jam purists can be happy knowing they can shut it off, though.
There are 3 modes to play ball in, most simple of which is Jam Now, the exhibition mode. It’s got some customization, some privileges that can be turned on (infinite turbo, one-shot fire, for example), but it’s just the straightforward quick-match.
Road Trip mode has been slightly revamped now, losing the strange half-court perspective of some of the modes from last year and ditching boss battles. Each of the regions has 3 initial challenges, ranging from classic Jam to modes where the ball is always active, or On Fire dunks give 10 points instead of two. After these initial 3, the platinum challenge unlocks, where you play against the team with real AI turned on and oh, yeah, they’re robots.
Online is what you’d expect, and preferences stay the same for each person, so that someone with tag-mode can play against someone without it on, and they can still have a good experience with it. It syncs data and AI before each match, too, presumably feeding that to the real AI. It also cycles an auto-log sort of feature, bringing your friend’s performance right to the front and helping make you more competitive against the people on your list who play.
Unlocking things is radically different as well. My heart sank when I saw that everything was unlocked through the “Jam Store”, but I quickly recovered when I saw it was in-game points that I earned through playing the game and completing challenges. The challenges really cover everything- broken backboards, jump shots, missed shots, lost games- and go from bronze to diamond, giving more points as you complete tiers. There’s also an overall level, and some unlocks are hidden behind it, so there’s always something to look forward to getting. You can use the points to buy teams, players, privileges, and customize your playercard.
The same style is carried over this year, but all the UI looks a lot better now- flashier, shinier and with a greater emphasis on playing with friends. The bodies animate smoothly, and the effects that pop off when you’re holding turbo or On Fire look great- the fire trail and blue fire you get look especially good.
The game is so fun it’s almost impossible to chart. Every high-flying dunk, every BOOMSHAKALA from the announcer went straight to the pleasure centers of my brain. I have almost nothing to complain about. Almost.
Tim Kitzrow’s commentary is great. He has an amazing voice and delivers his lines with gusto. But some of his lines go one far too long, and just sound like he’s rambling. There are also some pop culture references I don’t quite like, including a reference to punk’d, of all things (though “no one man should have all that power!” I did enjoy). You might enjoy some of that more than me, but it’s a little more grating than the pure simplicity of “IS IT THE SHOES” and “HE’S ON FIRE!”
The online is also kinda… not good. I had extreme difficulty getting into an online match, and then it was laggy and had frame issues- when it didn’t just quit on me (luckily, even matches that quit counted as a “complete”). Still, though, getting in and having a match between SSX and the Republican team isn’t something to put off lightly, and is still fun- when it works.
EA seems to have figured out what NBA Jam was missing last year and went ahead and fixed it this time. Though battling the AI is fun, it’s centered so heavily around playing with people, comparing scores and just having an arcade-style experience from the comfort of your living room that they finally seem to understand it- and if they can fix some niggling issues and get online working right, this game runs very close to perfect.