There is almost an unspoken rule when it comes to motion-controlled games, be they for Wii, PS Move, or Kinect, that you sort of have to make an allowance for them, like an assumed understanding that while the game is clever in concept, that when you actually try and play it, it’s only going to work between 70 and 80% of the time. Of course, you think, the technology is not perfect yet, and so it’s not yet time to hold this new type of game up to the same standard of polish and perfection that other games have been meeting for years.
This is nothing but a cop-out for poorly designed games, and happily, NBA Baller Beats by HB Studios and Majesco is the shining exception to the rule. It’s cool, it’s clean, it’s fun, and it’s going to be great when it comes out early next month.
The basic idea behind the game is similar to other rhythm games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, in that you select a song from the list, and you play along with it, as markers slide towards you down a multicolored lane. You gain points and multipliers for staying on beat, and as you scale up the difficulty, the inputs you perform incorporate more and more actions and the rhythms to tap out expand in complexity. In NBA Baller Beats, however, your controller is the officially licensed NBA game ball replica from Spalding that comes packaged with the game.
That’s right: You play this game by dribbling a real, bright orange, court-ready, basketball. As you dribble to the beat, the game mixes it up by throwing special “baller moves” at you to perform, like crossovers, pump-fakes, and even between the legs or behind the back tricks. Flashy stuff, sure, but also literally educational, and actually very good practice for an aspiring basketball player. The Kinect sensor tracks the ball so well that your actual skill at dribbling a ball translates almost totally, combined with your ability to stay on rhythm, into your skill at NBA Baller Beats.
When I played the game, the first thing I noticed as I navigated the menus was the excellent variety available in the selection of songs they’ve secured. They had everything from Interpol to Skrillex to Kanye West, but I‘m not so skilled with the dribbling and the hippity hopping, and so I went with a classic, “Another One Bites The Dust” by Queen. The interface is simple, the beat was easy to match with my dribbling, and the “baller moves” I performed were easy to understand because not only does each trick come with it’s own diagram on how to perform it, but they’re also color coded for the more advanced players to pull them off in rapid succession without having to think about it much.
Even within the short amount of time I spent with the game, I could feel myself improving as I went, and just like most rhythm games, aside from the inherent differences between songs of various speeds and complexity, each one can be played at three distinct difficulty levels, so the replay value is extremely high, and mastering this one-of-a-kind game might prove to be a real satisfying challenge. Luckily, the game is chock-full of unlockables, including some of the songs, the various difficulty levels, and hundreds of NBA Posters and actual 2012 NBA HOOPS trading cards by Panini for all 30 NBA teams.
Bouncing the ball just feels natural and effortless, and while the “baller moves” were more challenging, I wasn’t confused by them, and I never felt like I was being hindered by technology. Luckily, for people like me, there’s also a very robust in-game tutorial narrated by NBA star and TNT NBA analyst Kenny Smith, and a dedicated practice mode to brush up on my skills before heading to the big leagues, and challenging the single player mode or the local multiplayer mode for up to 8 players, where players can go head-to-head in a score battle.
Finally, as a last hilarious treat, NBA Baller Beats uses the Kinect sensor to take pictures of you while you play that you can upload to Facebook right from the game. I was surprised at how not totally lame I looked playing it.
NBA Baller Beats looks like it’s going to be great, and it’ll be available for $59.99, including a free basketball, on September 11, 2012. Don’t look now, but I think I might smell a sleeper hit for this holiday season.