I’ve never had to wish I was a little bit taller, or a baller. I am those things. I’m no gaming expert, but I do have a rabbit in a hat with a bat and a ’64 Impala. So when I visited my esteemed gaming colleagues Darren and Adam yesterday at E3 and happened upon a steel cage containing a peaceful, lonely-looking man in generic workout gear who was earnestly practicing some basic dribbling skills with a real basketball in front of a colorful screen featuring confetti, I knew I had found “my people.” That guy would probably be good at recapping reality TV, I thought. We were practically the same person. I walked in.
The Game: NBA Baller Beats, on Kinect for Xbox 360, is basically a practice drill set to music. You choose the song (out of 30) and the level (out of… three?!), but there are only a few moves in the whole game: right-handed dribbling, left-handed dribbling, crossover, through-the-legs, behind-the-back, and a “pump fake” (one of my favorite terms of all time). The moves flow down a “lane” in the center of the screen, so NBA Baller Beats is like Guitar Hero combined with Dance Central… but with a Spalding. (Available September 2012.)
What We Played: Over-confident in my skills as a former varsity baller (big whoop, Barrett) (#54), I went in with the idea that if I was going to play something in a cage at a gaming convention, I wanted the chance to either tepidly succeed or wildly crash and burn. I asked to try “Baller,” the highest level. The demo guy, whom I’ll call Coach, kindly allowed me to play “Pro,” the second-highest. I kept trying to match the bounce of the actual ball to the visual of the on-screen ball hitting the ground — that’s wrong; you want to complete the move before it bottoms out. Duh. I’m a moron. But I know this: Once I mastered the timing, I am 100 percent confident I could totally “ace” this game. Which probably makes it a failure.
Action shot! What a ****ing BALLER.[/caption]
The Good: I can see coaches encouraging kids to use this in their parents’ expensive, parquet-floored homes as a supplement to the basic drills they use during practice. Young “ballers” would definitely benefit from the gaming experience because you have to look at the screen the whole time. If dribbling isn’t second-nature to you yet, you’re kind of screwed. I had fun because 1) I could do the moves fairly well already, and 2) the idea that I was earning ***tinkling, twinkling coins*** for running drills that no one had ever rewarded me for doing in the past was absolutely thrilling. For people who don’t care about “getting good at basketball” or re-proving to themselves that they know how to dribble, this game seems useless.
I will say that after I walked away from the cage, I was so revved up — and glistening, I might add, like a sweating horse — that I almost ditched Adam to go back and play again and “do it right.” I could see myself playing this for hours (ALONE though), just because I’ve never won a videogame before and I think this honestly might be my only shot in life to do so. But once I beat it, I’d never use it again, and I might even come to despise basketball in the process. That’d be a shame, because it’s not even really basketball! It’s Basketball Hero.
NEXT: The Bad, and an awkward appeal to Coach for some ‘reverse pivot action’
The Not-So-Good: How is this an indoor game? If you played it in an apartment, dorm, or any sort of shared space, every other resident would want to murder you. Not to mention, if you rolled onto a real-life b-ball court with this pansy set of moves, you might legit get killed. I couldn’t believe that the dribbling drill was the whole game. No one will want to sit around watching their friends either excel or fail at this, so it can’t possibly work as a social thing (as advertised in the trailer below).
So if it’s intended as an instructional tool — the box says “REAL BALL. REAL SKILLS. RAISE YOUR GAME.” — there’s so much more they could do with it. Why not go all-out and offer levels for basic ball-handling (around-the-waist, figure eights, “pounding the ball”) or defensive footwork? Oh wow, I was being serious just now, but those levels might sound even more boring, minus the pounding. They could even throw the Crab Walk in there. Agh! Imagine a basketball crab walk while drunk at a party. (It’s a bad idea.)
Anyway, I was sort of stunned that this was it. I lamely asked Coach if there would be any “reverse pivot action” in a higher level. EW’s Adam B. (not Basketball) Vary was laughing at me, not with me. “What about, I don’t know, like… a lead-up to a baby hook?” I followed up, really pushing the limits of my imagination. “A hook? What do you mean?” Coach asked. “Where’s the hoop?”
Exactly. Where’s the hoop?
Excitement Level: Eh. It felt good to exercise, but once the adrenaline was flowing, I just wanted to go big or go home, you know? I saw a lane on-screen and I wanted to DRIVE THAT LANE. I wanted to b-e a-g-g-r-e-s-s-i-v-e and go play one-on-one against some nerd (Adam, for example) on a real court with a hoop. Following the rules of NBA Baller Beats was like being trapped inside a boring b-ball camp with some decent tunes. But it’s, like, the camp director’s crappy old boom box from the ’90s, and he keeps pressing play on his “Greatest Hits 2011” mix tape, and you just want to get out of there and hit the caf for unlimited fruit punch.
Verdict: GO OUTSIDE.