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Preview: NBA Jam: On Fire Edition
Whether they’re basketball fans or not, the majority of folks I’ve run into have fond memories of playing NBA JAM back in the day. Those same people were pretty excited for the series’ reincarnation last year. They were hoping for that old school, kick-back-on-the-couch-with-some-friends feeling while playing some downright silly arcade hoops — with even sillier play-by-play.
Last year’s JAM met those expectations, at least in my experience with it on Xbox 360 and iOS. My problem with it was the fact that gamers have since evolved. Sure, the gameplay was solid, but most people don’t gather around the couch anymore for multiplayer. They sit at their individual couches and jump on Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. And that’s one of the challenges EA Vancouver will try to address with this year’s NBA JAM: On Fire Edition, which will hit PSN (Oct. 4) and the Xbox Live Arcade (Oct. 5) next week:
“We never want it to feel like you’re alone,” said Cody Sawatsky, a producer for On Fire Edition, in an interview with Gamertag Radio. “Even when you’re playing by yourself, you’re going to feel connected.”
And that’s where JAMnet comes into play. At its most basic, it’s an integrated system of leaderboards. It’s also On Fire Edition‘s way of ensuring you’ll always feel like you’re competing against your friends — even when those friends are offline.
So say it’s 3 a.m., and your only friend online at the moment is playing Yu-Gi-Oh, like he always is for some reason. You log onto On Fire Edition and start a single player match with the Lakers. But before tipoff, you pause the game to take a look at JAMnet. You notice one of your NBA JAM buddies had previously played against the Lakers that evening, whooping their behinds by 20 points. I can do better, you think to yourself. You proceed to the opening tip with that goal in mind: beating the Lakers by more than 20 to prove to your buddy, even by not necessarily playing against him or her, that you’re the better JAM baller.
It’s a notion seen in several recent multiplayer-heavy games, the most recent I can think of being Gears of War 3, which even gives you pop-ups during gameplay to compare your stats against your friends’. It’s surely a nice way to, as Sawatsky said, make you “feel connected,” even when none of your friends are online. You’ll see how far they’ve progressed, their achievements, their medals. Sawatsky compared it to the leaderboard system in Geometry Wars.
Of course, JAMnet isn’t the only enhancement you’ll notice in On Fire Edition. First, EA made some additions by subtraction: You won’t find any of those annoying, nontraditional NBA JAM game modes. Gone is that ridiculous half-court, one-on-one game mode and its frustrating “boss” battles and powerups.
“In last year’s JAM, we dabbled with things people didn’t necessarily care for in a JAM game,” said Sawatsky. “So we got rid of those game modes and went deeper on our standard ’2v2′ ball.”
While I wouldn’t say On Fire Edition’s refinements are “deep,” it looks like at least one of them in particular will add a bit more style and flare to the game. That enhancement is Razzle Dazzle, which will kick the street bally, trash talky nature of the game up a few notches. With Razzle Dazzle, there are more ways to add insult to injury on your opponent aside from continuously throwing down flaming basketballs at his or her face. Imagine Jason Kidd dribbling at the top of the key; his Mavs are up by double digits. So to pour salt in that wound, he puts the rock down on the hardwood and proceeds to do the Dougie. He picks the ball back up, then swishes a granny shot from three-point land. That’s gotta hurt someone’s self-esteem, doesn’t it? And that’s Razzle Dazzle. Sure, Kidd’s defender could’ve taken that moment in which Kidd was dancing and knocked the veteran point guard over, taking the ball away and ruining his Dougie dance. But that’s what it’s all about in games like this: taking that risk, hopefully pulling it off, and feeling extremely rewarded.
“We were playing JAM a lot online, but we weren’t using headsets,” said Sawatsky, pointing out the obvious: No talking means no trash talk. “We wanted to find a way to get that element onto the court. And that’s what Razzle Dazzle is about.”
You’ll do the Dougie, put the ball down and take a step away from it, or take a jumper with your eyes closed. Pull it off, and it’s probably a lot worse to your opponent than running smack into your headset.
Razzle Dazzle is just some visual flare, though. What’s going to enhance gameplay?
Well, you’ll finally be able to tag between your two players on the fly. (Don’t worry, Sawatsky confirmed you can turn this feature off if you’re a JAM purist.) EA also restructured the shooting mechanics, which will hopefully mean less air balls when you take a wide open jumpshot with sharpshooters like Kevin Durant and Ray Allen. The computer AI also got an upgrade — to an advanced version of Fight Night‘s Real AI system.
This Real AI system records thousands of gameplay sequences, including your own play sequences, then filters the successful ones to the top of a list of behaviors, and leaves the unsuccessful ones for the bottom of that list. Of course, the AI will also recognize where certain players are on the court and how much time is left in the game.
“It makes it kind of a best-of-the-best of what you’ve done int he game,” said Sawatsky. “It’s a constantly evolving difficulty level. We’ll even combine it with the friends you play online.”
Meeting their three goals
It looks like NBA JAM: On Fire Edition is definitely headed in the right direction. In the end, it’s a very simple, but fun and addictive, experience. That’s why some gamers voiced displeasure with the console versions’ $50 price tag last year. EA heard those voices, so goal number one for the team at Vancouver was to get On Fire Edition a $15 price tag — but not sacrifice the full JAM experience. Check.
The team’s next goal was to improve gameplay. They kept that arcade feel intact of course, but listened to fans who wanted tag mode in and the half-court mode out. Real AI will also make playing solo a lot more challenging from the sound of it. Don’t forget the improved shooting mechanics and the addition of Razzle Dazzle.
Finally, EA Vancouver’s third goal was to make the game’s overall experience deeper, and that’s what JAMnet is for. If you’re one for leaderboards and the constant back-and-forth competition they inspire, then On Fire Edition might be the JAM you have the most trouble putting down.
Of course, we won’t know for sure how On Fire will fare until next week and we get our hands in on some NBA streetball action. Oh, and don’t forget about the usual political party secret characters.
“The dunk animation we have for Sarah Palin is amazing,” said Sawatsky.