Having spent almost two weeks playing NBA Jam: On Fire Edition and posting some preliminary impressions in the NLSC Forum, I’m ready to give my full review of the game. Being a fan of NBA Jam from back in the day, I was intrigued by the idea of Real AI from the very first time it was mentioned in previews, wondering just what impact it could have on the game. I was also keen to see what the game had to offer in terms of its new modes, Road Trip and the Online Arena. With enhanced gameplay, new game modes, more legends, more special teams and players and better online functionality, the question is: does NBA Jam: On Fire Edition live up to the hype?
The short answer…yes. The long answer…well, read on.
First of all, I’d like to quickly glance back to last year’s game. In my opinion, the reboot of NBA Jam was a solid title that suffered a little from misunderstandings and bad PR with the cancellation of NBA Elite 11, which was to originally a feature a stripped down version of Jam. The game was a faithful recreation of the original title that was so popular in arcades as well as on home consoles and PC, on the whole delivering a familiar but fun arcade basketball experience with today’s players along with a few legends and special characters. All in all, I thought it was a very good game.
However, being such a faithful reboot of the original game had its drawbacks. While NBA Jam was a very popular game and carried a lot of nostalgia, recreating the original game so precisely meant that last year’s game was a little too familiar. Even with the addition of the Remix Tour, the game wasn’t as innovative as it perhaps could have been and there were some issues with online play to boot. Aping the original series so accurately also transplanted a couple of issues that have plagued pretty much all arcade oriented basketball titles: repetitive gameplay and rubberband AI. You know how it goes: knock down the opponent, run up and dunk or shoot a three, rinse and repeat. To counter that, the AI will at some point stop playing fair and mount an unlikely comeback to make things competitive again.
This is where NBA Jam: On Fire Edition shows the most improvement, which really sets it apart from last year’s game and the originals. The Real AI? It works.
While you may still find yourself blowing the CPU out on the easiest difficulty setting, you’ll still notice the AI get smarter as it learns your tactics, discovers what works and begins to employ better strategy against you. As you crank up the difficulty and play some of the tougher games in Road Trip – which provide their own increases in difficulty – you’ll find that the game gives you a really good challenge. This makes it a lot more fun to play through lengthy game modes, since it’s not a string of blowouts that all go down pretty much the same way. You have to change it up and bring your A game for the harder challenges. In fact, the platinum challenges in Road Trip are downright brutal; I won’t spoil the surprise but it’s a really cool idea and it should even give Jam veterans a run for their money.
There are still a couple of cheap moments here and there when you’re playing gold challenges in Road Trip or up the difficulty setting, with the CPU sometimes being a little too good at blocking shots, knocking you down and stealing the ball. Your CPU controlled teammate will also still have the occasional lapse in logic, which isn’t as much of an issue this year since Tag Mode allows you to switch players on the fly but it does throw a spanner in the works every now and again. For the most part though, the challenge is coming from the game’s evolving AI and the rubberband comeback logic is gone completely, so I’d say the implementation of Real AI has been a success.
The only other real complaint I have about the gameplay is that there’s still no incentive to sub unless you created a poor matchup with your selections upon beginning a game. I would’ve liked to have seen injury levels as in NBA Jam: Tournament Edition, which affected your player’s performance and running speed the more times they hit the floor. While the individual challenges in Road Trip do change things up with different lineups, they still don’t make substitutions during the game. Substitutions can come into play in online and local multiplayer games but if everyone is using their chosen player effectively and the matchups are working, most of the time you’ll be using the same four players the entire game.
Razzle Dazzle moves are another new addition to gameplay this year. In addition to rubbing salt in the wound when you’re facing a human opponent, they’re fun to pull off against the CPU as well and help break up the monotony when you do have a big lead…or are going through the motions when you’re getting blown out. There’s a bunch of crazy shots you can attempt (just wait until you make a backwards three from full court, between your legs), some fancy dribbling moves and you can even poke players instead of shoving them, which is pretty funny.
On the whole, NBA Jam: OFE really delivers in the gameplay department with greatly improved AI tech and variety in the form of Razzle Dazzle moves. Tag Mode and Team Fire make a welcome return, enhancing user control and offering another power-up option you can use to your advantage. You can also now pivot, call for your teammate to shove/make a steal or go up for an alley-oop. Oh yeah, and there’s some really awesome-looking new dunks. That always helps.
As an arcade game, Jam’s atmosphere doesn’t exactly require in-depth, realistic presentation like you might expect from a sim title, but this year’s game does feature some welcome improvements to the presentation. There’s a new match-up screen that’s displayed before tipoff featuring the selected players from both teams, some nice transition screens during gameplay and selected highlights playing behind the stats overlays during halftime and after the game. It’s nothing too fancy, but they’re nice touches and a step up from last year.
The highlight of the game’s presentation, as always, is Tim Kitzrow’s commentary. He’s got some great new lines this year in addition to some that have carried over from last year and while you do end up hearing a lot of them quite often, every so often you’ll discover a new one that you’ve never heard before. One of my favourites is the Charlie Sheen reference on spin moves (“Spinning! Duh!”) and they’ve also included a few that are a little more adult. There’s nothing inappropriate of course, but a few of them have made me chuckle.
I’ve mentioned Road Trip a few times already but it’s worth talking about in greater detail. It’s kind of a mix between Classic Campaign and the Remix Tour from last year, with elements of the old tournament ladder from the original games thrown in. Gone are the boss battles, which were fun but at times very cheap and annoying. As you play through the mode, completing challenges for each team, you’re able to select a new team for each match-up if you wish which is a very welcome change from Classic Campaign last year. Being locked to the same team for over 30 games in a Classic Campaign could make things stale, so that was an excellent move for Road Trip.
There are a lot of games to play through in Road Trip and with the new Real AI in effect, along with some rather tough challenges, it’s a mode you’ll enjoy spending time in to get unlockables; more on that in a moment. Some of the challenges retain elements of the Remix Tour with altered rules such as live ball (no inbounds after baskets, the ball is always in play), single quarter games, games where dunks count for extra points and so on. It’s a good combination of the elements that worked in the game modes of previous NBA Jam games, rolled into one enjoyable career mode that supports multiplayer, offline and online.
Speaking of multiplayer, online support for NBA Jam: On Fire Edition is hugely improved. Last year, it was often difficult to find opponents, disconnections were a problem and there was a lot of lag. This year, you should have no trouble getting online and playing. There’s still occasional lag when four players on four different consoles are in on the action but it’s still very playable, way better than last year in my experience. I’ve also only had two disconnections and both times I’m pretty sure it was a ragequit by my opponent, so the online issues that plagued last year’s game appear to have been resolved.
The Online Arena provides a weekly ladder tournament which allows players to rank up and earn Jam Bucks for completing certain objectives. The ladder resets every Wednesday, so latecomers needn’t worry about being unable to have a shot at being one of the top ranked players. It’s a well-executed idea and in addition to earning Jam Bucks through completing certain challenges, you’re also rewarded for being a good sport and finishing a game, win or lose. Combined with the improved stability, the Arena makes online play in NBA Jam: On Fire Edition a viable option and it’s probably where much of the replay value will be. I’m still more of an offline gamer myself, but I’ve had some very fun online games so far.
As I mentioned, both Road Trip and the Arena allow you to earn Jam Bucks, which are used to purchase unlockable content from the Jam Store. I have mixed feelings about this approach in video games as I find you’re often tired of the game by the time you’ve unlocked everything, but the game is pretty generous with the Jam Bucks and as long as you’ve got enough of them, you can buy anything you want at any given time so it’s up to you when you unlock a certain legend, gameplay privilege, special ball or whatever. If you bought last year’s game and have a save file on your hard drive, you’ll also get 15,000 Jam Bucks right off the bat, along with an immediate level up to Level 10.
Completing the specific Jam Challenges in Road Trip and Arena is the fastest way to earn Jam Bucks but because you’ll get a token amount of them simply for playing games – win or lose, though needless to say you earn more for winning – you’ll probably be able to unlock the things you’re most interested in fairly quickly. For those who’d rather not wait, there’s already downloadable content available that grants access to a decent amount of the unlockables immediately. For the rest of us, it shouldn’t take too long and I would suggest that you’ll be able to check out most of what you’d like to see before you feel like putting the game down for a while.
Finally, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition will feature roster updates but those won’t come until the NBA lockout is over. However, the system is in place and it will be interesting to see if anything is done beyond player movement, such as the addition of new players and legends. It’s also possible that there’ll be further downloadable content, though EA Sports has not offered any confirmation of that as yet.
In my opinion, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition has more than lived up to the hype. Last year’s game had a few shortcomings and there’s still room for improvement if they continue the Jam brand with future releases, such as the addition of creation modes and injury levels. However, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition is an outstanding arcade basketball game. The classic NBA Jam gameplay is there but the addition of Real AI has made it even better, more challenging and avoided the pitfalls of repetitive gameplay, limited strategy and frustrating comeback logic that were present in previous releases.
I’ve seen a couple of folks call it the best NBA Jam game ever and while that’s a bold claim, I think I might be inclined to agree. With enhanced gameplay, robust game modes, dependable online support, roster updates (pending a resolution to the NBA lockout) and some cool unlockables, NBA Jam: On Fire Edition makes a pretty strong case for that honour. It’s also excellent value for money at 1200 Microsoft Points on Xbox Live or $15 through the PlayStation Network if you’re a PS3 user. If you enjoy arcade basketball games, I would definitely recommend picking it up.