STAFF REVIEW of NBA Baller Beats (Xbox 360)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012.
by Matt Paligaru

NBA Baller Beats Box art Majesco have been outside-the-box thinkers since the Kinect came out, publishing imaginative titles like Twister and Hulk Hogan's Main Event that sort of take them away from the industry norm realm of console and stylus gaming. Now they're taking it to another level with NBA Baller Beats.

Baller Beats is a rhythm based Kinect game that defies all the rules your mother set for you growing up. I remember getting lectured about the dangers of playing ball in the house, even when it was YoYo Ball, or when I was trying to teach my younger cousins how to dribble a miniature basketball that couldn't damage a balsa wood and marshmallow structure. Perhaps it was with good measure. I have the basketballing coordination of a fish trying to catch an electric eel, so needless to say, my mother's lectures were probably in the best interest of her valuables. Baller Beats is a game that requires you to keep the pace of a musical beat (on a highway-style track) with the use of a basketball. Those without one? Not to worry - Majesco has teamed with Spalding and the game comes with a fullsize ball free of charge.

A music game is really only as good as its soundtrack, and thankfully, this game's isn't half bad, featuring the likes of Wiz Khalifa, Janelle Monae, Interpol, and about 20 other bands that aren't the usual suspects you see in these games. Thankfully, for the benefit of people born in the first half of 80s such as myself, they are joined by the likes of Queen, Young MC, and Run DMC. Sports game mainstay Santigold even makes an appearance. Santigold's music appears in so many music and sports games now that if you factor in her music sales with games too, she must easily be one of the highest selling artists of the last decade.

The game poses some interesting challenges mechanically that I, and one of my fellow reviewers (Adam Dileva) were wondering about prior to review:

Firstly, my 2nd floor living room (where my XBox is) is carpeted AND has rugs in places (I have cats and anybody with cats will agree that rugs are sometimes necessity over option when their fight each other with their claws,) neither of which doesn't always guarantee great success when bouncing a ball.

Second: The carpet must absorb the shock of the bouncing motion, and I wonder if that would reverberate at all and cause my XBox to skip, or my Kinect to misalign? Granted, we've evolved past the point where anti-skip technology is less a feature and more a requirement, so I don't believe that to be an issue. Obviously, if throngs of people running in their living room playing Dance Dance Revolution didn't cause skipping effects, this shouldn't either.

The game reminds you early on to lock down your valuables, and to stand at least 6 feet away from your TV. One of the drawbacks of this game is that you need a really big space to play. You need a lot of clear space to your left and right, and I did find the game was telling me I was too close even though I was more than 8 feet away from my Kinect.

Besides that, perhaps the most valuable thing this game offers is that there's zero learning curve to get going. You don't even need to watch the tutorials. There isn't hours of cutscenes or storymodes to wade through. If you know how to operate a Kinect, that's the most difficult thing required before you start bouncing the ball. You can realistically rip the packaging off and be playing inside of 5 minutes. It doesn't get much easier than that. Of course, maintaining rhythm is a different thing altogether.

Playing on easy incorporates some very basic playground basketball. In essence, you dribble on one side, single crossover dribbles, and do head fakes while maintaining your dribble. If you can dribble the ball with either hand, that's really all you need, and can move onto the tougher levels.

Once there, the tougher levels attempt to ease you into some of the more difficult maneuvers out there. You have to start crossing the ball back and forth in the same motion, and then fake passing. That's about the extent of my skill level when it comes to dribbling.

However, if you've been attached at the hip to a basketball from a young age, the harder levels are definitely where you want to be. The game coerces you to mix your dribbles up at varying speeds, while attempting to pass to yourself behind your back, or do left to right reverse or forward crossovers in addition to adding jumps to the head fakes. The soundtrack for this game is perfect, and keeps you in line the entire time, shaking and sweating all the while. You can also do this solo or versus an opponent, however, that's really it. There are limited gameplay modes, which is expected with a Kinect title, however, if you are into the subject matter, your interest isn't likely to fade after an hour or two like other Kinect titles.

But there's the noise factor. Obviously, bouncing a basketball won't seem that noisy to you, but if you aren't playing in the basement, there is somebody below you hearing that reverberation. If you live in an apartment building or most strata properties - ditto. There's no easy way to muffle the noise without compromising gameplay, unfortunately. I was looking for some alternates to the basketball given how much noise it made, however, Majesco was very quick to mention during previews that you could not fool the Kinect and this is true. While measuring your rhythm, the Kinect measures which hand you are dribbling with, and making sure you are doing the right type of combo maneuvers between dribbles. I tried a child size bouncy ball, as well as an inflated ball smaller than a typical size size 7 basketball, and neither worked. Anything larger and lighter (like a beach ball,) unfortunately, means that you cannot maintain necessary rhythm to succeed (not to mention how ridiculous you'd look trying to bounce a beach ball between your legs.)

What this all boils down to: NBA Baller Beats is a really fun game, but the element of danger is always there. Logic, and the laws of physics dictate that you may be due for an accident sooner than later, so obviously, be careful when you're playing the game. No matter how coordinated you may be, you're due to make a slip-up, especially when you get into the expert levels. Jayson Williams was a decent passer in his time, but even he fired a basketball into the 12th row every couple games. This is a game that, a decade ago would have been one of the most popular and best money making games in arcade history. Unfortunately, the death of the modern arcade has made it so that this type of title can't thrive the way it needs to, however, if Majesco wants to try out the arcade market, this could be a huge title.

Those living in carpeted living rooms dedicated to perfecting their Baller Beats skills will probably wish to invest $20 in a makeshift section of hardwood floor to play on. The flat surface allows the Kinect to track the ball and motions much better, and obviously, give you better control of the ball.

Why does NBA Baller Beats succeed, and do what it does so well? So often, motion games feel almost like a chore. Playing Dance Central makes me feel like I'm working and exerting a lot of energy for little reward. Kinect Sports has given me that feeling as well. However, Baller Beats never feels arduous and never stops being fun. Even with my grade school basketball skills, it was hard to wipe the smile off my face, even when the basketball would hit my feet and bounce away or I'd cross the ball over into my foot. I feel comfortable in saying Baller Beats will probably one of the more underappreciated games of the 2012 Holiday Season, as the basic premise may be enough to scare most parents away from buying it for their kids. However, for those of you seeking a challenge, and unafraid to take a little bit of a risk, it's worth giving a shot. Just remember that ultimately, the game may teach you to become a bit of a better dribbler in time, however, it only goes so far as your skill level takes you. The difference between this, and most other standup motion rhythm games (like most of Konami's Bemani series, most Dance games and even Rock Band) is that you could slowly warm yourself into higher difficulties and eventually be able to do them. With Baller Beats, you're limited to your real world basketball skills. Some people will never have the coordination it takes to be able to do between the legs crossovers, or dribble behind their back. Ergo, you may never truly be able to tackle this game on its hardest difficulties.

For what it's worth, Baller Beats is a fun title that will offer you a bit of a workout in passing. If you're game to the challenge, give it a spin. It's not for everybody, but you may find its for you.

Overall: 7.5 / 10
Gameplay: 7.5 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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