The biggest addition to the latest edition of the NBA Street series is the inclusion of the Beastie Boys as players. Why them, and not some other hip-hop outfit? The Beastie Boys started out as a trio of white boys who converted their obnoxious novelty punk band into an even more obnoxious novelty rap group. Now, though, they’re among the grand old men of hip-hop, with legions of fans hanging on their every paean to Brooklyn or confab with the Dalai Lama. Their MTV Video Vanguard award was presented by none other than Chuck D, a rapper with no shortage of cred himself. Somewhere along the way, they crossed over from being a prank to being the real thing. Similarly, NBA Street V3 is about more than just playing basketball; it’s about playing with the idea of authenticity, of what it means to be real.
Unlike some of the newer entries in EA Big’s Street library (NFL Street, FIFA Street, etc.), NBA Street is rooted in a real-life phenomenon. Walking by the park or flipping the dial past ESPN2 on any given day, you’re liable to see skinny kids dribbling circles around each other, letting off no-look passes, and throwing down sick dunks. Streetball comes with its own questions of authenticity and authority: some basketball fans decry it as pointless showboating perpetrated by clowns who don’t know the first thing about team sport; streetball’s fans will tell you it represents the true soul of the game, that it’s the basketball equivalent of freestyle rap or improv jazz. Toronto Raptors guard Rafer Alston is in many ways emblematic of this conflict: as Skip to My Lou, he was a legend on the playground, but since “graduating” to the NBA, he’s bounced around the league, alternating between “mature” and “selfish” play, unable to shake the image of the streetballer as an aspiring solo artist.
Alston is, of course, playable in NBA Street V3, as are a host of other pro players from the present and past, all modeled in great detail and looking almost — but not quite — like their real-life counterparts. Because this is a streetball game and not an NBA simulation, however, tricky moves that would get you thrown out of a pro game are not only encouraged, but required. In fact, in an era of ever more sophisticated sports sims, with their GM modes and intricate defensive schemes, NBA Street is refreshingly straightforward: once you figure out which buttons pass, shoot, steal, and block the ball, you’re pretty much ready to roll. Pulling off tricks isn’t much more difficult: simply wiggling the right joystick causes good things to happen. It’s very easy to look very good playing this game, making it more of a fantasy than a simulation.
Since the gameplay is so fantastic — outlandish even by streetball standards — other elements of the game must seem more real in order to maintain the game’s credibility, to make the fantasy seem concrete rather than purely imaginary. The players’ faces are supported by the voice of hip-hop “renaissance man” Bobbito Garcia on play-by-play. Garcia’s commentary, as in any sports video game, gets repetitive if you play for long enough, but his enthusiasm is undeniably infectious as he taunts, cheers, and even serenades the on-screen players (it puts Madden’s soporific mumbling to shame). Even when he drops corny jokes and malapropisms, Garcia’s constant patter is welcome; actually, these slips are some of the best parts of the commentary, giving it an improvised feel that makes the whole affair seem a little more live and a lot less canned.
The other voice of NBA Street V3 is that of Rich Medina, who provides a spoken-word introduction for each of the game’s courts. These courts are, naturally, based on real-life streetball destinations: Rucker Park, Venice Beach, even Brighton Beach in England. As Medina quietly waxes poetic about each venue, the camera pans dramatically — perhaps even worshipfully — across the hardwood and the rims. These courts are not just levels in a game, they’re hallowed ground, where the likes of Stephon Marbury learned to play.
Then there are the shoes. Even before Spike Lee explained the real source of Michael Jordan’s abilities to the world, shoes were an integral part of the game and its style. NBA Street V3 not only allows you to construct a custom player with a wide range of tweakable body and facial features, it allows you to create a custom pair of brand-name kicks for him or her (you can create a female player, but there are no WNBA players in the game; perhaps one of these days they’ll get around to letting us play out a Katie Smith-Betty Lennox showdown). Sadly, while you can unlock old-school NBA players like George Gervin and Spudd Webb, you can’t unlock old-school shoes like the Chuck Taylor All Stars or the original Air Jordans.
The problem with all the unlockable bonuses and customizable features is that they require a lot of hard work to earn. Playing the game, pulling off fancy moves, and throwing down big dunks earn you reputation points, which you then cash in to gain access to a player or a different style of headband. You can also use reputation points to increase the skill level of your custom player, making him or her a better ball-handler or a stronger shot-blocker. Suddenly, playing the game isn’t about slick moves and roundball poetry, it’s about juggling stats and maximizing earnings.
This wouldn’t be half as annoying if everything weren’t so expensive. Having to play for hours and hours to get your stats built up and the goodies you want unlocked makes it more obvious that the game’s arcade-like simplicity also implies an arcade-like lack of depth. Every game boils down to pulling off tricks until you can make a “Gamebreaker” dunk, which piles on enough bonus points to put the match out of your opponent’s reach. The first few dozen times you do this, it’s a huge rush, but eventually it gets really old. What should be a great game for picking up, playing for a few minutes, and putting down again becomes a grind and a chore.
It’s a shame that the game exposes its weaknesses through forced repetition in this way, because it comes frighteningly close to transcending its own artificiality. What NBA Street V3 lacks in realism, it makes up for in style, garnering credibility — a patina of authenticity — by immersing the player not in the action of streetball, but in its culture and style. At the end of the day, though, would-be ballers might be better served by going down to the park and working on their crossover dribble.