While I always do my best to keep an open mind about the games I see, I’ll admit I went into my NBA Baller Beats demo feeling, on the whole, rather cynical. As far as genre mashups go, “basketball rhythm” seemed about as viable as “open-world cooking” or “survival horror flight sim.” Throw in some general Kinect malaise—I still haven’t fully recovered from Steel Battalion‘s atrocities—and you can see why I was a tad bit skeptical about seeing Baller Beats in action for the first time. After going hands on, however, nearly all of my doubts about the game had been put at ease.
For the uninitiated, Baller Beats is an unlikely hybrid of Dance Central and real-world basketball drills. The game takes the standard rhythm gameplay—a scrolling list of moves that you have perform in time to music—and throws a basketball into the mix. In addition to bouncing the ball to the beat, you’re also tasked with performing a variety of showier tricks, including crossovers, dribbling between your legs, and pantomimed passes. The higher the difficulty level, the larger and more advanced the stable of tricks you’ll have to master. In theory, it sounds a little silly, but after trying it firsthand, I was surprised at how addictive the experience was and how distinctly different it felt from anything else in the genre.
Even the sometimes wonky Kinect held its own, tracking both my body and the basketball about as well as you could ask for. There was a bit of the standard lag between your actions and the response onscreen, but the game appeared to do a solid job compensating. While the visuals still looked a little floaty, in the one area it really matters, gameplay, that latency seemed to have been stamped out entirely, so I never felt like the limitations of the hardware were holding back my performance.
Of course, no rhythm game would be complete without a solid soundtrack, and Baller Beats features a selection of music that’s equal parts catchy and eclectic. With songs from such diverse artists as Skrillex, Queen, and Wiz Khalifa, odds are good you’ll find something that’s right up your alley, and if not, there are already plans to release future track packs as DLC, Rock Band style.
Plus, Baller Beats is just damn good exercise. After just a couple of songs, I’d already broken a healthy, borderline embarrassing sweat. Granted, I might not be the best poster child for physical fitness, but there’s no denying that the game gets you up and moving, and unlike so many other exercise titles out there, it never really feels like work. What’s more, the game does a fairly amazing job of getting you to practice core basketball skills under the guise of mere fun. After playing just a couple of songs, my ball handling ability improved from “abysmal” to “slightly less abysmal.” I don’t expect the Lakers to come knocking down my door anytime soon, but I could really see Baller Beats catching on in P.E. classes or youth basketball camps as a way to make drills more enjoyable.
Now, remember when I said that nearly all my doubts about the game had been put at ease? My single biggest concern—how anyone will actually manage to play it—wasn’t, at least not entirely. Not only will Baller Beats require slightly more play space than your average Kinect game, you’ll also a surface that gives the ball adequate bounce. My demo took place on relatively thin carpet, and while it was 100 percent playable, the added effort required to keep the ball going was definitely noticeable. You’ll really need hardwood or concrete floors if you want the absolute optimal experience.
The one major assurance here is that I’m told that you’ll be able to use just about any ball to play the game and that the official website will even feature a list of suggested alternatives post-launch. I imagine subbing in something with a bit more bounce—say, a dodgeball—would work out well for most setups, but I’ll have to reserve judgment until I get a chance to try it out in the wild.