I wish I was a little bit taller…
Now, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I’m about 90 to 95% certain that within two years, I’ll be the starting center for the L.A. Lakers. I know that sounds a bit ridiculous given my 5’10” stature and my doughy, decidedly unathletic build, but I’ve got a secret weapon at my disposal: a little basketball rhythm game by the name of NBA Baller Beats.
In the brief span of time I spent playing the game for review, my ball handling skills went from “uncoordinated second-grader” to “marginally coordinated third-grader,” and I fully expect them to continue improving at that blistering pace. While the gameplay basics are exactly what you’d expect—you dribble the ball in time to music, perform flashier skill moves like crossovers and faux jump shots, and earn a score multiplier for keeping a combo going—it’s downright surprising how many real-world benefits there are to playing this game. Apart from the obvious basketball skills and general eye-hand coordination, it’s a shockingly excellent way to put in some cardio while still having fun.
The 30-song soundtrack features a surprising amount of diversity, with a selection that spans everything from classic rock to modern hip hop. Odds are good you’ll find something you like on here, and if not, more tracks will be made available as DLC in the coming months. While you’re able to play every song and all three difficulty levels right from the get-go, the game does offer a sense of progression thanks to its interesting take on the standard star ranking system. Rather than merely using them as a way to see how well you did on a given song, Baller Beats actually allows you to keep the stars you earn and then use them to unlock in-game collectibles. These range from team-specific balls and background dec0rations to virtual trading cards, but if you’re like me, you’ll end up dumping just about everything you collect into the lengthier, more challenging cuts of the songs on the soundtrack.
There’s also a competitive multiplayer mode that allows for up to 8 players to go head-to-head. Sadly, that doesn’t mean you and seven of your friends get to squeeze into a five foot space in front of your couch and dribble simultaneously. Instead, you’ll take turns playing through 30-second segments of the song swapping in and out on the fly. The constant back and forth really ups the competitive tension, as the game shows you exactly how much ground you have to make up to pull into the lead. It’s a great deal of goofy fun, and exactly the sort of thing you’d want to roll out at parties for a little communal embarrassment.
Still, Baller Beats does suffer from a handful of less-than-baller flaws, the most notable of which are the limitations it places on your setup. If you’ve got carpet with a medium to high pile, you’ll have a ridiculously difficult time actually powering the ball through enough to get it to come back up to you. Playing in my living room was basically impossible, since the added effort made making it through a single song frustrating and exhausting. I faired better at the EGM offices on thinner carpet, but your mileage with the game will certainly vary quite a bit depending on your play space.
Fortunately, the game doesn’t limit you to just using the basketball. The game will allegedly work with any similarly sized, colored ball, and I was able to get it working with one of those basic red dodgeballs we all recall so fondly from the days of elementary gym class. If the added bounce of a kickball or a dodgeball can compensate for the dampening effect of your carpet, you’ll still be able to play just fine—though your in-game skills might not translate quite as fluidly to the court as a result.
The other major detraction from the experience is the slight bit of lag that unavoidably accompanies Kinect controls. If you wave the ball back in front of you, you’ll notice that its onscreen counterpart lags behind by a half-second or so. It’s not a major inconvenience by any stretch of the imagination, as there appears to be some clever lag compensation going on—especially in the basic dribbles, which track pretty much perfectly—but some of the crossover skill moves won’t register when it looks and feels like you’ve completed them within the allotted window.
Still, I couldn’t help but walk away from my time with NBA Baller Beats feeling unexpectedly impressed with the overall experience. Not only does the game succeed at delivering a novel and addictive take on the rhythm genre, it’s one of the rare cases where there are tangible, real-world advantages to playing. This is easily one the best Kinect games out there. If you’re looking for a game that’ll get you sweating without ever feeling like a chore, you could do a whole lot worse than Baller Beats.
SUMMARY: The concept might seem a bit gimmicky at first glance, but Baller Beats is a well made, respectable peripheral-driven rhythm game in the tradition of Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero. Some technical limitations keep the game from outright greatness, but there’s a lot of fun—and real world benefits—to be had here.
- THE GOOD: A surprisingly enjoyable and innovative rhythm game…
- THE BAD: …that you might need to tear up your carpet to play.
- THE UGLY: The horrendous pit stains I get after playing a few songs.
NBA Baller Beats is an Xbox 360 exclusive.