NBA Jam: On Fire Edition hands-on preview

Releasing “super” versions of last year’s hit games is starting to become something of a tradition in the industry. But EA Canada may have just perfected the formula. NBA Jam: On Fire Edition takes the much-loved Jam of 2010, adds new players and teams, new moves, better AI, and a deeper unlocking system and puts it all in a tidy downloadable package for $15 on PSN and XBLA.

How much could NBA Jam really improve? As a Jam player in the past, I have to admit, I too was skeptical. But some new controls and other tweaks make for a better experience. The big improvements include being able to switch between players on the court (though there is a slight lag to switching), calling for alley-oops and shoves from your AI teammate, Team Fire, and what EA Canada likes to call “Razzle Dazzle!!” I like to call it “Razzle Dazzle, Baby!!” but I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

If you’re a seasoned Jam vet, then you know that if you make three shots in a row with the same player without your opponent scoring, you catch fire and get massive skill boosts and cool flames on your shots. That’s back, but added is Team Fire, which ignites after three consecutive alley-oops. Both teammates are now on fire for 20 full seconds. That’s a powerful advantage than can only be broken if the opposing team scores an alley-oop.

As for the Razzle and the Dazzle, it’s a fun piece of flair added to shoves, shots, dunks, and dekes. Hold down both triggers and press the appropriate action button and you’ll pull off a taunt-filled move worthy of Razzle Dazzle’s two exclamation points. What’s worse than having Jason Kidd swipe the ball from LeBron as the final seconds of the fourth quarter tick down? Having Kidd then drop to the floor and toss up a stylish trick shot while on his bum for the game-winning three pointer. Even in NBA Jam, LeBron gets no respect.

Though these changes might sound like visual boosts and small changes, they end up adding depth to a game famous for having no depth. You can do a little more and have a little more fun. Razzle Dazzle!! upped the smack talk in my one-on-one match from 90% to 99% — which means I breathed 1% of the match and talked trash the rest of the time.

Perhaps the most significant change is one you’ll only notice when playing solo. For the lone wolfs out there, the AI in last year’s Jam was pretty dumb. It could suck and get beat down for three quarters, but was designed to snap back and lay a challenge in the end in pretty much every match. It made progressing through the single-player campaign mind-numbing after a while. Your mind will no longer be numb with the On Fire Edition. EA Canada recorded themselves playing thousands of gameplay situations, which the AI actually uses during the game. In other words, when you play, every action from the AI is a developer pulling off the moves.

This comes into play in the deep career progression system. There’s a ton to unlock in On Fire through Jam Challenges. I was pretty shocked to see how much is available — including a Team EA with Faith from Mirror’s Edge and Isaac from Dead Space. The challenges have four tiers (bronze to diamond), getting progressively harder, but more rewarding as you go. Challenges are things like recording a certain number of blocks in your career. The diamond level is where things get a little nuts. Remember how, just a paragraph ago, I told you that the AI you play against is actually recordings of the developers playing? Well, for diamond level challenges, the AI is (wait for it) you. That’s right, the game records your actions through all your playthroughs and when you reach diamond, you battle yourself. NBA Jam just got existential, kid!

EA Canada’s goal with NBA Jam: On Fire Edition seems to be to out-crazy 2010’s NBA Jam. Personally, I thought last year’s Jam was a little shallow, and a little too much like its arcade original. The On Fire Edition has me excited. This is the real Jam update I was waiting for.

Sep 28, 2011

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