The inability to switch off between players was one of the few drawbacks of an otherwise rollicking NBA Jam revival last year. It required some clunky manipulation of your starting lineup and defense, for those who actually played it, often left a man open as you instinctively swarmed to the guy your CPU partner was guarding.
I'm glad to report that NBA Jam: On Fire Edition, available now on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Marketplace, lets you switch off between players, which may seem like a simple thing, but it opens the game up tremendously. On Fire Edition also has very seamless and sensible auto-switching, in the case of blocks or steals performed by a CPU teammate. That on top of a new leveling system and a retooled campaign mode makes this, as many are wont to call it, the Jam we called for.
NBA Jam of 2010 was not a bad game. I had a hell of a lot of fun with it. I also got it for free, as a reviewer. The game's problem is that its Xbox 360 and PS3 version was supposed to be an add-on, riding shotgun with NBA Elite 11 as a free download. Had Elite actually released we might have had different expectations of Jam. Unfortunately, when the simulation title collapsed at the last minute, Jam was pressed into duty as EA Sports' retail basketball offering—at $50. It was a good game, but not eye-popping enough to make that $50 seem like enough of a value.
NBA Jam: On Fire Edition comes in at $15 on both consoles' download services and there's plenty of value to be had in here. Gone is the Remix Tour, which featured some crazy alternate game modes that failed to generate much enthusiasm. On Fire Edition offers a more conventional singleplayer and multiplayer experience, sewed together with an experience-point system that encourages you to keep playing, and to play online, for bigger payouts. With these J-dollars or jambuxx or whatever, you'll buy perks, secret teams and other cool shit to enhance your Jam-i-tation. You can also get everything (or what appears to be everything) up front in a DLC offering for another $5 but, really, please don't do that. You'd wipe out a natural incentive to keep playing.
When you throw down, you'll get a deeper starting roster to choose from for your two-man crew. On court, the control system is fundamentally the same, except that your A/X now switches your player. Another big friend is your L1/left bumper, which calls for the CPU teammate to shove someone (both offense and defense) or try for a block/steal. Considerate use of L1/bumper will get you on some amazing runs, especially against weaker teams or lower-level challenges.
Other add-ons include a "Team On Fire" mode which bathes you both in a glowing blue fire if you combine for three consecutive alley-oops. It's not that hard to pull off, given how oop-happy the game is. (You trigger one with the R1/bumper and most of the time it is automatic). While in team-on-fire, that's when you'll want to try the razzle-dazzle options, which involve holding down both triggers. Razzle-dazzle and X/square (or the right thumbstick) will engage a trick shot when your man has the ball. Both triggers and B/circle will make him punk the other guy (doing a dance, more or less). On defense, a razzle-dazzle shove pushes the other guy to the ground with one finger. (To which Tim Kitzrow, back as the bombastic Jam announcer, will often say "Pull my finger!")
Razzle-dazzle moves are high-risk and high reward (in spectacle) but should be reserved for when you are on fire or on breakaways. Otherwise, you're begging to get shoved to the ground or get your shit packed five rows into the stands. On the whole, they add a lot of flavor, and experimentation is definitely encouraged.
The new game modes aren't as flamboyant as the Remix Tour but the game doesn't need them to be. "Road Trip" replaces the tour mode from last year's version and, rather than forcing you to play as one team against opponents from a fixed schedule, you may pick and choose both who you play with and who you play against. Opposing teams have bronze, silver and gold-level challenges (and beyond) that unlock as you beat their prerequisites, and you can plow through an entire team's challenges wholesale or flit across the country collecting bronzes and silvers. I appreciated having this level of choice placed in my hands.
"Online Arena" replaces the original's multiplayer mode and it adds a session-like timer during which a series of challenges are offered (like, dunk on fire three times in a game or something) with high stakes payouts for completing them. So in addition to playing a live human online, you get a big bonus for doing things in that game whether you win or not.
The net effect is with the Jam currency, you unlock legends and mascots and crazy teams (like Honey Badgers, of all things) on an a la carte basis instead of making them rewards for completing single tasks only. It's another courtesy extended to the committed player.
If I have a gameplay criticism, it's that the game is very easy to alley-oop to death, both against the CPU and online opponents. It's quite the security blanket and you'll see human opponents go to it when they just want to win. Even calling for your teammate to go airborne and finishing the job yourself is sometimes enough of a diversion against either type of opponent.
My other criticism may come from the fact I'm still relatively low-level. But there is a perceptible rubber-banding of AI when I play against the computer, and even when I played against a human opponent of similar rank. Midway through the second quarter my players will get off on a CPU-assisted shoving spree, like the game is willing me to get On Fire. If I have two straight scores with one player, I can almost feel the game kicking the other guy's ass just to give me the third so I can see the basket start burning. I haven't gone deep enough to know if this is more than a rookie assist, but I wasn't happy to see it against human competition.
But when I was On Fire, I played it for all it's worth. I stomped Derrick Rose and the Bulls with the San Antonio Spurs, tossing alley-oop passes between Tim Duncan and Tony Parker like lovers feeding each other grapes. I made Andrew Bogut gargle Kevin Durant's balls. That's what this game is all about, and that's what we get: Wildass over-the-top basketball that is just as satisfying in defeat as it is in victory.