NBA Baller Beats (Xbox 360 Kinect)
Developer: HB Studios
Release date: Sept. 11, 2012
To some, NBA Baller Beats may look like the most gimmicky game ever. And it sort of is. But in a roundabout way, it also lives up to the original vision of Xbox 360's controller-free Kinect peripheral.
When Kinect was finally unveiled at E3 a few years ago, Microsoft introduced it with a video that showed, among other ridiculous things, Kinect futuristically scanning in a real skateboard and turning it into part of the game experience.
By tracking a real basketball in (and out of) your hands, NBA Baller Beats has finally delivered on that promise, and it even comes packaged with a real Spalding ball. For a niche audience of ballers, it's going to prove to be Kinect's killer app.
It really will make you better
Let's get this out of the way: I am not good at basketball. But after playing NBA Baller Beats for just a few hours, I could consistently dribble with my off-hand for the first time ever.
Like any rhythm-based game, you'll have to be able to keep a beat. But dribbling a real basketball in time with the music isn't like playing on a plastic guitar. It's the real deal.
The game doesn't ask what your dominant hand is, and you're going to be challenged no matter what difficulty you choose to play on. Even on "rookie," you'll be confronted with rather intricate beats and through-the-legs moves. It's an incredible workout, and surprisingly fun.
NBA Baller Beats doesn't just make you dribble in boring 4/4 time and call it a day. Depending on the difficulty, you'll be passing the ball forward and backward between your legs, behind your back and in front of you; you'll be fake-passing from side to side, flow dribbling and jumping up in the air with the ball above your head.
The scoring system works such that the special moves tie combos together, and on harder difficulties you'll be confronted with strings of moves that will send the ball flying every which way. If you're terrible (like me), these will prove quite an obstacle. But practice makes perfect, and after a few hours I began to see a massive improvement in my own game.
Kinect has never been better
The reason NBA Baller Beats works so well is that Kinect has never been better. HB Studios have somehow done the impossible and made the camera peripheral work consistently—it hardly missed a beat during all my time with the game.
And seeing that old promise of Kinect tracking real-world objects come to life is actually pretty incredible. In one corner, the game displays what Kinect is seeing, and it really knows where the ball is at all times. There's no tricking it; if you do a forward between-the-legs when Baller Beats wants you to do a backward one, Kinect knows.
That said, NBA Baller Beatsis best played outdoors, for obvious reasons. If it's too much work to drag your TV and Xbox into the backyard, basement or garage when you want to play, you'd better have some tough floors—and nothing breakable around.
The soundtrack is eclectic enough to appeal to anyone. Interpol and Yeasayer nab the indie crowd; Justice and Chromeo satisfy electronic fans; Lady Gaga, Cee-Lo and LMFAO have pop covered; Skrillex, Common, B.o.B., Gorillaz, Queen—the list goes on.
Each track comes in a pared-down version that you'll play most of the time and a full version you can unlock with points earned from playing. And each song has a totally different dribble-map on each difficulty, so jumping from rookie to pro and up to baller on the same track feels like playing three different songs.
Learning the ropes
If it all seems like too much, there's a helpful tutorial narrated by none other than two-time NBA champ Kenny Smith (check out our interview with Smith about his role as the game's brand ambassador here).
The tutorial walks you through the scoring system and some basic moves, then drops you into the move school, which lets you practice individual maneuvers at a variety of speeds to your heart's content.
Aside from some interface problems (the moves are only actually explained on the loading screen, meaning you have to back out to the main menu and start over again every time you want to switch moves), the tutorial is a perfect intro to the game's mechanics and quirks.
The absence of actual head-to-head multiplayer is regrettable, but understandable. Kinect is finicky enough in most games; the fact that it works so well in NBA Baller Beats feels like a miracle, and there's literally no way it could stay so consistent if it had to track two players and two balls at once.
But there is a sort of back-and-forth multiplayer mode where up to eight players compete by taking turns playing the same sections and having their scores compared at the end, not unlike a virtual game of H-O-R-S-E. It's not ideal, but it isn't bad.
What you see is what you get
There's little fluff in NBA Baller Beats. There's no campaign or career mode. Once the tutorial is over and you're satisfied that you know what the symbols for the different special moves are, you'll hop right into the song list and you won't look back. There are three difficulties and 30 songs, and that's pretty much it.
The "locker room" contains knick-knacks and cosmetic alterations to unlock, like balls and player cards for every NBA team, but only the obsessive-compulsive or bored will feel the need to visit here.
NBA Baller Beats is a game about dribbling a basketball. If that sounds like a good idea to you, then you'll probably love it. Most importantly, it works nearly flawlessly. And there's not much more to say.