Thursday, May 31, 2007

FreeStyle Street Basketball Review

FreeStyle Street Basketball, developed by JC Entertainment and published by Sierra Online.
The Good: Simple controls, joining games is very easy, segregation of experience levels means you won’t be terribly outmatched (at least early on), minimal system requirements, free play up to mid-levels and no monthly fees, items grant minimal bonuses that won’t skew games too much, subdued music during games
The Not So Good: New skills don't unlock gradually, low resolution graphics, no in-game gamepad support, some players online are completely retarded, lag can be a slight problem
What say you? Easy to pick up and quite addictive, this online basketball RPG works very well: 7/8

It’s clear that massively multiplayer online games are very popular. From Everquest to World of Warcraft, nerds from across the world with too much time on their hands enter digital worlds and pretend to be wizards and elves. I can see why they are so appealing. Most MMO games are fantasy-based, taking place in a far-off land full of the aforementioned wizards and elves. There hasn’t been a sports-themed MMO game (at least that I’ve heard of), so straight outta Korea comes FreeStyle Street Basketball. The Koreans know a thing or two about obessive computer gaming, so hopefully this title will fill the sports gaming MMO void.

FreeStyle Street Basketball features some low resolution graphics, but the game has good style. The game advertises that it has low system requirements, which makes the game more accessible, but results in a more pixilated experience on larger monitors. Still, the game looks pretty good at glorious 800x600 due to the stylized cell shading in the game. FreeStyle Street Basketball looks like a cartoon and this fits the over-the-top gameplay. The level of detail on each character is good, and once people outfit their players with different clothes, the game’s variety in appearances comes through. There aren’t many special effects in the game that aren’t directly tied to shooting the ball (like dynamic backgrounds), but FreeStyle Street Basketball is designed to run on pretty much any computer you throw at it. The soundtrack is one of the highlights of the game, as FreeStyle Street Basketball features a good selection of songs from some renowned artists I have never heard of (but I’m sure others have). The best thing about the music is that it becomes restrained during each game and instrumental music plays in the background, never blaring over the on-screen action. Each character has some canned sayings (triggered by using a number key) that get repetitive pretty quickly. The sound contributes to the setting of the game well. FreeStyle Street Basketball holds up well despite the fact that it doesn’t feature cutting-edge effects.

In FreeStyle Street Basketball, you guide a player’s career on the street, playing games against human opponents online, gaining experience and increasing your stats. Although it is a MMO game, FreeStyle Street Basketball doesn’t have a monthly subscription fee: it uses a similar model to War Rock through optional payments. Playing up to level 15 (about halfway) is completely free; if you want to advance further to the Pro level, you must pay a one-time fee of $20 (still very reasonable). You can also purchase clothing and training using in-game bills (3000 bills cost $10); these provide small bonuses to your character’s ratings, but are by no means a requirement to be competitive. This fee model makes FreeStyle Street Basketball much more appealing for casual players and more accessible to a larger audience, and I think this is the way that MMOs are heading in the future.

The first thing you’ll need to do is make your character. There are a limited number of body, skin, and hair types (around four for each sex), but people will start to look different when users start buying clothes. You’ll need to choose from three court positions: guards (good at passing and three pointers), centers (good at dunks and rebounds), and forwards (jack of all trades). At level 16, you’ll be able to specialize as a shooting or point guard, or a power or small forward. All of these positions are fun to play: guards steal the ball and launch threes, centers rebound and dunk, and forwards hit mid-range jump shots. Of course, it takes a while for stupid people to realize this, so you'll experience centers shooting threes, guards trying for rebounds, and other nonsensical activity in the lower-level servers. Your attributes are automatically determined by your position and your height (taller players are slower but better at rebounding). I like this choice since it avoids exploits in assigning character points: you won’t encounter anyone with a perfect three-point rating. The game is divided into different lobbies that are separated according to level (1-3 only, 4-6, et cetera). There is one room for everyone, but most of the lobbies will only have players close to yours in terms of skill levels. This is great as you’ll never be up against high-level people who will “pwn” you because they have played longer and subsequently have better stats. In a lot of MMO games, people are artificially separated as they explore new territory, but there’s nothing specific in those games preventing high-level characters from obliterating low-level n00bs. Of course, this all changes when you pass level 16 and enter the pro servers, where you'll encounter Asian players who have been playing the game for many months and are much better than you. Well, it was fun while it lasted. Before you join a game, you can engage in practice (we're talking about practice, man. How silly is that?) through the tutorial, a free training mode with no opponents, and entertaining mini-games that provide little tasks to complete. The real action is, of course, against other players, and you can play in one-on-one, two-on-two, or three-on-three games. I personally favor two-player teams, as three-on-three games can get hectic and laggy and one-on-one games amplify some of the cheap exploits present in the game. There is some lag involved in the game as well, since the servers are peer-to-peer. Joining a match is very easy: there is a quick join button that instantly puts you in an open room with essentially no search time. You can also manually select a team to join, or create your own room. If you regularly play with others in organized activity, you can create a password-protected team to let in only those players you desire.

As I mentioned earlier, you can purchase various items for your character. The first of these is a line of generic and branded clothing, most of which have a small attribute bonus. None of these bonuses make too much of a difference, though, so players with more cash on hand won’t dominate the games. Some items require you to spend points (earned by playing games), others bills (bought with real cash), or let you choose one or the other. You can also gift items to other players (say, new people in your squad) if you’d like. In addition to clothes, you can purchase new skills and moves to use during games. Instantaneous training sessions permanently increase a specific attribute (usually one point) and freestyle moves and skills enhance existing moves (like better steals and quicker jump shots) or add new moves (like through passes and diving catches). You can only equip a limited number of skills and moves at a time, so rich players that plunk down a lot of money to unlock everything won’t be at a great advantage.

The actual gameplay of FreeStyle Street Basketball is streamlined and easy to learn, but still allows you to perform advanced moves at higher levels. Movement is done with the arrow keys and our good friends W, A, S, and D each perform an action: W screens or faces up an opponent, A performs an action dribble or defends a shot, S passes or steals, and D shoots, blocks, and rebounds. And that’s it, other than some special keys for some of the skills. You can’t bind any commands in the game to a gamepad, though, unless you use the software for the gamepad to emulate the different keys used in the game. It takes a little bit to remember which key does which (evident by the poor performance of first-time players), but you’ll get the hang of it eventually. The important thing to remember is to play to your position: centers should not be launching threes, and having guards rebound is a bad idea. There is a good amount of timing required to successfully block and rebound shots, although there is no timing element for shooting (you don’t need to be at the top of your jump to be accurate). FreeStyle Street Basketball is not really that extreme or unrealistic, at least when you have a beginning character, and playing the game is very intuitive and quite fun. Playing with people who know their roles makes for a satisfying game, and close contests are the norm since the servers are level-restricted. FreeStyle Street Basketball is just as fun at level 1 than level 35, so creating a new character in a different position is rewarding and not repetitive. The new skills and moves are not unlocked gradually: the come at regular intervals, starting at level 10. This means the gap between level 9 and level 10 players is much larger than a level 9 and a level 8, since level 10 players can equip several new moves and freestyles. I'm not sure of the reasoning behind this and I would much rather have the game give you one additional unlock possibility (from a list) every two levels or so instead of all of them at once. Leveling up happens pretty quickly (especially if you use tattoos for an experience bonus), and it occurs whether you win or not. You can get just as many experience points grabbing rebounds or assists than scoring a lot; this is wonderful since all positions have an equal chance of advancing in rank. The games in FreeStyle Street Basketball are also very short (about five minutes), so contests don’t drag on forever and you rarely have people drop in the middle of a match. There are some small exploits people have found while playing the game, but FreeStyle Street Basketball is still very fun to play; since it’s easy to join a game and matches are quick to finish, you can play for half an hour and still get meaningful experience.

It’s no wonder this game is popular in Korea: FreeStyle Street Basketball is a well-executed and entertaining MMO game. The fees are minimal and mostly optional, joining a game is completely painless, and the matches are short enough where the game doesn’t become monotonous. FreeStyle Street Basketball is a fun game from level 1 to level 16 as the competition will always be there due to the separated servers, although the action at the higher pro levels can become skewed. Learning the game is very straightforward, and once you have the controls down, using the various strategies in the game against human competition is quite pleasing. There are some “hidden” moves to discover, but browsing the game’s official forums will unlock most of the secrets. I don't even really like basketball, but FreeStyle Street Basketball is fun to play, and if you get tired of it, you don’t need to worry about wasting a monthly fee. FreeStyle Street Basketball shows how a casual MMO should be made: the optional fee structure, simple gameplay, and ease-of-use make for a very delightful game.