"This game is in the refrigerator!" -- Chick Hearn
As a kid I was never very good at basketball. Despite the fact that I was an excellent wide receiver, a talented goalkeeper, a good first baseman and even a decent golfer, I couldn't win a game of HORSE to save my life. With painful memories of school-yard failures still intact, I approached NBA Action '98 with a bit of caution.
The outside of the box certainly didn't help matters. In fact, it was downright menacing: "All 29 NBA teams & over 340 players"; "Big name signature moves"; "Players rated across 18 different categories by real NBA scouts." It was enough to make me slightly sick to my stomach. How would I compete?
Quite well, thanks! Surprisingly, the elegance of the controls and ease with which one can learn this basketball simulation is one of its greatest strengths. After only two games of regulation twelve minute quarters, my pre-pubescent syndrome was history -- not only could I sink every layup, not only did I lose count of my slam dunks, not only was I making hooks and three pointers all over the court, but I was executing precision alley-oops with Dennis Rodman throwing me the fire!
Now you careful readers probably noticed that I used the word "simulation," and you may think that this word could not possibly jibe with Sega's well-deserved arcade reputation and my too-quickly-acquired talents. But believe me, this is as real as it gets on the PC; though unpolished in almost every respect (graphics, sound, interface), no other hoops title comes close to the authentic motion-captured player animations and believable artificial intelligence you'll find in NBA Action 9'8.
It all starts with convincingly modeled teams that behave and perform like their real-world counterparts. In addition to height and weight, each player is individually ranked for basic abilities and skills. Dennis Rodman, for example, has high strength and rebound scores and low steal and three-point scores. This means that when you first begin playing, it's pretty easy to snag rebounds and muscle your way through a jam when controlling Rodman, but near impossible to make interceptions or long shots. As your own skill improves, however, you'll eventually be able to reach the level at which the infamous Bulls Forward is capable of performing. This player-ranked skill system makes learning much easier since you can start by controlling an outstanding team like the Bulls or the Lakers. After a few games, you can increase the challenge by upping the difficulty settings and controlling lower ranked teams.
While this sort of stat-based modeling is common to most sports games, the unique thing about NBA Action 98 is that you can actually see it working. Unlike most arcade-style basketball sims, you won't be able to continually charge the basket and dominate the game with one player (NBA Jam Extreme), nor will you or the computer commonly rack up scores in the high hundreds (NBA Full Court Press) and finally, your offense won't always run roughshod over the defense (NBA Live '98). Instead, you'll learn that passing and patience is crucial and that exploiting each player's strengths and weaknesses is the key to success. Even better, at the highest difficulty level it is hard to win unless you combine gamepad reflexes with intelligent play-calling (surprising but true, this is a first for basketball games) and except for the unexplainable omission of illegal defense fouls, NBA Action '98 forces you to play by the rules: no charging, no reaching in, no goal-tending, and the shot clock is always ticking.
Despite the addictive gameplay, easy control and strong AI, NBA Action 98 has a ton of faults, mainly because the game was ported from a console. Though the motion-captured moves are very convincing, there are no 3D accelerated graphics here, so visually it doesn't touch the super-slick EA product. Pre-game music is below average and the overall sound quality quite poor (again trailing far behind EA). Don't think the list stops there: stat displays are minimal and you can't print them out; the menu interface and manual are typical-Sega -- awkward, clumsy and, in some places downright maddening; Chick Hearn's play-by-play is almost always on-time and accurate, but it's also lackluster and too repetitive; nowhere is there a description of the too few plays available, so you've got to figure out how they work on your own; free throws are impossibly hard to make and you can't practice them in the practice mode; the FMV half-time show and the opening movie are hideously grainy; after-point throw-ins seem scripted and collision detection needs some work; finally, the player editor is entirely useless since you can neither modify the pros nor create players good enough to compete against the best teams. In short, if you're looking for a slick presentation, you won't find it here.
In the competitive world of software publishing, sports titles are an especially deadly kind of game to produce. If word gets around that one company clearly makes the better product, every savvy quarterback, pitcher, point guard and goalie buys the best, and only the best. With today's game prices, that's just reality. It's also a damn shame. Why? Because that means that a truly solid game like Sega's NBA Action 98 will probably go unnoticed next to the flashy and stunning production that is Electronic Arts' NBA Live 98. Even if EA's game is all beauty (3Dfx texture mapped faces) and short on brains (shoddy AI), NBA Live '98 still has to be considered the reigning champ of PC basketball. However, with a little more work on the AI and a lot more work on everything else, it's not to hard to imagine Sega dethroning Electronic Arts in next year's sports roundup. Let's hope Sega will step up to the challenge of turning a strong console port into the fabulous PC game it surely could be.