Protecting the rock.
After four years as the undisputed king of the video game court, Visual Concepts' 2K basketball series finally got some real competition in last year's NBA Live 2003. The old standby got its act together with revamped graphics and innovative control, a long-awaited upgrade that continued in this year's solid NBA Live 2004.
So how would 2K respond? Would it shy away from change and stick with what it knows best " namely, outstanding graphics and hardcore simulation gameplay " or take the hint and rework its somewhat limited control?
Like any good ballplayer, the new ESPN NBA Basketball has accepted the challenge and matches Live shot for shot, in many ways shaking EA's series out of its shoes with a cool new mode and much better graphics. But several niggling flaws keep this contender from holding on to the crown, resulting in the first tie-game in NBA history.
It's not a tie when it comes to the look, however. ESPN NBA Basketball outshines the competition with some of the best graphics in any sports game to date. The ESPN branding is everywhere, resulting in pretty menus and a slick front end. Out on the court, expect the best facial-modeling ever. Every player on every team, not just the superstars, look amazingly lifelike. You'll know at a glance who every guy is without having to see their jersey. In fact, this is the first game I'm aware of that actually nails down some specific free-throw shooting styles like Karl Malone's bounce and twirl or Jason Kidd's kiss to the basket.
Like last year's NBA 2K3, players glisten with sweat as the game progresses. The courts are accurate, the framerate blazes and the animations are really cool. Both systems perform well, though the Xbox is cleaner than the PS2. If looks alone determined success, this would be no contest.
But Sam Cassell will quickly point out that looks don't count for much; thankfully, ESPN Basketball has the gameplay to back it up'almost.
In response to EA's lauded Freestyle mode, ESPN offers IsoMotion, which essentially works the same way: you move the right analog stick to pull off a series of juke moves. The animations look great, but the moves are canned and can take a while to complete. You press right hoping to give a quick crossover, but instead sit back and watch your guy dribble between his legs, around his back and spin towards the basket. It's just too much and makes it hard to string together moves. IsoMotion also often results in a charge, especially at the higher difficulty settings, so you wind up not using it much in real games.
However, IsoMotion moves do have defensive stoppers, turning man on man defense into a sort of timing and guessing game. Get it right and you'll steal the ball; get it wrong and you might catch the back of your opponent's head as he flies past you to the hoop. It's a cool idea that adds tension.
For the most part, ESPN is a slower game than NBA Live, focusing more on half-court execution than fast breaking. Some new pass types such as fake passes and the handy lead pass are welcome. However, someone forgot to include real playbooks, instead only allowing you four offensive plays that are identical to every team. It's lame, especially since you kind of need those to free up your men from the often tight defense.
Rebounding is also an issue. Unless you micromanage your big men, you'll watch in horror as they routinely fail to box out even the smallest guards. You can solve that by doing the dirty work yourself, but that can be more of a chore than anything else.
At least you can fix this and other flaws by tweaking just about every option possible, but the change between Pro and All-Star difficulties is huge, so don't bite off more than you can chew.
Lucky for us there's more to chew on than just the typical game. Several modes of play are here, including typical Season, Exhibition, Street and Practice modes along with a bigger Franchise mode and the innovative 24/7 mode.
Franchise here beats NBA Live's in terms of depth, easy. Not only can you play GM by signing, trading and managing salary caps, but you can even hire and fire coaches, trainers, and scouts. They all have an affect on your team " a better trainer results in fewer injuries and quicker healing, while a better scout will give up more info on prospects. You can also control multiple teams simultaneously, though anyone with that kind of time should probably get off the couch and go to the gym every once in a while. At any rate, Franchise is handled very well and should satisfy basketball nerds.
In the past, b-ball gamers would spend most of their time in Franchise, but ESPN's new 24/7 mode will definitely change that. It's sort of a cross between Animal Crossing, Seaman and a sports game, if you can believe it, and it's pretty sweet.
You start by creating a character, then you set about watching your little weed of a newbie grow into a hulking forest of a player. You do this by upping your rating through playing in a variety of matches against NBA players, often one on one, or by bulking out your attributes in Training sessions. As you win matches, you gain items to make your guy look cooler.
The trick is that the mode works with your system clock. The available match types change by the hour and your player's stats will deteriorate over time if you don't play with him. It's like a basketball Tamagotchi who never poops. It's also pretty addictive, and you might well find yourself putzing around here instead of trying to win the title in the other modes.
There are some problems, though. The items you unlock don't change your stats or anything, which is a shame because it could have added some great depth. Plus, the separate Training sessions are the only way to increase your stats; you just gain 'rating' points (which unlock higher level match types) in the normal matches. It would have been much better if you gained stats by playing, period, as it's irritating that you can only upgrade your 3-point shot by sinking shots in one game, while in another the 10 you made in a row count for zip.
And that 3-pointer comes in really, really handy. You can basically dominate any player so long as you can sink the three-ball because the A.I. isn't half as good here as in the five-on-five modes. Players bite constantly on pump fakes. I shut out the 99-rated Clyde Drexler with my weak scrub in a "Historic' match type just by faking and draining shots.
But in the long run, 24/7 mode is a good addition that gives you much more bang for the buck. You'll flip back and forth between your Franchise and 24/7 often, leading to a more varied game than anything else on the market.
I wish the sound had as much variety. Tom Tolbert and Kevin Frasier call the shots, and while I love Tolbert in real-life, he's gratingly repetitive in the game. The effects are decent, mostly just squeaky sneakers, and the hop-hop soundtrack is fine if that's your bag.
And as always, playing with a friend is a great way to solve the AI dilemmas. Both versions are online as well, one-upping EA's PS2 online-only obsession.
With its excellent graphics and myriad game modes, ESPN NBA Basketball is a good, strong title. The gameplay quirks like rebounding difficulty and the canned animations are there and can be frustrating, but are easily overlooked when you take in the big picture. It holds its own in the paint.