Passing its prime.
Few developers have dominated an entire genre like EA Sports has dominated simulation basketball. With roots dating back to 1990's Genesis release of Lakers vs. Celtics, the NBA Live series has simply ruled the market for a decade. The only recent challenge has come from 989 Sports' Shootout games, but after a promising start, that series was promptly boxed out, elbowed in the face and sent sprawling to the floor.
So when you think about PS2 basketball, you'll likely immediately focus on NBA Live 2001. Comparatively this is a good thing, since 989's Shootout 2001 is about as fun as inflating a basketball using your nostrils. But aside from a few tweaks, the latest installment in the Live series plays it a little too safe.
This is essentially a port of the PSX version, which itself was mainly just an upgrade of NBA Live 2000, which in turn was just an upgrade of NBA Live 1999, etc, etc, etc. Frankly, the series has made very few changes since NBA Live 98, which is both a good and bad thing.
The basics are all here and accounted for. Every player and team in the league is present with the current rosters. You can play an Exhibition game, romp through a full Season, jump straight to the Playoffs or practice moves in One-on-One. Same old meat and potatoes.
Sadly, that includes the graphics. While NBA Live 2001 for the PS2 is hardly shabby-looking, it certainly isn't the galactic leap many of us wished it would be. The courts and crowd looks good, but the players don't look nearly enough like their real-life counterparts and the motion-captured movements are often too jerky. It really looks more like a souped-up version of the PSX game rather than the fancy PS2 smorgasbord we saw in Madden 2001.
There's a very silly intro sequence at the start of every game that's meant to mimic the player introductions found in the real world. But rather than make these team specific, you just get the starting five hopping around slapping hands, looking distinctly unathletic. Uh, yay team?
The Live series has always been known for its emphasis on realistic gameplay, and here it doesn't let down. The game feels genuinely good and players tend to play the "right" way (meaning it's hard to score a million points with a scrub). As always, scores are often inflated if you play the full 12 minute quarters, but that's nothing new. The game is fun and fast-paced and occasionally looks a helluva lot like the real thing.
The control is generally decent. Players will find plenty of moves to practice, from up-and-under post moves to stutter steps and spins. Unfortunately, someone forgot to add the option to disable that aggravating 'player momentum' that has plagued the NBA Live games for years. There's nothing worse than passing to a guy who's walking towards the sidelines only to have him do the electric slide out of bounds right when he catches the pass.
There are four difficulty settings, but the computer doesn't so much play better as make more shots. The defense is usually just a guy standing in front of you who never succumbs to your jukes and spins, often leading to the offensive charge. This gets aggravating at times, but admittedly helps keep the AI feeling aggressive.
One-on-One mode has improved due to the graphical increase - you can actually tell the legends apart from one another. However, it still boils down to jump shots and rebounds. You can indeed play as Michael Jordan as well as a slew of past superstars, though the differences are minimal since no one has any signature moves. I really wish they just switched to an NBA Jam engine for this part already.
As usual, the announcers offer little to help or hinder the experience. At times the play-by-play is seamless and really works well, but the color commentary is repetitive and dumb. In a strange twist, the music kicks ass. In addition to the catchy Montell Jordan theme, a few tracks have funkster Bootsie Collins laying down heavy grooves. I actually didn't mind pausing the game.
Loading the game, however, is painful. Anyone out there expecting little to no load times simply because this is the PS2 should prepare to sit on their ass watching their expectations shatter. The load times aren't a smidgen better than PSX games.
In the end, NBA Live 2001 is a solid if unspectacular start for EA Sports' next-gen hoops. Fans of the series will be genuinely pleased. But compared to what Visual Concepts is doing with the NBA 2K games, Live has a long way to go before it makes it to the Finals.