It's alive... ALIVE!
You can't overestimate the value of veterans. Take Barry Bonds, an 18 year vet more feared as a hitter now than when he was a youngster. Or Michael Jordan, who for years was considered just a one-man show and not the incredible team player he eventually became. Words like 'agile' and 'explosive' are replaced by 'cagey' and 'hardened,' and awards like 'MVP' and 'Nicest Shoes' are replaced by championship rings. Age before beauty, right?
Right... except when it comes to basketball video gaming over the past 4 years. The EA Sports' NBA Live series is the seasoned veteran, having effectively been around since Lakers Vs. Celtics back in 1990. But the upstarts behind Sega's NBA 2K series took the rings and banners and have held them firmly for several years, while NBA Live suffered from very minor updates year-in, year-out. This vet wasn't cagey. It was just caged.
I guess all those lukewarm reviews served as a wake-up call, because after what seems like a decade, we finally have a good NBA Live game to enjoy. NBA Live 2003 features a completely redone graphics engine, some cool new control innovations and solid gameplay, putting this old-timer back into the spotlight. It might not have the power to dunk over the Shaq-like NBA 2K3, but it definitely makes the playoffs.
Whereas NBA 2K3 strives to be a very specific basketball simulation, NBA Live 2003 opts for more of a mix between arcade and simulation. The gameplay is much faster, both in terms of actual speed and loading between plays. This is a quick, uptempo game.
And for the most part, a fun one. NBA Live 2003's emphasis on speed and smoothness really comes out thanks to pretty solid gameplay mechanics. You'll find all the typical elements on the offensive side of the ball, including icon passing options, playcalling, an assortment of post moves, and intuitive shooting. But perhaps the coolest feature of all is the brand new Freestyle control scheme.
Typically, you have a juke button and a spin button, which wind up performing different functions depending on the player, the position and the speed. These are both present, but you have another option - use the right analog stick to control dribbling moves for finer movement. Want to step back? Just press Down on the stick. Want to switch hands and drive right? Easy peasy.
To be frank, after using the Freestyle control, you sort of wonder why this wasn't there the whole time. Though I also like using the right stick for passing, like in NBA 2K3 and NBA Shootout 2003, it's just hard to go back to that control scheme after Freestyle. When you combine the right-stick, the juke button and the spin button, you get an offensive game that actually makes you feel like you're in control of a player's actions. Hats off to EA on that one.
Unfortunately, Freestyle control doesn't really carry over into defense, where it really just functions as an alternate steal button. Maybe more on that next year.
And while they're fixing that, I hope the gang at EA does something about defense in general. Blocked shots are far too common on every difficulty setting - I managed to land 8 guys on my roster in the top ten in Blocked Shots, playing on All-Star difficulty. Ooof. Steals are also common - particularly on the harder settings, where almost any errant pass gets picked.
What this all amounts to is a generally up-tempo affair. Fast breaks are constant and result in a high-scoring game. I average around 135 points a game on 8 minute quarters, which is a little too much.
But whether you're scoring or getting scored on, NBA Live 2003 does what few of its past iterations have managed to do - look good. This one was obviously built for the next-generation machines. The character models look very good, particularly the faces, which are more expressive than the ones in NBA 2K3. Animations flow into one another really nicely; you'll rarely watch guys take ridiculous looking shots from different parts of the court. The framerate is pretty steady, though it can chug a little when there's a lot of action. Some anti-aliasing problems are also evident, but all in all, this is a good-looking game and a massive improvement over the last few NBA Live visual debacles.
Sadly, though, the nice looks are marred by a poor choice of camera angles. Inexplicably, you cannot play the game from a horizontal view (often called the 'Press' or 'Wire' camera). Instead, it's either a far away 'Press Box' camera, the behind-the-back cam (which gives poor depth perception) or a number of up-close and personal cameras that make for great screenshots and difficult gameplay. You can tweak it so that it becomes pretty playable, but what gives?
The music is as urban as it gets, featuring rap and hip hop exclusively. The sound effects are handled well, but the commentators have to go. They get too excited too early and lie constantly. No, I don't have the other team on their heels because I'm up by 6 in the 2nd quarter. No, Robert Horry is not one of the 'best free throw shooters in the league'. Sigh.
Though the whole game has been rebuilt, you'll find the same typical game modes. You can play in an Exhibition game or try your hand at a full Season. There's also a Practice mode and a somewhat useless 1 on 1 mode, which just isn't a lot of fun.
The game's depth is found in Franchise mode. Spanning 10 seasons, it doesn't hold up to the intricate and much more thorough one in NBA 2K3, though it gets the job done. Full signing, trading and salary cap management are here, along with all the ubiquitous stat categories and whatnot. The CPU tends to be pretty aggressive in terms of trading. You'll get offers pretty frequently, and a glance at the 'NBA News' will show a monstrous amount of trading going on throughout the league.
NBA Live 2003 for the PS2 is the only version optimized for online play, which makes sense since the other consoles aren't technically running yet. The game plays fine online, though the lag is evident when playing against a 56k user.
After such an extended vacation, it's great to see NBA Live pull itself together. Is it better than NBA 2K3? Well, no, not really, though some of you will find the faster-paced gameplay to be more enticing, and even doubters should check it out for the Freestyle control alone. Welcome back, Live.