Another title run.
It isn't easy being an ex-athlete-turned-game-reviewer. Where once I had dreams of fadeaway jumpers and no-look passes, I now suffer from nightmares of hiccupping framerates and long load times. Damn you, stunted gene pool, damn you!
But while I can't control the NBA's drafting bias towards height, I certainly can control basketball video games, and few handle as well as EA's new NBA Live 2004. The series made a huge comeback last year thanks to its Freestyle control scheme and now ups the ante again with a slew of new additions. It might not turn you into a lottery pick, but it might well be the next best thing.
NBA Live 2003 was a big moment for EA, who finally managed to get back on track after years of letting their once-great series fall by the wayside. Like its predecessor, this year's game is geared more towards action than simulation, though it has slowed itself down from 2003's breakneck pace.
The most noticeable change is in probably the least noticed area – shooting. You can now choose between two types of shots: a normal jumper or a layup/dunk. Each will have different results from different areas of the court, so you have to experiment a little to figure out what works best in which situation. Pressing the layup button while hovering at the three-point line will lead to a stupid looking running one-hander, but do it down on the block and you might turn what would have been a crummy hook shot into a sweet twisting drive. It gives the gameplay more variety and is a welcome addition.
Freestyle control is back but has been toned down a bit so you can't just blow past guys by juking a lot. However, a new Pro Hop move is here that's both cool and clearly overpowered. Your player will pick up his dribble and perform a two-step jump hop or a twisting spin (depending on where and who you are), which more often than not winds up with a clear lane to the hoop. I like the idea, but it's just not well-balanced.
There are several other new control options, including marginally useful new defensive stances, new low post moves and the ability to switch your dunk/layup mid-air to avoid a block (which we've seen in other games). When taken together, the control is NBA Live 2004 is its greatest asset and is currently unrivaled.
NBA Live 2004 features the typical gameplay modes of Exhibition, Season, Practice and Playoffs, but also goes bigger than before with its Dynasty Mode. You play the GM and handle responsibilities like salaries and rosters as well as new Training events for your team. You acquire points for accomplishing tasks in-game (triple-double, score 100 points, etc.), which you can then spend on team or player Training sessions to improve stats. It's not really user-controlled, but the ability to change your team's rating mid-season is a good one. Unfortunately, you're not rewarded extra for playing at higher difficulty settings, so it takes a strong moral backbone not to just switch it to Rookie when you want to rout the opponent and rack up tons of points.
And you're going to need all the help you can get, because the defensive AI has been ramped up in a big way. The Rookie and Starter settings are still too easy for vets of the series, but All-Star and Legend will totally change the way you play. No more constant driving or dunking – you'll be forced into playing a thoughtful, strategic half-court game more often than not, and even then you'll be using every button on the controller to swing the ball around the court looking for the open man. It takes some getting used to, but once you turn your initial frustration into acceptance, it's a change for the better.
However, that frustration might crawl back into your head when you watch your two-guard blow a wide open jumper or stare slack-jawed as the CPU rains threes like layups. The shooting is tougher than last year, which is good, but sometimes feels arbitrary. The layup button is far less reliable than the regular shot, but the computer tends to nail double-clutched drives into traffic while you bang a one-on-one layup off the bottom of the rim.
This time around, though, all of those issues can be tweaked thanks to the massive number of options at your fingertips. After some work, you'll eventually manage to customize the game to your liking.
EA has also included a new My NBA mode, which essentially just lets you buy new gear for your players. It's simply window dressing, though, unlike other games where the gear actually has an effect on stats. It's definitely not the shoes.
Perhaps the most touted of all the new features is the 10-man motion capture. Every man on the court was mapped while in the middle of a simulated game, so you'll enjoy scads of cool incidental animations that really bring a kinetic energy to the game. Hands are always up and active, bodies are constantly colliding and the animations look good.
But the graphics as a whole are merely adequate. The facial mapping isn't as good as last year's NBA 2K3, with many players looking like mere shadows of their real-life counterparts. The animations are sweet when you check them out one at a time, but when strung together into a series of moves, they often get jerky. The PS2 version also suffers from occasional framerate drags, though the Xbox and Gamecube versions are solid through and through.
The sound is equally mixed. Mike Fratello and Marv Albert handle the commentary, which ranges from insightful to repetitive. Albert in particular seems to have a hard time pronouncing some of the foreign names. It's gi-NO-bli, Marv, not GI-no-BLI. Hey, if he can bite butts, I can pick nits.
And another nit concerns EA's continued agreement to only put the PS2 version online. It works fine, but it's a shame that the Xbox isn't playable via Xbox Live (And will there ever be Gamecube online? What's up, Nintendo?). The company has effectively shut out Xbox fans who can routinely find online play in the competitive ESPN gaming line.
But even so, NBA Live 2004 offers a very good game of roundball. The bevy of new moves and increased difficulty will surely please fans, though more work could have been done polishing the graphics and smoothing out some of the gameplay quirks. As it is, this is a solid drive to the basket.