While the superstars routinely grab headlines with their big stats, inflated salaries and flashy play, most of the NBA is composed of average ballplayers just trying to eke out a living on the measly league minimum of $366,931. For shame! Chump change like that could hardly buy two Escalades. It's a hard knock life.
You don't hear much about these guys unless you're an avid hoops nerd, and even those who are rarely follow the careers of perpetual journeymen like Jim Jackson, Popeye Jones and Tony Massenburg. But they're always there, taking it in the wallet so guys like Iverson and Kidd can do what they do best: pose for pictures.
Likewise, 989's NBA Shootout series seemingly exists merely to play counterpoint to the routinely better NBA Live and NBA 2K (ESPN) games. Once again we find the series making a run for the playoffs in NBA Shootout 2004, but no matter how hard it tries, it seems destined for mediocrity thanks to marginal graphics, disappointing gameplay and tougher competition than the 2003/2004 Lakers.
It all begins and ends with the gameplay; and in this case, ends. The control is sluggish and limited, especially when compared to Live's excellent Freestyle or even ESPN's IsoMotion. The right-analog stick will let you pull off either a juke or spin move, but neither are very necessary since you can basically shake the defender just by running around back and forth like an idiot and driving for the easy dunk. The jump shooting mechanic (releasing at the top of your jump for the best shot) is barely evident, making the outside shot arbitrary at best. Get used to lots of clangs and tons of layups. At least they fixed last year's horrendous inability to pass out of a shot.
Defense is terrible. Blocked shots are pretty common yet almost always rocket out of bounds. Steals are equally easy so long as you mash on the steal button and ignore the few times you get whistled for a foul. The A.I. goes from retarded to adequate as you ramp up the difficulty, though at the highest setting it's still pretty easy to score by shaking and driving.
Some of these problems can be attributed to the shoddy graphics, as Shootout 2004 continues the series' dubious distinction of being a visual step or three behind the competition. Players glide and glitch their way across the floor, jerking along thanks to an unsteady framerate. The facial modeling is pretty bad; you'll make out Kobe and Garnett, but good luck figuring out what insane picture they used for Devean George's model. The courts look fine with reflective surfaces, but the player lighting is archaic, just a round black shadow under each guy, the tell-tale sign of a dated engine. If the franchise is ever going to really compete with the EA's and ESPN's of the world, it needs a very serious graphical overhaul.
Though the game gives you a nicer selection of camera angles than the other two, it also includes an irritating replay cam shot that triggers frequently after a team scores. It ruins the gameplay flow and often will screw up your full-court defense. While you're stuck watching some close-up shot of whomever on your team just scored, your opponent will quickly move the ball upcourt, largely unguarded. And no, it cannot be turned off. There's also a new "Poster Cam' that will suddenly flip a slow-motion switch so you can get a more theatrical view of a big play, but even this is broken because it tends to go off somewhat randomly. It's great for a breakaway basket, but why does it trigger when my guy loses the ball and goes up for a hopeless, ball-less dunk?
So the gameplay and the graphics don't get the job done, but as a consolation, the game offers some cool features not found in the other games, the most notable of which is its continued inclusion of the NBDL (National Basketball Developmental League).
Where most b-ball games pour their single-player depth into a Franchise mode that allows you to play GM, Shootout opts instead for an improved appearance of last year's Career mode. Here you create a player and take them through the summer league and possibly into the NDBL for a shot at an NBA contract. The point is to amass enough "Career points' over your career to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
It's an admittedly good idea, but trips over itself repeatedly. The player creator is not very good, giving you just a few face types and very limited control over the facial features. Unlike the regular player creator, you don't set any skills here; instead, your skills increase as you play. Sink lots of threes and watch your three-point stats climb. I love the concept, but you don't really know how, when or why many important stats improve, such as speed or ball-handling.
Each game you play presents a list of goals; accomplishing these will earn a contract offer from an NBA and/or an NBDL team. If you accept an offer to play in the NDBL, don't expect to find much love, though. The only stats Career tracks are for your created player and for the NBA, so while your NBDL team goes 7-0, you won't know since you don't get any NBDL league standings. You also won't know any of the guys in the NBDL (most of whom have at one point starred in college or played a few games for an NBA team) because here they're all fictitious. I'm sure the NBDL guys really appreciate that.
Other standout features include really big playbooks, the ability to unlock 50 legends and actually draft them onto your team and the ballyhooed voice recognition ability. By way of the standard or Socom headset, you can be a player/coach and audibly calls plays. Go ahead and scream for a 2-3 Zone or to Double-team the Center. It works okay and shows a definite creative spark, though it's only marginally better than just using the D-pad.
Shootout also scores some brownie points for its continued deal with Bill Walton as the commentary guy. Ian Eagle's play-by-play isn't great, but hearing Walton's endless stream of overexuberant quips will put a smile on any gamer's face.
The one area in which Shootout actually trumps the others is online play. 989 has built a robust, efficient online matching and stat-tracking system, making it easy to find other ballers and get a match up and running. The stat-tracking and ease of setting up tournaments are impressive.
But like most of NBA Shootout 2004, this is lost on a game that simply doesn't have the gameplay or graphical goods to challenge Live or ESPN. At one point in time, Shootout was a serious contender; 989 might want to go back about 7 years and re-examine what got them there in the first-place'which, incidentally, is not where this one finishes.