Like playing TV
There's nothing more irritating than ex-athletes. You know the type: the star of their elementary school sack races, the JV badminton ace, the varsity Ping-Pong ball expert. They were the pro's pros of youth athletics, and now are nothing more than middle aged bald guys with beer bellies and an eye for "tough D." Not to mention their overwhelming desire to tell you about how they came this close to going pro. Look out Air Jordan, here comes Air Frank the Certified Accountant.
Of course, I myself am an ex-athlete. While I don't claim to have ever been the star of any team (except Team Game Revolution, dammit), I do feel an overwhelming desire to rant about my half-assed graces with the sporting good life. Like the time I fouled Mitch Butler (he plays for Portland now)...
But when it comes to bragging rights, no one has the right to holler louder than EA. Jeez, someone must have dropped a few multi-vitamins into the punch over at EA Sports, 'cause these guys are cranking out some killer games lately. From the superior play-by-play in NHL '98 to the amazing realism in FIFA '98, EA seems to be having quite a sports year. Basketball is a game that relies on strategy as much as athleticism, and this has been embraced by EA with NBA Live '98, a well-balanced take on roundball and the current champ of video hoops.
This year's version of the NBA Live series keeps most of the flavor of past editions. You can play Exhibition, short, medium or long Seasons, jump straight to the Playoffs, or drop bombs in a 3 Point Shoot out contest. All the standard options are here, including player creation, customizable foul and realism factors (fatigue, injuries, etc.), and more camera angles than a Pamela Lee video (c'mon, this is the Internet, what did you expect?).
If you're looking for real NBA action, you've come to the right place. This is a fully licensed product - and I mean 'fully.' All of the NBA greats are here, including Shaq and Barkley, but not his Airness (apparently Jordan is too cool to be rendered. The punk.). The freaky part is that for the first time ever, the players actually look like the real players, thanks to an outright strange face mapping scheme hatched by some nerd at EA. (No offense to nerds. They keep me employed.).
What this means is that when you take control of Sir Charles, you actually bear a striking resemblance to the Round Mound of Rebound himself. The same can be said for any player in the league, from the famous to the not-so-famous. If they were on a roster come the start of the season, their mug is slapped on to their head.
This is sometimes breathtaking and sometimes disturbing. While Nick Van Exel isn't a bad looking guy, per se, he is done little justice with the freaky eyeball placement (guppy or guard - you make the call). All things considered, this is a great step in the right direction.
The graphics in general are very good. The players' movements are smooth and natural - after dunking, they might bounce up and down on their toes or take a few steps forward to account for momentum. The players are polygonal, but close-ups of the action get occasionally over-pixelated and inconsistent. However, this is only made apparent in dunk replays. With 8 preset camera angles and an almost endless number of variants, the game can be played from just about any POV, most of which paint a very pretty picture.
I enjoyed the control much more than in previous installments, with the added option of disabling/enabling player momentum (drift). You can crossover dribble, play with your back to the basket, and even control when to dunk. Taking a cue from NBA Shootout '97, you have the option to DirectPass. Your teammates are assigned a certain D-pad button (Triangle, Circle, etc.) to minimize passing errors. This is handy but not really necessary, as it gets frustrating trying to pinpoint which player has which button (it changes on every play). Overall, the control is tight and fairly responsive.
Thankfully, the era of NBA Jam style basketball (or should I say 'wrestling') has passed. Here you will find actual five on five play, with all the strategy and teamwork of the real thing. There are four skill levels, though the first two are basically the same - too easy. At the All-Star and Superstar levels, the AI is pumped up significantly, though not always in the right place. Too much of the gameplay involves driving to the hoop and executing a power dunk. I rarely relied on the outside shot to score; you just need to drive like hell. On the other hand, teams play like their real life counterparts. I discovered that driving against Dikembe Mutumbo is not particularly effective - big man swat little ball.
The worst problem with the AI, however, is the lack of computer fouls. While I'm getting called for simple hand check violations, the CPU is getting away with murder - hacking, slashing, at times even mugging my players while the refs look the other way. This is quite irritating, if for no other reason than the fact that you rarely get to shoot free throws (which look really cool).
After nearly fainting at the remarkable sound in NHL '98 , I must admit being a little let down here. The play by play is not very good, though the background sounds are excellent. I just wished they kept with the amazing advances demonstrated in the hockey title. It would have livened up the action.
While the rough spots are still here, the overall feel of NBA Live '98 make it a worthy title. The face mapping is too cool to miss, and the gameplay and control will keep you playing. So even if you used to be a stellar point guard, even if you once made 15 straight three pointers with a broken foot in a pick up game, even if you claim to be the rightful heir to the rightful Air, you're not too good to miss this one.