It's crowded in the paint.
There's something appealing about Microsoft's decision to hold back the release of NBA Inside Drive 2004 for the Xbox. Year after year, sports titles are sort of forced to ship right when the season starts, often leading to games that simply aren't ready to be popped into your console. It's like the clock starts winding down the moment opening day has been announced, and if you don't make it to the game, you don't play.
So Inside Drive 2004 seemingly has an advantage over NBA Live 2004 and ESPN Basketball by coming out a full month late. But instead of taking the extra time to perfect what has historically been a bench warmer, Microsoft has shipped a game with old rosters and even older gameplay problems. I guess time isn't always on our side.
It's amazing that the game doesn't have updated rosters since it came out so late, but Antoine Walker on the Celtics? Rick Fox starting for the Lakers despite a near career-ending injury LAST year? How 2003! I can forgive Dikembe still playing for the Nets, but come on.
Sloppy roster issues notwithstanding, Inside Drive 2004 serves up a fairly basic game of roundball. Like every other basketball game on the planet, it has taken a cue from last year's NBA Live 2003 by relegating the right-analog stick to juke moves, which works decently. It's not as smooth or polished as NBA Live, but is more useful than ESPN's somewhat awkward Iso-Motion.
The game isn't particularly fast, somewhere in between ESPN and Live. Passing is pretty good thanks to icon control and a nice touch pass feature that can lead to some sweet plays. Speaking of which, the playbooks are good and plays can be called on the fly with the D-pad and they actually work. The same goes for defense, allowing you to switch from man to zone and back again very efficiently.
And efficiency is incredibly easy to come by in Inside Drive 2004 on any of the three difficulty settings. Getting to the hoop is usually just a matter of running your opponent into other guys enough times, then taking off for a big dunk with your biggest leaper. Jump shooting is handled well due to an optional shot indicator that will help you nail the timing, but it seems that players can score far too easily. On Veteran difficulty, I watched the Bucks drain seven three-pointers in the first quarter without one miss, a feat I then copied in the second quarter with Gary Payton and Devean George.
Defense is much more difficult as it's pretty much impossible to figure out the timing for shot blocks. Nine times out of ten, you'll jump, miss completely and get whistled for a foul. Stealing passes is common, but swiping at the ball will result in a surefire foul as well. You can tweak the foul-calling to a lower setting, but that affects every kind of foul in the game. It's not handled well and makes playing D more a matter of luck than skill.
Sadly, there aren't too many ways to play Inside Drive 2004. Live has My NBA and Dynasty Mode while ESPN doled out the cool 24/7 thing. Here you can play Exhibition games or hop into a Franchise and ball through a bunch of seasons, and that's about it. One interesting feature is the ability to sign a created player to your team, and then boost his skills by performing well with him on your team. Accomplishing certain tasks – nabbing 10 boards, getting a double-double, etc. – will lead to a bigger skill increase.
Otherwise, you get all the typical bits. Signing and trading, salary cap management, roster shuffling and a rather small league leader board (only ten guys in each category are listed) are here. Nothing special, but nothing too bad, either.
Where the game does shine a little is its online play. With XSN sports behind it, Inside Drive is your best bet for playing basketball online using the Xbox, as ESPN's online tracking and tournaments is neither as easy nor as solid as this one.
But it looks better, that's for sure. Inside Drive isn't so much an ugly duckling as a picky one. Star players like cover boy Shaq look good, but bench types get no love. The courts look good and the framerate is smooth, but animations tend to be too slow and often look unrealistic. After the 10-man motion capture of NBA Live, it's hard to watch a bunch of guys standing around doing nothing while you try to penetrate the lane for the twentieth time.
If the looks are merely adequate, the sound is downright aggravating. Ambient effects are okay, but the announcing is some of the worst around despite the presence of the usually witty Kenny Smith, who comes off sounding like Chick Hearn next to Kevin Calabro and Marques Johnson. Johnson is so bad you'll want to write him a letter and tell him to stop. And I have a bone to pick with the fact that all three of them constantly call jump shots "jimmies." Last I heard (back in what, 1989?), a 'jimmie' is slang for a penis, hence the phrase, "Jimmie Hat." I can't believe I just wrote that, but it's nothing compared to hearing "What a jimmy!" fly out of Calabro's mouth every time someone shoots. Maybe someone should cover his piehole with a Jimmy Hat.
But slang mishaps are the least of Inside Drive's worries. The game is trying to compete in a tough market, and despite some decent mechanics and online play, it cannot hold its own in the paint against the big boys. There's just no reason to draft this underachiever when some big dogs are still up for grabs.