What’s an overpaid athlete to do?
These are grim times. With the NBA lockout stifling the ’98-’99 basketball season, we all have felt the repercussions of the stunted year. I, for one, have been forced to sit through hours of ice skating, golf, and (shudder) tennis just to get my sports fix.
But there are others who are feeling it even worse than I. Shaq might have to go back to making movies in order to buy that new yacht. Patrick Ewing may not make his final payments on that third home in Guam. And I heard through the grapevine that all 5 starters on the Timberwolves might have to spend their next summer vacation in Hawaii instead of Jamaica. Oh cruel world!
So it is with heavy heart that I wearily crank out a review of NBA Live ’99, EA Sports’ answer to the lack of real NBA action. And like most of you, I’m so starved for b-ball that I really want this game to kick ass. I want it to make me forget about the strike. I want it to re-instill my passion for the game I grew up on.
I also want a pony, but I ain’t getting that – which seems to be the trend. NBA Live ’99 offers some trivial improvements over the stellar NBA Live ’98, and while gamers new to the series will find it an exceptional game, those of us well-versed in the Live series will find it little more than a $40 upgrade.
The first thing you’ll notice about Live ’99 is the layout. While the front end has been redesigned, the basic graphic and game engine is pretty much identical to Live ’98, with a few notable changes. The crowning achievement in last year’s game was the killer face mapping. Well, it’s back, though still not as seamless as those found in the disappointing NBA Shootout ’98. EA tried to spice things up by adding a new ‘facial expression’ feature. Now players react with frowns, smiles, laughs, and grimaces. It’s neat eye candy, but really does nothing for the game.
Another change is the addition of a Practice mode. This is pretty much swiped from Sega’s NBA Action ’98, though still helps you get used to the control. And speaking of control, the era of analog is upon us. Those of you with a dual shock analog controller will find it used to the fullest. Instead of being limited to digital precision, you can now control the speed of your players. Have them walk, jog, or run the ball up court. And those buzzes after dunks and hard fouls really get the knots out of your hand muscles.
Other changes include a new commentator and the ability to play multiple season with the same team, though neither of these are worth much (I still haven’t made it through a full 82 game season of Live ’98. At 48 minutes a game, we’re talking about 65 hours of one player sports gaming, not including load time. Yeesh.).
As I said, the graphics are based on last year’s engine, with a few modifications. You’ll notice more animations, leading to incredibly life-like players. The motion-captured hoopsters look great individually, but lose something while on the court. You see, more player animations mean that the overall framerate has dropped. So while walking up the court looks cool, you’ll notice that the whole game has slowed down from last year.
One area that has been significantly pumped up is the dunking. There’s a strange mix of totally plausible dunking and outrageous, NBA Jam-esque, five second hang time throw downs. I know that some gamers are really impressed by dunking and actually let this make or break a game, but personally, I can take it or leave it.
Neat graphics and burly dunks only go so far, and the biggest thing in any sports game is Artificial Intelligence, bar none. Live ’98 had a decent AI, but some serious flaws held it back – namely, no CPU fouls and poor defense against the drive. Thankfully, both of these errors have been addressed. You’ll find CPU fouling much more common and driving the lane doesn’t always result in a basket. NBA Live ’99 has improved the CPU’s intelligence, making the game more realistic.
On the other hand, veterans of the series will find that the only challenge whatsoever lies on the hardest setting. I played my first game on the second hardest difficulty and was up by 30 at the half. The CPU still tends to pass the ball to the one guy on his team who shoots, and never really mixes up the defense to throw you off. Maybe I’m better at these games than I should be, or I’m just too good at last year’s version. Either way, those of you who played a lot of NBA Live ’98 will find that you’re just too good at Live ’99 too soon.
In the end, this isn’t a bad game by any means. In fact, those of you looking for a marquee basketball game for the PSX should look no further. But owners of NBA Live ’98 will find themselves less amazed. For those of you with ’98, I’d recommend spending your money on a better cause. I hear Allen Iverson’s gold reserves are running a bit low…