In Depth Review: NBA Live 2004 [PC]
Or maybe not? NBA Live 2004 turns out to be much improved over Live 2003, which was supposedly much improved over Trash 2002.
I guess I'm surprising myself a bit here when I say that this game does not make me want to puke. EA has a ways to go before they can touch 2K3, but with Live 2004 they've just made a huge leap forward. When Live 2001 rolled around I felt a huge loss in that sense of control, realism, and just plain basketball; perhaps I was spoiled by NBA 2K1. 2002 was just as bad and 2003 was an arcade dunk-fest with a flawed Freestyle play mechanic that disgraced the sport of professional basketball (as if some players haven't already done that themselves). So what is 2004? It feels like 2003 -- but slowed down and bolstered with challenging defense, better physics, a stronger post-up game and more refined Freestyle. Which, in my eyes, makes it a much better game... but still not the best.
Before I continue, let me just say that so far that I still don't feel that the Live series has surpassed NBA 2K3 (yes that's right, LAST year's game). But on the flip side, in the limited time I've spent with ESPN NBA Basketball, I can also say that that sequel is a step back. So the answer? NBA 2K3 is still the king. And that's pretty sad if you ask me. Enough rambling, though. The point is, while nowhere near the best, NBA Live 2004 is the first one in a long, long time that I am satisfied with, and will service me very well while I wait to accumulate the funds to get either a PS2 or Xbox and a copy of NEXT YEAR's ESPN NBA Basketball. So let's break it down.
Let me start with the least important stuff so I can get it out of the way. The sound is very good, what with licensed tracks from Outkast, Freeway, Havoc from Mobb Deep, and others. Some of the Arena music is borrowed from NBA Street Vol. 2, but the rest is your standard Arena affair, in addition to the background beats of the licensed tracks (i.e. no lyrics). Marv Albert and Mike Fratello are very welcome changes from the garbage EA has had thus far (Mike Poier? Reggie Theus?) and their humorous chemistry makes it over from the booth as well.
Mike: There was no excuse for that lack of defense on the fast break.
Marv: Uh, don't you think you're being a little harsh on them, Czar?
Mike: ... ...I'm teaching them, Marv!
The graphics are, well... technically they're sound. Court reflections and lighting are beautiful to look at, as usual. Player animations are very good. Uniforms show great details and wrinkling. However, appearance-wise, players and coaches still look like plastic dolls on the floor. It's kind of scary actually. The framerate also starts to chug on my PC (Athlon XP 3200+, AIW Radeon 9700 Pro, 1GB PC2700 RAM) during instant replays. As long as the game plays alright, though, I can look past plastic basketball players.
Last year's biggest addition to the Live series, Freestyle control, felt awkward and inconsistent. Some dribble moves made you superman, able to get by defenders with sprawling, slippery moves that were too effective to be considered sim-like. Conversely, other moves were just plain useless, such as the overly exaggerated crossover which left you conveniently in the path of your defender. This year, if timed correctly, the crossover, the step-back and the spin move have been refined to a point where, used in the correct situation, they are deadly weapons; and used in the incorrect situation, they will result in turnovers. I can still see the step-back move that created space wfor the three-pointer that Stojakovic swished, a shot that ended the comeback attempt the Blazers made on my Kings. I still, however, have beef with how extreme some moves are. In the pros, executing exaggerated crossovers from left to right while standing in the same place would get you stripped easily. I've said this too many times but I must repeat: GIVE ME REAL BASKETBALL, NOT A JOKE ARCADE EXPERIENCE.
Freestyle also extends to movement without the ball, whereby you can spin and fake your way through defenders and around screens to get open for a pass. Truth be told I haven't really had much experience with its effectiveness, as I rarely trust offensive situations in which I'm NOT controlling the ballhandler. But honestly, in the few times that I was off the ball, just running around sufficed -- Freestyle off the ball seemed to just be a graphical upgrade, i.e. useless. Maybe you will find a different experience.
In another extension of Freestyle, EA has gone back to the old two-button shot format of the Bulls versus Blazers days. One button is dedicated to a variety of jump shots, while another is dedicated to dunks, layups and floaters. The new format really does give you more control. Sometimes if you're under the basket after grabbing an offensive board, you want to flip the ball up over the defender's hands instead of trying to dunk it predictably and have the shot slammed back in your schnoz (the shot blocking is another story, which I will elaborate on below). Sometimes coming down the lane, you want to choose to throw up a floater -- or stop and pop a short bank-shot. Having the second button allows you to control that with ease and accuracy. EA has also finally implemented the up-and-under shot, letting you go in for a dunk but switching hands for a layup (tap layup once, then tap it again). Why NBA Showtime, NBA 2K / ESPN NBA, NBA Street, College Slam, and NBA Give n' Go, among other games, have had this feature before EA's big basketball sim franchise, is beyond me; but they finally decided to put it in. It's about freaking time.
In sending jukes and spins to the analog stick via Freestyle, EA has opened up another button for jump stops and power dribbles. Hallelujah! I love this feature. It's something not even the venerable Sega Sports series had (Note: in ESPN NBA Basketball, jump-stopping to split defenders happens automatically). Having the jump stop gives your player another option for splitting or leading the defense before you rise above them for a jump shot or layup. It also offers an alternative to the normal drop-step out of post-up status. The power dribble is also useful, but not so much as the jump stop. Most of the time it just seems to be an animation merely stuck in to satisfy realism-fanatics such as myself, but it does have the minute effect of sometimes getting you closer to the basket. This gives you the edge in leaning in for a short banker or a baby hook. One gripe I do have is that you're not supposed to be able to go from one-handed post-up dribbling to a two-handed power dribble. That, my friends, is called a double dribble. Yet it's legal in this game. Not what I like to see.
I'm happy to report that open jumpers fall more realistically this time around, as well. That doesn't mean that you'll automatically hit a wide open jumper. What it means that I worry much less about whether or not the shot I choose is a good or bad one in the videogame sense, when it's CLEARLY a good one in the basketball sense. In past Live incarnations, any shot I threw up seemingly had a similar percentage chance of going in, whether I was open in a set play, open off the break, driving, or guarded closely by a defender. But open shots are supposed to go in more frequently! Off the secondary fast break, just because your player is coming to a stop after running doesn't mean that he should miss the shot... just because he's in motion! Now, I am confident that the open shot off the break will fall. Moreso when the player is hot, less so when the player is cold; but regardless, that's the right shot to take. Hell it can even bring a cold player out of a shooting slump. And finally, for once, I see it happening in an EA product. (This, by the way, also goes for a jumpshooter picking up his dribble after coming off of a screen -- those shots finally fall as you'd expect them to, as well.)
I still have a problem with the way players control in that they still feel like ice-skaters on the court. I want a lumbering center or power forward, not Brian Boitano dammit. And there are still some ridiculous animations -- tell me, how can a player, outside the lane, physically drive perpendicularly towards the baseline then somehow completely fly parallel to the baseline towards the basket for a dunk? The graphical inaccuracy of it doesn't bother me -- it's the physics of it that are totally ridiculous. And physics are important in a sim-game. A digital basketball player should have the same abilities as a human one, and no more; otherwise you're not playing basketball, just a videogame wannabe. I want to know how my player is going to move based on my knowledge of the basketball court and the game that is played on it, not because the videogame tells me so.
Another example: you're thundering downcourt on a fast break, dribbling with your left hand. You are on the right side of the court, heading left. You press freestyle control for a spin move. This results in your player's body spinning towards the right, but he is still MOVING towards the left. He gets by the defender for a layup. This is incorrect. The game should either make you shift the dribble to your right hand before attempting to spin -- a la REAL LIFE -- or it should shift the dribble for you. I mean it's cool if you're the offensive player, and a newbie, and just think that any old spin in any direction should always result you in getting by the defender and to the basket. But this is basketball, and EA claims this to be a sim, so be a damn basketball sim and leave the funky stuff to NBA Street. That's all I have to say about that.
At least the fast break is finely honed now, a problem in previous NBA Lives. Before 2003, they were too plodding and the defender would always find a way to run at uber-speed and make you miss a wide open dunk. In 2003, the offense had too big of an advantage. Now, when you have a realistic advantage, you will take the break. Players don't stop and hold their hands out anymore to receive a pass; they turn quickly, get it, and explode to the rim. On defense, the defenders look to stop the ball, and don't look geriatric in trying to keep pace with the running offense.
Defense is nicely represented too, after being all but absent in 2003. Defenders don't just give way anymore; there is bumping and an actual sense of taking up space, as has been present in the Sega Sports games. I can't really say the same for a manually controlled defender (this still needs decades of work), but that I can be confident in my computer-controlled teammates to guard the opposition is a big improvement. Double-teaming is pretty well done, with the defenders smothering the ball-handler. The ball handler goes through several animations of trying to protect the ball and if he doesn't get rid of it fast enough somehow, there's a good chance he'll eventually turn it over. Rebounding is much, much improved as well. If the players aren't directly near the ball when they jump, they will still reach out with their arms and try to grab it. EA still needs to work on boxing out and getting into position however, at least on the offensive end. Far too often I will shoot a jumper only to see my big guys under the hoop NOT jostling for position. They stand around with their arms down, gaping at the rim as if it were a delicious bundt cake. Thankfully the stupid problem of incessant steal-button-mashing is gone -- no longer can you just strip someone by going up to them and risking a reach-in. It's all about playing the passing lanes and keeping your hands up and out on D.
The ability to block shots from behind, as well as a seemingly concentrated effort on the computer-controlled players' part to slow down the game, is very welcome. The problem here is that shot-blocking happens way too often for bigger guys against smaller guys. Yeah I know the big guy is more than half a foot taller than the small guy. Do you see him averaging 6 blocks a game, sometimes having 10 blocks all on point guards? No. Perhaps then, Freestyle lay-ups aren't as well implemented as I thought. Hmm.
Fortunately this specific shot-blocking problem, among others, is alleviated in the many sliders that the game presents to you in the options menu. You can tweak the frequency of foul calls, made layups, made jumpers, blocked shots, steals, etc. First seen (by me, anyway) in March Madness 2000 (the only good EA basketball game in between Live 2000 and this year), these slider options really let you create your perfect basketball environment. Perfect, for me, is realistic. Therefore my complaints about the shotblocking are alleviated by simply toning down that block frequency.
There are a plethora of other options besides gameplay sliders as well, but should you expect any less from EA Sports? (You probably shouldn't, since they focused more on bells and whistles instead of real basketball over the years... sorry, ranting again...) There's the much-vaunted 1-on-1 play, which is in reality only a gimmick and just comes down to jamming on freestyle or posting up until you're close enough to the hoop to score. There's regular old season mode, and then there's Franchise mode. After hearing from a coworker that, in Madden 2004 he was even able to control little things such as putting cup-holders in his arena to increase revenue, I got excited to try out Franchise Mode in NBA Live. Pfft. Nothing close to that effort here. What I do get are rebounding and shooting coaches, among others, who I can hire to boost my team's stats for a game, multiple games, or a whole season (the prices increase). Coaches are hired using points as currency, and points are gained by completing in-game "tasks" such as, Score 12 Points in a Quarter, or Achieve a Triple Double or Quadruple Double, or Grab 20 Rebounds, or Score 40 Points. Each task has a point total associated with it, and if you can achieve those tasks, you get the points.
The points you amass during separate season modes can't be used in that dynasty, but they can be used to unlock all sorts of gear: headbands, retro jerseys (The white-red-blue 60's Royals jerseys ROCK), retro and new Jordan brand sneakers, LeBron's shoes, Adidas, Reeboks, and And 1s. Fortunately, C-Webb's disgusting DaDa "T-1000" shoe didn't make the cut.
I can't let EA Sports leave class just yet, I still have one gripe: plays are half-a$$edly executed. Why in 2K3 can I expect a hard cut or a solid pick out of a play call, when in Live I don't even know if the screen is being effective? A lot of the times, my big guy will set a screen for a pick-and-roll, but the defender will just slide right by it. I don't want fanboys emailing me and telling me that "oh, in real basketball sometimes players lapse." Yes, they do. But the way Live does it, it just makes it seem like the DEVELOPERS lapsed. It's inconsistent.
I suppose though, what NBA Live still lacks in control and gameplay (please, just make the players move and control well like in ESPN; and tone down the Freestyle crossover; and you'll be alright) it kindasorta makes up for in all the options and unlockable things you get. But even the gameplay is getting there. Considering as of yet I have no option for a Sega game, this is just fine. However, let it be said that I still enjoy NBA 2K3 much more, and after reaching my goal of writing this review, I'll probably rarely touch Live 2004 again. 2K3 is that much better. (...but it still crashes.)
What Others Thought
IGN PC: 8.5 out of 10
Thanks to Live's controls and in-your-face gameplay, it's one of the better basketball games to hit the cyber court this year, even if it is more of a two-player arcade game, rather than a sim. Online you'll find a host of options from tournaments to clubs, so if you don't have any real friends, you can always find someone else ready for battle. Live might have a few flaws here and there, but any way you look at it, the game is still extremely fun. It might not be the slam dunk ESPN NBA is on the consoles, but it's still worth the money, especially if the PC is your only avenue for gaming."
GameSpot:7.8 out of 10
"While no one will confuse this year's edition with an ultrarealistic rendition of professional basketball, NBA Live 2004 definitely takes a couple of steps closer to being a more serious simulation, with a slower pace and more emphasis on defense and team play. Offering several new features, as well as improvements to the game's graphics, sound, and overall polish, NBA Live 2004 is a good game for Live fans and general basketball fans alike. Those who found last year's version to be too much of a track meet will appreciate the toned-down pace of NBA Live 2004, although it still retains an arcade flavor."
Gamespy PC: 3 out of 5 stars
"A new feature in Live 2004, the Pro Hop is used to help get your player into the lane. You press a button and the player begins an animation that takes him from the foul line to underneath the basket. The Pro Hop is a real move that many players in the league use, but it is vastly overpowered in Live 2004. Great players can use this move to devastating effect; in fact, it is possible to easily score 30 points a game with players like Paul Pierce and Allen Iverson by using nothing but the Pro Hop and the computer defenders can do nothing about it. Of course, you don't have to use this feature, but it's hard to fight the temptation to abuse it."