NBA Live 2004 Review
Anyone who purchased the original NBA Live that came out during the launch of the Playstation 2 remembers the feeling of confusion when they first started up the game. The horrible framerate, horrendous controls and poor looking players were just a few of the many problems the game had. Ever since that huge step back for the series, EA has been working hard to return the series to its place at the top of basketball videogames, a spot which Sega has held on to for the last few years. NBA Live 2004 is another step in that direction. The game is more realistic than it was last year, and EA has applied another layer of polish to the game making it a very solid effort, but still a bit behind ESPN Basketball.
Last year, EA added "Freestyle Control" to NBA Live, a feature which allows you to control your player's dribble via the right analog stick. By moving it into different positions, you can make the dribbler perform a crossover, go between the legs, or even bust off a spin move. When you're not dribbling you can hold the ball behind your back, or even fake right or left before going the opposite way - it's a piece of cake to pull of any move you choose. Unfortunately, the freestyle move made it far too easy to go to the basket last year, a problem which EA has corrected this time around. The freestyle control is still quite effective; it's just not out of hand this year, which goes a long way towards returning the balance between offense and defense.
A key feature for this year's game is the addition of a second shot button. Now there is one button that performs a standard jump shot, and another for dunks and layups. While it does take a little time to get used to this feature, once you have mastered it, you'll have a hard time going back. Sure you're going to throw up some 20 foot layups in the beginning, but it's really a nice touch that gives you a lot more control over what shot you'd like to take. You can also adjust shots as you take them, which really cuts down on the amount of blocks when you drive to the hole. You still might not make the shot, but at least you've got a chance of the ball going in, or worst case, you can go for the rebound. Adjusting your shot is as easy as tapping the shot button again in midair, and can even be used for jump shots to perform a fade away.
There are several game modes to choose from, but most of your time will likely be spent in the dynasty mode. If you're a big sports gamer you know what you'll find here. You can sign, trade, and release players - all the usual stuff. There are also in-game challenges that if beaten can allow you to upgrade your players during the season. It's a solid effort, but it's not as good as what Sega's got going on.
The Playstation 2 version of the game is the only one that has online capabilities. This is a very difficult part of a game to judge because everyone's experience is different, so take this with a grain of salt. I was unable to play a complete game even after spending 3 hours trying. Some of my opponents had bad connections, while others simply put down the controller hoping to frustrate me with endless inbounding violations until I quit and took a loss, which I did after trying to play like that for a full quarter. When I did get to play, the game was choppy and there was always a little bit of lag. Once you are online, the play options are minimal, and it ends up feeling like putting the game online was an afterthought. There also haven't been any roster updates since November 22nd, which is disappointing for us stat freaks out there.
The game's graphics are strong in some areas and weak in others. The players all look reasonably realistic, though there are a few that look a little odd, and since EA motion-captured 10 players on the court this year, the player movements seem to fit together a little better than they have in the past. The framerate isn't as smooth as it could be, and if you're not a fan of the default camera angle it can be tough to find another one that's conducive to gameplay. Overall it's not bad looking game, but it does have a lot of little imperfections.
The commentary in NBA Live 2004 is top-notch, with Marv "Insert biting joke HERE" Albert and Mike "Czar of the telestrator" Fratello calling the action. They both offer poignant insight on the game and do a nice job of keeping up with the action. The duo also does a nice job of explaining the game's finer points in the often unused training mode. The music that plays during the menus is really something that's hard to judge. I personally hated it, but there are people out there that will love it. Perhaps EA could recognize the fact that everyone playing a basketball game isn't necessarily enamored with rap next time around and throw a bit of variety in the mix. Then again, it's the menu music, so there's not too much cause for getting all bent out of shape about it.
All in all, NBA Live 2004 is a very solid game and one worthy of resurrecting the argument of which franchise is better, EA's or Sega's. This time around the nod goes to Sega, but Live isn't too far behind anymore. Perhaps if the developers spent a little less time implementing real shoes into the game, and more time refining the online play mode things would have been a little better, but I guess that's what next year is for.
11/24/2003 Aaron Thomas