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NBA Live 2004 Review

Despite good intentions and the innovation of Freestyle Control, NBA Live 2003 wasn’t the game many NBA Live fans were expecting. The fast paced, high scoring gameplay could be a lot of fun, but was disappointing for those who wanted a realistic simulation. The NBA Live 2004 Wishlist sought improvements such a slower paced game, realistic blocks and steals, sliders, and further enhancements to the AI. So, does this year’s title deliver?

Graphics

Let’s get the superficial elements out of the way first. Not everyone seems happy with Live 2004’s graphics, but I have no complaints. The player models look much better than they did in the early screens and most of the cyberfaces look fairly realistic. I admit I’m more interested in gameplay than I am in glitz, but there truly is very little to complain about. Licensing issues have prevented a couple of the arenas making it into the game, but most of the NBA arenas are in the game beautifully represented complete with retired jerseys.

Most of the fears and criticisms of the early screens appear to be unfounded, as the textures are better or just as good as they were last year. Even the frontend menus look much nicer this year, and we even have the option of changing the colours of the menu to those of our favourite NBA team.

Sound & Music

The soundtrack has never been all that important to me, but NBA Live 2004 features some good music in the menu screens. If you don’t like a couple of the tracks (or any for that matter), you can customise the playlist in Jukebox in the Options menu. The sound effect when the ball bounces off the rim seems to have been recycled from a couple of years ago, which is a good thing. It’s a much more realistic sound than the one that was used last year. Unfortunately the crashing and booming sounds for dunks remain in the game. This is just a small gripe though, and doesn’t really take anything away from the game.

Crowd reactions are probably the best I’ve heard in NBA Live. The fans seem to know when to get excited and when to voice their displeasure and disappointment. I’ve noticed them calling out “Three!” when you attempt a shot from behind the arc, then either cheering or sounding disappointed depending on whether you make the trey. If your star player is having a huge game, they’ll sometimes even break into chants of “M-V-P!”, a very nice touch.

Commentary

This year longtime broadcasting colleagues Marv Albert and the “Czar”, former coach of the Hawks and Cavaliers Mike Fratello, have taken over play-by-play and colour commentary duties. The commentary track is just outstanding. Like all sports games, the commentary does get repetitive after you’ve played the game long enough, but so far I’ve only noticed a couple of phrases that could be considered overused. One of the first improvements you’ll notice is that both Marv and Mike will stop midsentence if there’s a change in the action. For example, if they’re talking about the ballhandler and then something happens such as a steal or a block, they’ll talk about the current action rather than falling behind. This gives a very realistic feel to the commentary, as it sounds like they are actually calling the action rather than pre-recorded dialogue.

Marv and Mike not only react better to the current action, they also seem to remember what has already happened in the game. They even talk about early leads and comebacks, strong starts and whether a player is playing well or not. In previous Lives, this part of the commentary track seemed very random. In NBA Live 2004, the commentary recognises what has happened so far and how everyone is playing as well as the current flow of the game. I’ve yet to notice either commentator mention that a team has been dominant all night when in fact they are just starting to show signs of life in the third quarter. Finally, the description of the action is easily the best of the series, with intelligent analysis and a few famous phrases, notably Marv’s description of a move as gorgeous and his trademark “Yessssss!”.

Gameplay

Now we get to one of the most important aspects of the game – the gameplay. NBA Live 2004 is such a huge improvement on NBA Live 2003, it’s unbelievable. I had fairly high expectations of NBA Live 2004, but I must confess I didn’t expect it to be this good. Like NBA Live 2000, it is capable of producing realistic statistics and scores in 12 minute quarters. Like NBA Live 2003, you have complete control of the action on the court. But the numbers are more realistic than NBA Live 2000 and the control is even greater than NBA Live 2003. I guess you could say it’s taken the best aspect from each of those titles, and then improved the game out of sight.

We finally have sliders, so we can adjust the game to be played as desired. If you want an arcade-ish style of game, you can play an arcade-ish style of game. If you prefer realism, that’s also within our grasp. With a couple of small tweaks to the default Simulation slider settings, I’m able to achieve realistic scores and statistics. Some users may require additional slider tweaking, but I’m sure we’ll find the perfect settings in due time.

The animations are greatly improved. Players move smoothly, especially when you start backing your defender down. If a move is taking you out of bounds or somewhere you don’t want to go, you can interrupt the animation to pass the ball, a problem that was resolved last year and fortunately has not made a return.

Freestyle Control is even better this year. Players will hold the ball in different ways as they prepare to make their move. Some players might palm the ball out behind them, while others will hold the ball overhead or away to the side. The new 10 Man Freestyle ensures that both your CPU teammates and opponents behave realistically as they attempt to roll to the basket, establish position down low, or play tight defense as the case may be.

The area where Freestyle has been improved most is defense. Raising your arms to get a hand in your opponent’s face certainly makes a difference and is also an effective way of drawing an offensive foul. Raising your arms and attempting to block a shot attempt are both effective ways of challenging the shooter. Blocks have been toned down, and are fewer in number. It’s easier to block shots close to the basket than jumpers from the perimeter, and there are fewer blocks by poor shot blockers. Velcro-hands steals are also gone, and the deflections are not too numerous. This year, you can actually play defense and play defense well. If you don’t, the CPU will take advantage.

Shot distribution is much more accurate this year, as the players who should be taking the most shots are indeed the guys to look out for. Freestyle effectiveness can be adjusted by a slider, so if you or the CPU can make it to the bucket too easily using spin moves and crossovers, you can do something about it. The default slider setting seems fine to me though. Defenders will bump you on the way to the basket, and you can do the same to them. In both offense and defense, NBA Live 2004 is light years ahead of every other game in the series. I didn’t think a video game could be this realistic.

There’s a few new additions to the aspect of total player control: the pro-hop and offball control. The pro-hop/jump stop that many players use can be executed at the touch of a button. When you’re backing down a defender or standing still, the pro-hop button will execute a power dribble – a quick couple of dribbles while spinning towards the basket. Both are effective moves that can get you to the hoop. Once you get to the hoop, you have a couple of options. You can either put up a shot with the shoot button, or perform a dunk or a layup with the dunk/layup button. Having two seperate buttons is a great idea, as there will be times when you’d rather shoot a hook shot or a jumper instead of trying to lay it in or throw down a dunk. If you press the dunk/layup button too far away from the hoop, your player will shoot a high-arching “tear drop”.

Offball control allows a CPU teammate to run the offense while you get into position to score. By holding down the R3 button, you can switch to one of the other players on the floor and the CPU takes over playmaking duties for your team. You can then spin around defenders, set picks and fake out defenders before calling for the pass. This is much, much better than player lock or the old “hold pass to retain control” features, though they are still in game.

The T-Meter has been revamped, and now consists of two lines that move horizontally and vertically on the backboard. In the middle of the backboard is a small blue square. You must stop the lines so each runs through the blue square. Good free throw shooters have a larger square, allowing for a larger margin of error, while poorer free throw shooters have a smaller square requiring you to be more precise. As always, the lines move more quickly for poor free throw shooters and fairly slowly for good free throw shooters. This is an excellent idea, and a great improvement over the old system while remaining familiar to veteran NBA Live players.

The AI has also improved in leaps and bounds. The CPU will no longer mount comebacks behind a series of three point attempts, but rather through playing solid D and smart offense. In the final minute of a close game, the CPU will aggressively double team the ballhandler and make it difficult to set up your offense. They will also foul you in the final 30 seconds, so you won’t be able to simply run out the clock. I should also mention that the intentional foul animation is great too – rather than simply running at a player and pushing him down, players will reach over and hold the player with the ball, committing the foul. Another realistic touch.

Thanks to the sliders just about any aspect of the gameplay can be altered to suit your preference. Improvements to Freestyle Control and the gameplay as a whole make NBA Live 2004 the most realistic game of the series, as well as being the most fun. EA has delivered truly outstanding gameplay this year.

Dynasty Mode

Franchise Mode has been replaced by Dynasty Mode, but the concept remains the same. Take control of the team of your choice and guide them through 25 NBA seasons, complete with rookie drafts, free agency and player transactions. This year we can also trade draft picks, a much desired feature since Franchise Mode made its debut in NBA Live 2000. So, is it simply a name change or is Dynasty Mode completely new? Yes, and no.

If you’ve played any of the recent NBA Lives, you’ll be familiar with many of the screens in Dynasty Mode. The offseason is pretty much the same, as you still complete offseason tasks in a set order before advancing to the next season. A new addition to the offseason is training camp. You can train your players in the areas of your choice, and you’ll see some cutscenes of your team training. You won’t notice a great deal of improvement, as the most improvement occurs (as it always has) between seasons, before training camp.

You can also choose to train your players during the season, hiring coaches that will raise their ratings for a few games to the rest of the season. You can also purchase new lockerrooms and private jets to increase ratings for home games and road games respectively. These activities and items cost points that can be earned by completing certain tasks during the game (such as triple doubles, scoring 30 points in a game, etc). You can also earn points to spend at the NBA Store, where you can unlock more jerseys and signature shoes.

The Trade feature now makes use of an interest meter, so you can put together a deal that the other team will be interested in without sacrificing more players than you have to. I’ve noticed a bug with this however. If you trade a player to a team that is very interested in him, the game will ignore the salary cap. Try trading Tim Duncan for Brendan Haywood or Tracy McGrady for Brian Scalabrine. These are deals that should not work under the cap, but are accepted by the other team. It seems when a trade greatly favours the CPU, it ignores the cap. This is really only a problem if you’re looking to trade a player for a draft pick as you wouldn’t normally make the lopsided deals I’ve just mentioned.

The old problem of top free agents being available in the free agent pool for the minimum at the start of a new season is still present, but not as common as it was in NBA Live 2003, at least in my experience. The simulated statistics are also strange after the first year. After the first season few players average more than 20 points per game and there some other weird simulated stats as well. Perhaps it’s a different story if you play the games rather than simulating, but in any case it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

Those are my only gripes with Dynasty Mode though. Other issues have been addressed, both in the gameplay and in the frontend. Injuries are much more common this year, and do not depend on flagrant fouls. You might lose a player for a quarter, a half, the rest of the game, or for a few games. If you bring a player back too early, the chances of further injury are increased. Marv will actually update you on a player’s status shortly after the injury occurs. The cutscene of the injured player and the commentary that accompanies it is superb. If a player turns an ankle, they’ll test the ankle and limp. If they injure their arm, they will hold it gingerly. Meanwhile, Marv and Mike will speculate on the severity of the injury and how it occurred.

You can also halt simulation if you decide you’d like to play a few games, and the season does not start or advance until you are ready, meaning you can make deals before the season begins even if you aren’t first on the schedule. The cutscenes are a nice touch, but I’ll probably be skipping them after a while, or turning them off completely. On the whole, I’m very pleased with Dynasty Mode despite those two gripes.

Overall

NBA Live 2004 is truly the best game in the series. The gameplay combines fun and realism, while providing us with sliders so that we can have the game we want, whether that’s a fast paced arcade-style game, or a realistic NBA simulation. All of our complaints about NBA Live 2003 seem to have been addressed while only a couple of flaws in Dynasty Mode let the game down a little. NBA Live 2004 really exceeded my expectations, and will be difficult to top. For those who have lost faith in the NBA Live series, NBA Live 2004 will surely restore your love of the series.