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Lutz’s NBA Live 99 Review

When Live 95 came out, I was very impressed, though I was rather annoyed that EA did not include a player editor. I was playing it until Live 98 came out.

Live 96 pretty much sucked.

Live 97 looked good on first sight, but the center domination totally ruined it for me.

Live 98 was great, though far from flawless (stupid AI).

On first sight, Live 99 looked exactly like Live 98.

On second sight, I was very pleased to notice all the details EA has improved since Live 98, including many from our wishlist.

On third sight, I noticed more bugs and gameplay flaws than Dennis Rodman has silly hats, but none of them really spoilt it for me. I think it looks and plays better than all previous NBA Live titles. I’ll just give a list, sorted by categories, of what I did and did not like about Live 99 and why.

Graphics

While basically using the same engine as Live 98, EA did a good job improving it without pushing the hardware limits. The game runs pretty smoothly on my non-MMX P200 and Voodoo 1 with only a few details like the crowd set to “low”. The performance actually seems to have improved since Live 98. Or maybe I’m just not as FPS-sensitive as I used to be. The faces look nice (no more permament grinning and smiling), but you only really get to appreciate this during replays or free-throws. It’s definitely a nice feature, though the faces were not all that disturbing in Live 98, except, of course, Portland. Sabonis’ grin, along with that movie “Un chien andalou” was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced ever since I had this nightmare about the Spanish lady with the guitar, the jockey’s head in the storage jar and me accidentally stepping on a 2-inch Michael Jordan. Anyway, I also like the details like shoes, socks, knee-pads, tattoos and all that. But where the game really shines is the player animations. All the dunks look very good, long football-like passes look good now etc. I can’t think of anything that looked ugly, and there was a lot of that in Live 98. Layups could maybe look a bit better, often the angle seems to be impossible or unnatural. All in all, the graphics are so good that, even with the cardboard cutouts replacing the bench players and head coach, the game still looks great.

Sound

I never, ever play with sound. How would I supposed to hear the TV anymore if some Duke Nukem wannabe said “Count it, baby” all the time. Seriously, I don’t care about sound. I turn it off for most games except 3d shooters. I suppose they’ll have to improve the play-by-play calling a lot until it is interesting enough to listen to. Can’t tell you much about the music. Usual boring stuff.

Gameplay/AI

EA improved the gameplay a lot, and if they had delayed the release until they’d actually finished everything, it could have been really impressive. The game is in fact tougher than Live 98. If I don’t use the turbo button, the CPU sometimes even plays me close on starter mode. If I do use turbo, allstar mode is just fine; most of the time I win, but the games are close, and eventually I may lose one or the other game. Superstar mode seems to be impossible for talentless bastards like me. Alas, it seems like the increased dificulty is less a result of improved AI than of an increased number of steals, blocks and bricks from very short distance. The “NEW Pro-Action AI” is well perceptible, though, the CPU makes one or the other good play and even runs the fast break better than in previous games. If you leave someone open, the CPU will score an easy basket.

Most importantly, the CPU’s offense is less static, there is no more helpless standing around and the CPU players only very rarely dribble out of bounds. This make the game look very good, but keep in mind that it’s not the primary reason why superstar mode is so difficult. Also, the CPU players are not very good at defensive rebounding. It is not as bad as some people say once you turn on “box out”, but they still forget to jump or miss the ball when jumping. And they still sometimes leave their man open for no apparant reason. Sometimes when the CPU gets an easy basket, you think he made a brilliant play, but in fact it was just your CPU teammate sponateously fleeing from his man.

Realism

I always found it very important that the CPU opponents behave realistically, so that, ideally, a CPU vs. CPU game would produce stats that closely resemble a real-life boxscore. It was not very satisfying to beat the Bulls in Live 98 when Steve Kerr hit 10 of 45 three-pointers while jordon was 10/13 from the field. Now, after all those years Pippen still takes more shots than foolish jordon.

Most teams’ shot selection is better than it was in Live 98, but the focus is too much on outside shooters. When you beat Denver by 50, don’t be surprised if Nick van Exel attempts 15 three pointers in the last quarter. This last feature was annoying when Cinemaware released TV Sports Basketball about ten years ago, and who would have guessed that it would not only last longer than Cinemaware, but also the Berlin wall, Princess Diana, the Boston Garden, Take That and Uwe Blab’s career. In any case, there are still many players who shoot way too much. The primacy rating in the players.dbf was a very good idea, and it would have been an even better idea to actually implement it in the game. I suppose we’ll spend a lot of time messing with ratings to try to make it more realistic, just like we did in Live 98.

Finally, there are enough fouls, so many that I actually get to shoot free throws again. So much had I forgotten about free throws that I missed my first ten or so attempts. The bad news is that the game calls shooting fouls even if the foul happened what seems like ten minutes before the shot. Automatic substitutions are somewhat more flexible (though the CPU sometimes does awkward things) the CPU reacts to foul trouble, and there is even trash time at the end of blowouts.

However, all this is ruined by the fatigue bug. It seems that players only ever tire when they have the ball on offense or use the turbo button, so someone like Dennis Rodman is likely to stay on the court for 48 minutes, while Scottie Pippen gets tired very soon. Some less common rules like illegal isolation are still not implemented, neither are the NBA’s 10 second free throw rule, the 12 second Malone free throw rule, 20 second timeouts etc. I am still able to play illegal defense as long as I do it outside the paint, and I still can’t select a free throw shooter if one of my players is fouled and injured in the process.

Season/GM Mode

Finally, the home court advantage seems to work. Still, the results of simulated games could be a lot better. I mean, considering that no team ever seems to win by more than ten points, it is surprising that there are no overtime games. It is also surprising how much work EA puts into fancy videos and all that when half a percent of the effort could create a realistic stats engine. I like it that the CPU can reject trades. They also initiate trades on their own, but in a hardly realistic manner. There only ever are two-player trades, and most of them would never happen in real life. The random element in these trades is minimal; when you simulate a season twice, you’ll notice that many of the same trades will happen again. The trade and injury logs are nice, but there are still no long-term injuries. The career mode is pretty useless, players age but there are no rookies. Your roster will simply get thinner. Of course, when you are running out of players, you can always create yourself a new one. Very realistic. Finally, season mode sometimes crashes, so save early and save often.

Other Stuff

The practice court is nice, but a bit empty. I suspect it will eventually get more crowded. Maybe we can read about this new feature right below the “incredible, improved AI” on the back of the Live 2000 box. Arcade mode is like, wow, real cool and hey did you see that jam, but it would be even better if the game strategies were different in arcade mode. Still, if I can use NBA Live to play NBA Jam, it may save me some coins on my next boat trip to England. One more thing: I know bigger hard disks are not very expensive these days, but there are still people around who may bang their head on the keyboard repeatedly when, after half an hour of cleaning up another partition, they find out that a game demands 75 MB of swap space on the same partition where it’s installed. Either ask the user or just use the RAM as swap space, so Windoze can take care of the rest. Argh. My brain hurts.

All these bugs…

Consult the patch petition for a complete list of bugs. And while you’re there, sign it. The fatigue bug is bad, especially if you want to make roster updates with realistic auto-subs. Players catching a rebound, then jumping for it although they already have the ball, is a very silly sight that should at least be penalized with a travelling call, if not with a trade to the Toronto Raptors. Watching a CPU player follow a rebound out of bounds and being called for a foul, although I was miles away is ridiculous, but realistic if the player who went for the rebound was Michael jordon. Also, when we complained that there were not enough shooting fouls in Live 98, what we had in mind was not that shooting fouls should be called if there is a foul and a few seconds of dribbling later a shot. As for the crashes in season mode, Bundesliga Manager Professional was worse. It crashed during games, and when I tried to re-load my saved game it accused me of cheating and ended the game.

Last Words

Live 99 manages to be both the best and the buggiest game of the series. The fatigue bug and the computer’s shot selection annoy me, but not enough to drive me away from the game. The overall playabilty is as good as the graphics. However, it’s amazing how one can release a game with so many blatantly obvious bugs, but then again the last bug-free game I played was either Defender or International Soccer. Also, I find it even more amazing how the guys at EA seem to have actually read our wishlist and implemented a lot of stuff that was on there.