20th Anniversary of NBA Live: NBA Live 2002 Retrospective

NBA Live 2002 Retrospective

To mark the 20th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re posting content for every game in the series, including retrospectives, patches, countdowns, and more. Whether you’re a long-time basketball gamer who grew up with the NBA Live series and would like to take a drip down memory lane, or you’ve only recently started playing basketball games and would like to learn a little about what they used to be like, we hope that you enjoy the 20th Anniversary of NBA Live content here on the NLSC.

NBA Live 2002 was an interesting game for me to revisit. While I did play it a lot when it came out, and I definitely did enjoy my time with it, I also remember it being very frustrating at times. Upon replaying NBA Live 2002 to write this retrospective, I found myself encountering a lot of the issues that bugged me back in the day – and a couple that I’d forgotten about – but I also discovered that it held up a little better than I remembered. Let’s take a look back at one of the more controversial releases in the NBA Live series.

And yes, it certainly was controversial when it came out. These days, it’s not exactly news when a new NBA Live game comes out, and it’s not available on PC. However, from NBA Live 95 through NBA Live 2001, there was always a PC release, and aside from the simplified controls of the first three games in the series, it was generally seen as the best version of the game. NBA Live 2002 was the first game in the series to be released exclusively on consoles – specifically the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and original Xbox – and man, folks around these parts were not happy!

Cover Player Steve Francis in NBA Live 2002

As I said, the PC version tended to be the best version of NBA Live up until that point, and that was the platform of choice for most of us in the community. Just as we’ve built up a talented and enthusiastic patching community for the NBA 2K series in recent years, we were making a lot of great stuff for NBA Live back then, updating the game, fixing issues, and creating new experiences. With a console only release, we obviously couldn’t do the same thing for NBA Live 2002. The lack of NBA Live 2002 on PC, and lingering dissatisfaction with NBA Live 2001 – especially with the official patch ultimately falling through – certainly didn’t inspire a lot of goodwill.

Many people actually continued to make patches for NBA Live 2001 and NBA Live 2000 for at least another year after the release of NBA Live 2002. However, those of us who invested in new consoles also gave NBA Live 2002 a look, and as I said in my introduction, I for one did have fun with it. It didn’t exactly address all of our concerns with NBA Live 2001, but I believe that PC-only gamers at the time definitely would’ve been able to enjoy it, had it been available on the platform. So, with that being said, what was the game actually like?

I’ve always remembered NBA Live 2002 as being a little less realistic than I would have liked, but my more recent experiences with the game made me realise that it’s actually a little more realistic than I remembered. There are some elements of the presentation and gameplay that leave something to be desired for anyone who was seeking a hardcore “sim” experience, but as I discovered, NBA Live 2002 is another old game that does respond surprisingly well to being played realistically. That is, running plays, being patient on offense, and employing true-to-life strategies.

Kevin Garnett in NBA Live 2002

As with other basketball games of a similar vintage, the technology obviously isn’t sophisticated enough to come close to what we experience today in terms of realism. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be somewhat impressed when I revisited NBA Live 2002. For a game that I remembered as being far more skewed towards a casual approach to video game basketball, it actually did a pretty good job of adhering to a more realistic, sim style of play.

It’s possible to slow things down at both ends of the floor, and even run a few plays. That’s easier said than done with more limited off-ball movement and no on-court diagrams, but playcalling will get your players into a better position to score, and if you’re patient at the offensive end, your CPU teammates will move around a little bit. The collision and player physics feel primitive by today’s standards, but setting screens is still moderately effective. For its part, the CPU will move the ball around a bit, look for the right go-to guys, and throw some double teams your way. You can definitely play NBA Live 2002 more strategically than I remembered.

While I didn’t make any in-depth comparisons to real statistics from the 2001/2002 season for the purposes of this retrospective, the shot distribution does feel mostly on the mark. Given that certain games in the series have had issues with a particular position being too dominant offensively – point guard being a frequent offender in that regard – that’s always worth noting when going back to evaluate an old NBA Live game. The rest of the boxscores don’t look too bad, either…for the most part.

Shaquille O'Neal dunks the basketball in NBA Live 2002

I say for the most part, because two of NBA Live 2002’s biggest issues are blocks and rebounds. The number of blocks isn’t outrageous, but if you’re playing longer quarters, they are a bit higher than they should be. The inflated number of rejections is due to the ease of swatting shots on the perimeter, especially with players who shouldn’t be racking up a lot of blocks to begin with. It actually reminds me a little of the blocking in NBA Live 14 and NBA Live 15; in fact, it’s probably a good example of how gameplay sliders can go a long way in tweaking the experience to make it just right, and how much we miss them when they’re absent.

Rebounding is definitely the bigger problem, however. If you play a sim style and have realistic shooting percentages, the total number of rebounds for each team and their most prolific glass cleaners is fine. The ratio of offensive rebounds to defensive rebounds, on the other hand, is not. Total team rebounds are usually around a 60-40 split in favour of offensive boards, and your top rebounder is likely going to get over 70% of their rebounds at the offensive end. Good positioning and timing can combat this to some extent, but like NBA Live 2001, there are just too many offensive rebounds.

Animations and player interactions are a mixed bag. There are some good looking animations for the era, and quite a few new moves were added in NBA Live 2002, but the game has the same issue as NBA Live 2001: it’s difficult to string some of the animations together. Trying to spin baseline after backing down a defender is almost a guaranteed turnover out of bounds, because the Shoot button isn’t as responsive as it needs to be in that situation. You also can’t break out of animations, so an ill-advised crossover or spin move can easily result in stepping on the sideline, or into the backcourt. Dunks and layups don’t always trigger when they contextually should, leading to awkward jumpers and travelling violations on floater attempts.

Allen Iverson in NBA Live 2002

As I mentioned before, player physics and interactions seem primitive now, but they’re decent given the technology of the time. Unfortunately, collisions result in way too many steals on Superstar difficulty, as the CPU is far too adept at picking your pocket when you drive or pump fake. In fact, the slightest contact with a defender, or even simply getting within swiping distance, can very easily result in a loose ball and usually a turnover. Again, this is where sliders can do a lot of good in a basketball game. On the other hand, there were actually some fairly good collisions on shooting fouls and hand checks. Speaking of which, NBA Live 2002 is the last game in the series to feature a hand check button.

Some of the issues I’ve mentioned are certainly symptoms of the era. Gaming tech has made several advances since then, and for all the issues, I did get into the game and managed to get a reasonably satisfactory sim experience out of it. In fact, given the results when applying a more modern approach to the gameplay, it definitely has me wondering whether a couple of our complaints about realism back in the day stemmed from the way we were playing, rather than issues with the games itself. Not that there weren’t issues, as I’ve just outlined quite a few, but I can’t help thinking that some of these games were a little more realistic than we gave them credit for.

Of course, there are aspects of NBA Live 2002 that definitely aren’t sim. Players with a high dunk rating can break out a between-the-legs dunk, which doesn’t happen much outside of dunk contests, except in exhibitions such as the All-Star Game or Rising Stars Challenge. The whooshing and zooming sound effects on three-point shots and dunks respectively don’t really contribute to a realistic atmosphere. The rim sound effects aren’t too bad, but the backboard bounces a bit too much, almost in a rubbery kind of way, on powerful dunks. Elements like that definitely make NBA Live 2002 a tad arcade-like, and I’d suggest that they kind of overshadow its sim credentials.

Vince Carter in NBA Live 2002

NBA Live 2002’s selection of game modes was fairly standard for the time. There was a single season mode, a standalone Playoffs mode, single player practice, One-on-One, and the third iteration of Franchise Mode. There weren’t any significant additions to Franchise Mode in NBA Live 2002 – that wouldn’t come until the rebranding to Dynasty Mode in NBA Live 2004 – and the mode only ran for ten seasons, as opposed to twenty-five in the PC versions of NBA Live 2000 and NBA Live 2001. The three team trade option was also gone, and hasn’t returned to the series since. Also, while practice mode had returned, the three-point shootout did not.

Still, multi-season modes were in their infancy, and what was on offer still provided a satisfactory experience. With the Chicago Bulls bottoming out during that time period – Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry also weren’t signed by the roster cut-off date, so the team didn’t even have anything to show for the Elton Brand trade in NBA Live 2002 – I chose to play a Franchise with the Sacramento Kings. Even though I didn’t finish the first season or win a championship – I was fairly close, and should have simmed some games to get there – it actually still ranks as one of my favourite experiences with basketball video games.

For trivia’s sake, it’s also worth mentioning that NBA Live 2002 is the first game in the NBA Live series to feature Michael Jordan (and not a Roster Player) as an active player. He made his series debut as a Legend in NBA Live 2000, and he was present in EA’s NBA Playoffs series, but it wasn’t until his comeback with the Washington Wizards that he was a part of the current rosters in an NBA Live title. As you can imagine, MJ was featured in quite a few NBA Live 2002 previews following the announcement.

Michael Jordan in NBA Live 2002

How would I sum up NBA Live 2002? Very solid, but certainly flawed. Controversial. Perhaps a little underrated? Playing on All-Star difficulty and with a realistic approach, the results are surprisingly pleasing, and suitably challenging. Superstar difficulty, on the other hand, is admittedly a bit cheap. NBA Live 2002 had some annoying issues and limitations, but it could still be enjoyed. As I’ve said a few times now, it holds up better than I remembered, and despite all the controversy and its flaws, it’s still a pretty good basketball game for its era. It definitely ranks a little higher on my list after a second look, all these years later.

Stay tuned for more 20th Anniversary of NBA Live content!

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September 1, 2016 9:55 pm

Good read Andrew, always love the trip down memory lane to our past time favourite games in the series, speaking of the unrealistic blocks and other stats it was this game that I realised I want sim ball and started messing with players ratings to change the gameplay.

It was also this game that made me take to the Internet to discuss ways of fixing the gameplay issues and how I found this website in general.

Looking forward too the next 4 game reviews, I think 03-06 were some of the finest nba games I have ever played.