To mark the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re taking a look back at every game in the series with retrospectives and other fun content! This also includes re-running some features from our 20th Anniversary celebrations, with a few revisions. Whether you’re a long-time basketball gamer who grew up with NBA Live and are keen on taking a trip down memory lane, or you’re new to the series and want to learn about its history, we hope that you enjoy celebrating the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live here at the NLSC! Today, it’s a retrospective of NBA Live 2004.
After NBA Live 2003 leaned too much towards an arcade style of gameplay, NBA Live 2004 was a very welcome course correction. It took the strong points of its predecessor, such as Freestyle Control, and built a more robust sim game on that foundation. It was also the beginning of a very solid three year run for NBA Live on PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox, before the series began to struggle with its transition to the next generation. NBA Live 2004 was generally very well-received in its day, and it remains a favourite for many long-time basketball gamers. It was definitely a return to form for the series, and the game most of us wished NBA Live 2003 had been.
Indeed, it seemed as though the developers listened very closely to the criticisms of NBA Live 2003, as many of our complaints were addressed in NBA Live 2004. The big, booming blocks that rocketed to the other end of the court? Gone, replaced by far more realistic swats that could be kept in bounds and even blocked off the backboard. Scoring and field goal percentages were toned down, Freestyle moves weren’t quite as cheesy, and overall the gameplay was more realistic. This came as a great relief to gamers who felt that NBA Live 2003 had strayed too far from what they wanted the series to be, and were concerned that future releases would be more of the same.
That being said, the gameplay is a bit too fast-paced and frantic out of the box (and Fatigue was disabled by default), but that was no longer a problem thanks to one of the best new features of NBA Live 2004: gameplay sliders. Sliders achieved what our Tweaked Rosters could not, giving us greater control over the gameplay experience and allowing us to adjust the level of realism as desired. They were also useful in modifying the difficulty beyond the preset levels, and in some cases, making the challenge a bit fairer. However, compared to other games in the series, Superstar difficulty in NBA Live 2004 is actually quite fair and reasonably well balanced.
With a few slider tweaks, NBA Live 2004 played a very fun game of basketball, with a good amount of realism. There were still some cheesy moments of course, and recurring drawbacks such as dice roll shooting mechanics are still an issue. Controls were expanded to include manual Pro Hop and Drop Step moves, but these could be abused, even on Superstar difficulty. There was a risk/reward factor as it was possible to lose the ball, commit a charging foul, or simply fail to elude the defender, but they were quite powerful. It didn’t help that there wasn’t a slider setting to tone down how effective they were, an oversight that wouldn’t be corrected until NBA Live 2005.
Still, a lot of work went into making NBA Live 2004 a more realistic representation of NBA basketball. On top of the new blocking animations and physics, NBA Live 2004 introduced technology called 10-Man Freestyle, a motion capture technique that resulted in more life-like player interactions. Player collisions are far more frequent and noticeable in NBA Live 2004 compared to its predecessors, with more two-man animations. Double team animations force players to lose control of the ball, players fight for position in the post, and there’s a lot more physicality in the paint. The tech is primitive by today’s standards, but players do feel like they have an actual presence.
As I noted, NBA Live 2004 retained Freestyle Control, while making a significant change to the face button controls. It’s the first game in the series to split shooting controls into two buttons: one button for dunks and layups, the other for jumpshots. If a player was too far away from the basket to attempt a layup or dunk, they put up a floater instead. NBA Live 2003 had mostly eliminated the issue of not being able to trigger dunks and layups properly, but this change provided us with an extra layer of control. Tip dunks could be also performed automatically by holding turbo and the rebound button while moving towards the basket, and they were satisfying to pull off.
Free throws still used the T-Meter, but the system was revamped slightly for NBA Live 2004. Instead of the meter appearing beside the player or in the corner of the screen, it was now placed on the backboard, with the camera looking over the player’s shoulder during free throw attempts. A box in the middle of the glass represented the “success zone”, with better free throw shooters having a larger box, and thus a wider margin for error. Shots were aimed by stopping two moving lines so that they both intersected the box; the first one represented the aim left or right, while the second represented the distance/strength. In my opinion, it’s the best version of the T-Meter.
From the expanded controls to the increase in realism, NBA Live 2004 definitely delivered on the gameplay front. Visually speaking, however, the game did seem to be a slight downgrade in a few areas. Its graphics are still quite good for a game released in 2003, but the faces in NBA Live 2003 were generally superior. Player models are slightly out of proportion, especially their feet, though it’s more noticeable in instant replay. NBA Live’s infamous hunched over dribbling animation made its debut here, and there are some other animations that haven’t aged very well. Players also warp into very high jumps when blocking dunks and layups, with their head above the rim.
Of course, that’s looking at the game with an eye that has seen far better animations in basketball titles that have come along since then. The more arcade-style moves from NBA Live 2003 were toned down and replaced, and the courts and arenas still looked very nice. Other presentation elements were enhanced as well; the silly “courtside comedy” cutscenes are nowhere to be found, for example. They were replaced by proper starting lineup introductions, and other scenes that mimicked what we saw on TV. The crashing sound effect was still present on dunks, but it was really the only distracting holdover. We were used to it, though we did want a more realistic sound.
Although NBA Live 2004 doesn’t feature any real network branding, the presentation was far closer to an NBA broadcast thanks to the addition of Marv Albert and Mike Fratello on commentary. With all due respect to the late Don Poier and Bob Elliott, who did a fine job in NBA Live 2001 through NBA Live 2003, Marv and Mike added much more life and authenticity to the presentation. It was also great to finally hear Marv’s famous call of “Yes!” in an NBA Live game. If you glance back through our old Wishlists, you’ll see that Marv’s inclusion is something that we’d wanted for a long time, and we’d been looking forward to it since it was revealed he’d signed on.
After a few years of little to no improvement, Franchise mode was re-branded into Dynasty mode (the series has of course since returned to the Franchise branding). The renamed and revamped mode retained features such as free agency, the rookie Draft, and other roster management functions, but also added a couple of popular Wishlist items. It was now possible to trade Draft picks, while an interest meter provided an indication of how likely a team was to give up a player, and how interested they were in a player you were offering. This extra layer of logic meant that trading wasn’t just a matter of matching the totals of the Overall Ratings, and stars were tougher to acquire.
Jersey retirement was another cool new feature in NBA Live 2004’s Dynasty mode, though it was something that had to be earned. If a retiring player hadn’t made a significant contribution to your team during their tenure, the option to retire their jersey wouldn’t be offered. Of course, your idea of what constitutes a significant contribution may differ from NBA Live 2004’s standards, which generally meant winning a championship and Finals MVP. Players also had to spend their last year with your team, so even if a player had given you ten fantastic seasons, if they finished their career elsewhere, you’d miss out on the opportunity to retire their jersey.
NBA Live 2004 did away with DSTATS, the hidden stats that provided a template for simulated performance. That was now governed solely by ratings, and thus a player’s stats changed as they improved, peaked, and declined through the years. The feature that many gamers fondly remember is the Dynasty cutscenes that played upon making a trade or signing, drafting a new rookie, or when one of your players retired. Other cutscenes included award presentations, and scenes of your team running through practice drills during training sessions. There was also an in-game NBA Inside Stuff magazine, with the cover of a new issue displayed at key points of the season.
Pre-season training camp and in-season training sessions were welcome additions to player development. By assigning percentages of training time in four different areas – shooting, offense, defense, and conditioning – it was possible to gain small, permanent boosts to ratings on top of the improvement that took place between seasons. As with offseason development, a hidden potential attribute determined a player’s chances of improving. Unfortunately, a bug resulted in players declining in a particular area if the assigned training time was less than 20%. Midseason training sessions were available at the cost of 800 Dynasty Points (individual) or 2000 Dynasty Points (team).
Dynasty Points were earned by performing certain in-game tasks, namely reaching specific statistical marks as a team and with individual players. In addition to training sessions, they could be used to purchase Dynasty Extras that provided ratings boosts for one game, five games, ten games, or the entire season. They ranged from shooting coaches to a new locker room, and even a team plane. Overall, Dynasty mode was a much deeper experience than the old Franchise mode. It came at a price however, as it was no longer possible to control more than one team. This was a side effect of the added management features, but it was still unfortunate to lose that functionality.
Completing items on the Task List also earned NBA Store points, which were used to unlock items including shoes, jerseys, practice gear, and player accessories. The NBA Store was part of the new My NBA Live menu, which also included the EA Sports Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame displayed retired jerseys – NBA Legends by default, jerseys for your retired players in Dynasty mode – along with models of all the NBA player and team trophies, with award histories going back to the 1999 season. My NBA Live was also the place to enter cheat codes, and set your favourite team, which changed the background colour and the players that appeared in the main menu.
In terms of customisation, the PC version of NBA Live 2004 was about as moddable as NBA Live 2003 had been. It retained the same CustomArt system, which meant that custom shoes, accessories, practice gear, and even NBA jerseys could be assigned to individual players. Unfortunately, the in-game customisation features weren’t as impressive. Create-a-Player was very limited in the variety of hair and beard styles, to say nothing of other facial features. Headshapes couldn’t be changed either, so created players tended to end up looking very similar and generic. There are also remnants of a Create-a-Team mode by way of some generic coach faces, hinting at a cut feature.
Other roster management features remained more or less intact. NBA Live 2004 also included the Charlotte Bobcats, who weren’t set to debut until the 2005 season. Their roster was filled with generic placeholder players by default, and could be customised with real NBA players and created players alike, though the team couldn’t be used in Season or Dynasty mode. Notably, the in-game ratings system also switched from the traditional 50-99 range to 0-99, reflecting the values that were actually used in the database. This change also meant that Overall Ratings were calculated oddly, and as a result, several big name players are greatly underrated in the default rosters.
The game also marked Michael Jordan’s last official appearance in the series, as he remained in the game as a member of the 90s All-Stars, and available to sign from the Legends Pool. Released for the 2004 NBA season, it’s obviously also the NBA Live debut of the Draft Class of 2003, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh, all of whom are underrated due to the aforementioned issue with Overall Ratings. A few rookies including Kyle Korver and Sasha Pavlovic had to be unlocked using codes, or through DBF editing on PC. The Spanish version also included Spain’s national team, which remains intact but hidden in all other versions.
Console versions of NBA Live 2004 featured the EA Sports Bio; an initiative that was intended to reward gamers who purchased more than one EA Sports title in their 2004 lineup, and spent a lot of time with the games. Similar bonuses had been available with the 2003 lineup, but the EA Sports Bio had more content. Clocking a lot of hours and levelling up unlocked rewards such as points to purchase gear in the NBA Store, as well as directly unlocking certain jerseys and shoes. The EA Sports Bio wasn’t available in the PC version, but the modding capabilities on PC meant that we could add far more content than what was available in the console versions anyway.
In its day, NBA Live 2004 was an outstanding basketball sim. Whenever I dust it off, I’m reminded why I and so many of my fellow long-time basketball gamers loved it when it was new, and still hold it in high regard today. It’s still fun to play now, which is why we still see the occasional mod release for the game. The refinements to the gameplay along with important additions such as sliders, expanded controls, Dynasty mode, and a new broadcast team, served to make it one of the biggest single year improvements in the history of the series. It was unquestionably a return to form, the start of a second (albeit brief) Golden Age, and overall, a very tough act to follow.