NBA Live 2003 aims to improve upon specific areas of gameplay while an updated graphic engine allows for more player animations. Targeted areas include blocking, rebounding, dribbling, and the bumping and grinding associated with playing ball at an NBA level. New shot-blocking animations include swatting the ball into the stands as well as blocking off the backboard. Over 30 distinct animations for grabbing rebounds allow for more realism in capturing missed shots.
Player-specific dribbling, passing styles, and signature moves were also motion-captured and incorporated into gameplay, while post moves, pick-and-rolls, and charges were filmed using multiple athletes for more believable in-game player contact. Adding to the realism are sideline coaches, on-court vocals, new crowd animations, and classic jerseys for the complete NBA experience.
When NBA Live 2003 first begins, it's unclear whether one should hit the court or dance. Boasting custom-tailored productions by the likes of Fabolous, Snoop Dogg and other top-selling hip-hop acts, the initial menu screen even features a "next song" button, giving it the feel of a b-ball oriented jukebox.
While there's no denying the entertainment value, the real question is whether or not this game is worthy of the legendary status warranted by its PC predecessors. Those following the series know that last year's outing was such a bitter disappointment that it rode the bench on the PC side, strictly hitting the console court, where it held up poorly against its rivals. In a way, this edition of NBA Live is not so much a return to basics as it is a partial rebirth, garnishing an impressive new control interface that will undoubtedly have an impact on future sports titles.
While it's possible to get your game on using basic movements on a standard controller or even a keyboard, the only way to truly experience what this game has to offer is to play it with a dual-analog controller. Referred to on the official website as the "right hand revolution", the intuitive new freestyle interface adds layers upon layers of depth to the controls that will please all but the most skeptical, unskilled players, simply by making potent use of the right analog stick.
For example, when in motion (using the left analog stick to run), it is possible to pass the ball from one hand to the other, with a simple curve of the right analog stick. Depending on how you execute the move, this may involve passing it behind your back, between your legs, or in front of your chest. Similarly, when dribbling in place, it is possible to cross the ball between your player's legs with an appropriate tap of the right analog stick. Tapping up will perform a jab step, whereas tapping down will allow your player to back away from a defender. Dribbling on the run, in conjunction with the right analog stick, will produce different moves such as spin moves, hesitations, fake-outs, and so on. The list may seem daunting at first, but after a bit of practice, you'll likely wonder why this masterful technique wasn't implemented sooner.
The best way to initially acclimate oneself to this vast array of new controls is to first play a bit in the practice mode, then go for a little one-on-one against the CPU. Unfortunately, the practice mode does not grant the option of computer opponents, which would have been very useful in terms of truly getting a sense of the controls before leaping into a full-fledged match. Still, the process is primarily intuitive, and most players will have it down by the end of a single one-on-one session. After that, it's on to playing an exhibition match, full season, or hopping straight to the playoffs.
There are loads of options to make this game a blast for rookies and pros alike, far too many to list here. Selecting the arcade mode will increase your chances of winning against the CPU. The simulation mode, while not precisely realistic, is still far less forgiving than the arcade mode, and casual gamers may have a tough time scoring in the former mode as a result. The computer AI is pretty impressive, so playing at a low difficulty setting at first is a good idea, even in arcade mode.
Advanced players will enjoy the simulation mode and roster management system, but be forewarned: this edition is a bit too arcade-like to ever feel like a true basketball sim. The pace of the game itself is just a bit too hyperactive to seem truly realistic, although the level of control, overall excellence of animation and sound, terrific camerawork, brilliant replays, well-varied announcer voice-overs, and general level of detail are quite staggering nonetheless. Weeks after you've started playing this game, you'll continually find players executing new moves as your skills improve. From an arcade standpoint, the high frame rates and turbo velocities are terrific. But for those seeking absolute realism, don't expect to find it here. A true sim would take the more natural rhythms of human movement into account, an area worth focusing on in the next installment.
Amusing cut scenes initially provide additional entertainment, but by the twelfth time you've seen Phil Jackson chiding a player after accidentally sitting on his lap at the bench, you may opt to disable these scenes altogether. Some of the players' commentaries are similarly redundant, particularly during the 1-on-1 matches. Thankfully, anything that happens to irk you in this game seems to possess some level of customizability, and every aspect of the sound can be set to varying volume levels.
Considering the great lengths EA clearly went to in revitalizing this title, the continued use of the abstract, 2D "T-Meter" to aim free throws when your player goes to the charity stripe is another minor letdown. Although many have grown accustomed to this system from past incarnations of the game (tap the throw button twice as the dot lines up in the "T-Meter" crosshair), the far more intuitive use of analog triggers -- as in Sega Sports' NBA series -- would only serve to enhance the direction this game seems to be going in. We can only guess EA's not ready to make analog controllers a necessity, but perhaps the best of these two basketball worlds will combine over time.
Whether you're a long-time fan of the series or a casual gamer looking for a PC basketball fix, NBA Live 2003 will provide countless hours of enjoyment. Featuring all the teams in the league, as well as all-star teams from the 50's to the 90's, tons of customization options, fantasy drafts, and more, the variety of game play is truly immense. There's still some room for improvement, but with the hot freestyle mode in place, as Hot Karl puts it on the soundtrack: "It's like, BLAO!"
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