NBA Live 2004 continues EA SPORTS' basketball series with a renewed emphasis on control within the paint and an updated graphic engine. Continuing the Freestyle Control introduced in NBA Live 2003, players can modify moves, dunks, passes, and more in real-time while driving toward the basket. Team sets like the pick-and-roll or triangle can be switched at the press of a button, and the defense has been addressed to make it as crucial a part of the game as the offense. New computer AI, animations, and rebounding controls are designed to help balance out the gameplay on both sides of the court. As in previous installments, players will be able to choose from 30 NBA teams, albeit with new 3D player models and more detailed stadiums complete with championship banners, retired jerseys, and sideline activity.
Marv Albert handles the play-by-play announcing for this version, while Mike Fratello provides the color commentary and analysis. An enhanced Dynasty Mode lets players take inexperienced college athletes and turn them into NBA superstars over consecutive seasons. Each facet of the in-game action, from the frequency of turnovers to a team's blocking ability, can be tweaked using a series of AI sliders that help customize the experience according to a player's preferences. Players can also take the action online for one-on-one competition against a friend, with user statistics and worldwide rankings saved for posterity. NBA Live 2004 also features the "EA SPORTS Bio" found in the rest of the company's 2004 sports lineup, which tracks milestones and how long the game is played so various bonuses can be unlocked.
NBA Live 2004 is the kind of game that you love one minute and hate the next. For every innovative new feature, there's a gameplay gaffe or design flaw that drags it down; it's certainly better than last year's hyperactive NBA Live 2003, but it's still a year away from being something truly special.
There are a lot of little annoyances in this version-some of which will not make a difference to you unless you want Live 2004 to play like real NBA basketball. For example, there are various gameplay sliders that should have a huge impact on how the game plays, but it doesn't work out that way. Regardless of what you do to the sliders, teams shoot the lights out nearly every game. The reason for this is twofold: it's way too easy to get the ball down low in the post and score, regardless of the player involved. When Boston's Raef Lafrentz can easily back down other centers and turn around and dunk with ease, you know there is a problem. With a real stud like Shaq -- the defense literally has no chance. The other factor is that the CPU completely ignores the mid-range game. The vast majority of its shots are lay-ups, dunks, or three pointers.
The lay-up problem is compounded by the "Pro Hop" move. A new feature in Live 2004, the Pro Hop is used to help get your player into the lane. You press a button and the player begins an animation that takes him from the foul line to underneath the basket. The Pro Hop is a real move that many players in the league use, but it is vastly overpowered in Live 2004. Great players can use this move to devastating effect; in fact, it is possible to easily score 30 points a game with players like Paul Pierce and Allen Iverson by using nothing but the Pro Hop and the computer defenders can do nothing about it. Of course, you don't have to use this feature, but it's hard to fight the temptation to abuse it.
While the inside scoring is a bit wacky, the game's biggest problem is offensive rebounding -- in that it's nearly non-existent. The rebounding model has been a serious issue with NBA Live for years and the latest version does nothing whatsoever to fix it. Upon taking a shot, your computer teammates retreat to the other end of the floor without even considering fighting for an offensive rebound. They do this mainly because throwing a full court pass is way too easy to do -- and the pass usually is right on target regardless of how far you throw it. So if the computer did fight for a rebound, you'd score 40 points a game on fast breaks. It's a serious problem and one that keeps the game from being any form of simulation because basketball without offensive rebounds is like baseball without walks.
Rounding out the game's issues, Live's franchise mode is way behind the other games in the EA Sports library and there is a nasty little bug that causes a few superstar players to not sign big money free agent contracts after the conclusion of a season.
So NBA Live 2004 sounds like a real dog, right? Well, not exactly. There's a lot of very good stuff jammed into the game. The graphics and sound are outstanding. The animations in particular are wonderful as you see players fight and push for position and dive for loose balls. In addition to the aesthetics, NBA Live does one thing better than any other basketball game to date: there is a very realistic number of fouls called, making free throw shooting and worrying about foul trouble a very important and strategic part of the game.
Last year's innovative FreeStyle control is back, and the addition of the new Dunk/Lay-up button is a feature that every basketball game needs to implement. No longer do you see players shoot with a jump shot animation from 2-feet from the basket.
Finally, what really makes NBA Live 2004 a game worth getting is its multiplayer support; it really is a blast to play online, and while a 56K modem is not recommended, the game plays extremely well with a decent connection. A lot of the complaints vanish when you tip off against a human opponent (even the offensive rebounding is better) and if you can find good people to play with (the kind that won't quit when behind at the half) then the game is worth getting for the online experience alone.
NBA Live 2004 isn't quite there yet, but behind its problems, you can see a great game that is just waiting to come out. Hopefully EA Sports can continue to tweak and fine-tune the design -- it's a handful of important fixes from being an excellent basketball game.
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