“Three seconds left on the clock, score’s 87-86…Here comes the inbound pass. Caught at half court, there’s a quick spin…fadeaway jumper at the buzzer…and it’s…”
Pretty exciting, huh? Guess what, with the start of the basketball season only a week old, we’re in for a ton of moments like these. Yep, all the exhilaration and heartbreak that can come from a blocked pass, a fast break or a clutch shot is now upon us, so we can all look forward to tons of highlights of our favorite ballers going ”above the rim.” Most of us might not be able to take to the skies with the same authority as NBA stars can in real life. However, those of us who are terrestrially bound can emulate our favorite players with the myriad of basketball titles that hit each system. Vying for control of every console and computer is EA Sports’ NBA Live 2003, recently released for all systems.
Like every other basketball title, NBA Live 2003 features all of the typical modes you’d come to expect with a yearly sports title. However, it’s the way these options are executed that makes Live 2003 truly stand out. For instance, there are moments when I gotta get my b-ball game on for a quick fix. The Play Now mode allows me to get a game started in under a minute while still offering a ton of teams and potential options. There is the usual season mode, where you ride out the up and down play of a team for a year, hopefully making it to the post-season. If you’d rather spare the time it would take to go through a season and just want to go for the championship, jump into Playoff mode. For anyone interested on taking the game back to the playground, you can play one-on-one in any one of three courts. There’s also a Franchise mode for you up and coming GMs, and practice modes where you can work on your shot and your moves.
Moves are actually at the heart of Live 2003, especially with the advent of EA’s new Freestyle system. A well-placed fake, crossover, or spin can electrify a team, demoralize an opponent and stun a crowd. In the past, basketball games relegated fakes to button presses, sometimes requiring complicated combos to elude an opponent. What’s more, stringing together these combos weren’t guaranteed to perform the move you wanted. In effect, your game characters would never respond with the speed their realistic counterparts would.
Thankfully, Live 2003 relegates all of these maneuvers to the Right control stick, Right analog stick, and C stick respectively. Jab steps, crossovers, and ball cradles are all simply performed with quick maneuvers of the assigned sticks, which respond near instantaneously. So, with a few sweeps, you can back a character down, perform a quick spin move, and pull off a quick jumpshot. Not relegated solely to offense, defensive players can use the Freestyle system to augment their steal, blocked shot and face or post up attempts. The few moves that I’ve mentioned don’t contain the depth of this system, but don’t worry, because the manual provides four pages of explanation, along with in-game provided tutorials narrated by the voice of professional basketball, Marv Albert.
So what does this all mean to the gameplay? Well, if you’ve been a fan of the Live series, you’ll find a noticeable acceleration of play. For you purists out there, don’t worry. It hasn’t become arcade-like or unrealistic, and you won’t find the inhuman dunks or maneuvers from extreme titles like NBA Jam. What you will find is an augmentation to the rhythm of the game that’s reflective of the sport today: one that is fully focused on the fast break and high-powered offenses and defenses. To that end, you can call multiple plays and set up strategies, even tinkering with individual player assignments on either side of the ball. But if you find yourself knocked out of contention during the year, take heart. Drafts and free agents are easily available to help you rebuild your team, and hey, there’s always next year.
With the rapidly shrinking walls of online connectivity, next year may be too long for some players. The PS2 version of NBA Live has the ability to take a baller’s skills online, a major feature that the Xbox and the Gamecube versions sorely lack. Providing quick and seamless roster updates by the minute, you can get an extra dose of realism by discovering who is still healthy, who’s been suspended, and who’s retired. So when Sprewell returns to the Knicks bench, or if Malone decides to retire, you can get this plugged into your game and affect your seasons accordingly. The online version also keeps track of a player’s win/loss and disconnect record along with their connection speed, so you can choose to play with other online rivals at your own discretion. Once you’re in the game, it plays along at a brisk pace, with very few, if any, dropped frames or slowed action.
There are a few slight issues with the online version, however. Logging in your info and your screen name could’ve been easier, as other titles in-game keyboards seem to be more responsive. Even EA Sports’ own Madden 2003 in-game keyboard feels more reactive than Live 2003’s. Minor quibble, I know, but here’s a larger one to online players. Everyone is aware of the continual disconnect issue with losers of a game. You know what I mean. When a player is getting their controller handed to them, they quickly disconnect or reset the game. Well, while Live 2003 warns you of the consequences of this action, it has a nasty way of charging a disconnect to you, even if it wasn’t your fault or you didn’t initiate the action itself. For players who are completely concerned about their online name, this bug can help drag them through the digital mud, so to speak.
The graphics in Live 2003 are very nice and rather improved over last year’s version. With only minimal differences between each console, it’s easy to pick out the digital counterparts of NBA players by their faces or their personal accessories, such as their tattoos, headbands or other gear. It’s a great touch that makes you feel as though you’re actually at a home game. Live 2003 also features accurate depictions of coaches, so it’s not uncommon to see your favorite stalking the sidelines or talking to officials. The slightest detraction is that some faces can be a little too angular. Cutscenes are nicely done, although a large amount of them feel unnecessary. Obviously an attempt to capture the feel of media coverage during games, it nonetheless interrupts some of the action within the game. Plus, (and this could just be my beef, so bear with me), where are the introductions? I would hope/expect that there would be some kind of initial recognition of the home team versus the visitors, and it’s just not there.
Animation of players is also very lifelike, thanks to the Freestyle system. It’s not uncommon to find yourself repeating a move that you’ve seen on TV flawlessly within the game. Thank the overhauled and extremely augmented animations for this impeccable touch. For example, if Shaq tries to rip off the rim with a monster jam, the force he exerts will make the entire backboard vibrate. Send a player after an errant ball, and he might throw it between his legs or over a shoulder before diving into the stands.
Crowds are two dimensional and rather flat; however, don’t let these paper thin background players fool you. Not only will you see animated hand clapping, waving, and people standing up, but the fans will also respond to the action within the game. Block a key shot or throw down a large dunk, and you’ll watch the crowd leap to their feet. Oh yeah, and wish good luck to opposing players if they go to the foul line. Fans behind the backboard will start waving and clapping thunder sticks in an attempt to distract players.
Sound has always been an integral part of the EA Sports experience, and Live 2003 is no different, with a specialized soundtrack featuring songs from Busta Rhymes, Fabolous, and Snoop Dogg, amongst others. Not only will you hear these songs throughout your menu screens or during gameplay, but you can also switch between songs to match your mood or personal favorite. During play, you’ll hear a ton of background action that you’d normally find at a basketball game, including fight songs, announcer notes, and energetic acknowledgements of the home team when they score. You’ll also detect a ton of speech within the game. It’s quite common to hear a coach instructing players on a specific play, smack being tossed by players, and jeers thrown by fans. Commentary is decent for the most part, following the action accurately, even though there is some repetition with phrases. The Gamecube version is the only one that doesn’t feature Marv Albert within the tutorial; an odd occurrence, but not necessarily one that harms the game.
This brings us back to the control itself, which is, like I’ve said earlier, flawless. Once you’ve gotten used to the Freestyle control system, you’ll wonder how you ever played basketball games without it. The Xbox and PS2 versions have both basic and advanced moves, while the Gamecube is limited to basic maneuvers only. While this underpowers the Gamecube version a little, the other aspects of gameplay more than make up for it. The AI found within the game is very good, knowing when to apply pressure and when to shift into a zone, though you will find times when their double team scheme can be exploited for easy buckets. You’ll also find the post to be well guarded, requiring you to back down an opposing player before taking a shot. Plus, while I mentioned that the game has a much faster pace to the action, you’ll find the AI often manages to position one man back to attempt prevention of fast breaks, forcing you to utilize your fakes and crossovers if you want to take it to the hole. You’ll also discover that they’re smart enough to keep up with some of your fakes, although if you try to do a lot of moves within traffic, don’t be surprised if you’ll find the ball stripped or a pass stolen from you.
All in all, EA Sports has a great handle on the basketball crown with NBA Live 2003. With improved graphics, better animations, and a control system that, like their commercials say, allows players to fully express themselves anyway they want, Live 2003 is unbelievably solid. Probably the hardest decision would be which one to buy if you own all three systems. The Xbox version is graphically the most polished, while the PS2 version is the only one that has online features. Gamecube owners shouldn’t be worried, as their version is one of the best basketball titles for their system. Anyone who loves the sport should run out and pick up a copy of this game.