NBA Live 2004 Review (Xbox)
You have no idea how many hours in college I spent playing “NBA Live”. I swear, I spent more time playing this game with my friends then I did in class (It’s amazing that I even graduated!). Why did I spend so much time playing this game? ‘Cause it was the best basketball game out at the time. From the Genesis versions, to the PC version of “NBA Live 2000”, you couldn’t tell me there was a better basketball game at the time. But then it all fell apart.
EA decided to make massive changes with its “Live” engine and then released two of the worst games in this franchise’s history, “Live” 2001 and 2002. Horrible AI, bad rebounding logic and outdated graphics were staples of those two games. Then one of the best things that ever happened to the “Live” series occurred. Sega’s “NBA2K” series was released - not just for the Dreamcast, but for all platforms. Now, I know what you’re thinking: How did that help “Live”? Well, it made EA get off of its tail and develop a good version of “Live”. So, last year, a much-improved “Live” was released and “Freestyle Control” was the name of the game - and the new feature was well implemented. The game still had some problems with the AI, including late game decision-making, and the gameplay was a little too fast for my taste, but it was the foundation of what could be a very good basketball game. At E3, I was pleasantly surprised to see that “Live” had more of a simulation feel to it. This made me extremely eager to see how much the game improved this year. Let’s see how it turned out.
It took them some time, but EA finally did it. They added real arenas to the game. It took EA entirely too long to implement these; and I refuse to give them any credit for adding something that should have been included many versions ago. To their credit, the arenas look great and add a lot to the atmosphere. The new arena in Houston and courts in Cleveland and Denver have been added to this version - and are well done.
EA used a new version of face mapping this year to recreate player’s faces and this new technology works well. One problem with previous versions of “Live” was that none of the players actually looked like their real life counterparts. Allen Iverson, along with many other players, looked NOTHING like himself in last year’s game and that took away a little realism. This year, many of the player faces are spot on and better then some of the player faces in the other games that I've seen in screenshots. This is another area where the game has improved.
Just like last year, every player has all of the accessories and/or tattoos that they do in real life. EA also added a great feature that all of the sneaker and accessory freaks will love. This year, you can go into the “NBA Store” and buy anything - from throwback jerseys, Nike shoes, and headbands with points earned from your performance in games. You can then equip any player with those accessories. The “NBA Store” is a great addition to the game.
Marv Albert and Mike Fratello have been one of the best play-by-play teams for the last 10 years and EA made a great decision by adding them to the “Live” team. They do an adequate job in “Live 2004”. Marv calls the game, while Mike comments on big plays and the players involved in the game. While there are periods that they will go silent for a little while, I’m willing to cut them some slack since it’s their first year recording the commentary, and EA likely didn’t have much time to record with them.
This game features one of the most intelligent crowds I’ve ever heard in a sports game. If your team goes on a run, the crowd will be extremely loud, but when the home team is in a scoring drought, you will hear silence and boos. The crowd will also chant a players name when he gets hot (for example, when Kobe scored 20 in a quarter for me, the Staples Center crowd started chanting “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe”). Depending on your musical taste, you will like the in-game and menu music. EA has once again used popular rap artists this year including Chingy, Freeway, Mobb Deep and Lil’ Flip.
Franchise mode changes were some of the more highly touted alterations to this year’s game. This year, EA added a training mode where you can schedule individual or team training sessions. You can also hire coaches for multiple games to help you team improve in certain areas (i.e., a rebounding coach or shooting coach). Doing this can increase the attributes of your team and is a valuable feature to the game.
However, there is a big bug in Franchise mode during the free agent period. A few major free agents like Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett will go unsigned through the entire free agent period and will be signed for the league minimum at the beginning of the season. There doesn’t appear to be a way around the bug either, so people are forced to deal with the fact that some teams will be able to sign a player like Iverson for the league minimum. This is unacceptable to me. While I love that they added cut scenes to the Franchise, EA should solidify its Franchise AI before adding extras to its Franchise mode. All the extras in the world don’t matter if the AI makes ridiculous trades or refuses to sign star free agents.
Now, on to gameplay. I’ll start off with the bad, because there is a bunch of good stuff in this game. I have a big problem with the speed of the game. I know what your saying - just adjust the speed slider, but I'm not talking about the actual in-game speed. It’s the pace of the game. The game switches too quickly between foul shots and during substitutions. It’s a small gripe, but in my opinion, a basketball video game should have the same pace as a real basketball game.
Spacing also appears to be a problem on certain plays. Layers will bunch up and get in the way of each other. This doesn’t happen often, but it happens enough to be a slight annoyance. Skating is also a little bit of a problem. Players will occasionally glide across the court instead of holding their ground or stopping slightly. There are also frame rate and slowdown issues with the PS2 and XBOX versions of the game. While I did see some slowdown during the many games I played, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the game.
Now, on to the many positives about this year’s game. I’ll start off with the additions that I refuse to give EA any credit for. It took EA entirely too long to add real arenas, in-game injuries and sliders to “Live”. Their competitors have had some of these features for many years and it’s a shame that it took EA this long to implement them. Still, the addition of these features does make the game feel more complete.
“Freestyle Control” is toned down and now can be used realistically. It seemed like last year every guard with an average rating in ball handling could break the ankles of any and every defender. This year, “Freestyle” can still be used to separate from a defender, but you won’t see defenders fall all over the floor after being crossed over.
Another huge improvement from last year is the CPU AI. One of the things that frustrated me most about last year’s game was the late game AI. It’s unacceptable for late game fouling and decision making to be nonexistent. Last year, you could be up by 3 with less then 5 seconds left and the CPU would shoot a two. This year, the CPU traps with two minutes left if it’s losing. It fouls with less then a minute to go when it needs to. The CPU will also work the clock if it’s up late in the game. This is another area that EA recognized needed help and they fixed it.
Finally, teams play like they do in real life. Playing Minnesota and Dallas I saw zone defense but against Philadelphia I saw mainly man to man. Last year, you could play a game against the Lakers and Derek Fisher would have more points and shots than Kobe Bryant. Before I got the chance to play the game, I read impressions and some reviews that said the AI still didn’t go to its star players enough. I haven’t found that to be the case. In every game that I’ve played, the CPU has made an effort to get the ball to its star players. What I realized is that people tend to look at point totals and not shots when determining who the CPU is getting the ball to. For example, I played a game against the Knicks, and Charlie Ward scored 28 points while Allen Houston had 21. From just seeing that you would think that the CPU was ignoring its star player. But when you see that Houston took 28 shots while Ward took 15, you see that the CPU is running its offense the way it should and that the players that should get the shots do.
What more can I say? This is a great mix of arcade and simulation basketball. If you want to do nothing but throw alley oops and break player’s ankles, then play the game on its arcade setting. If you want to a play a game that’s as close to the real NBA as you can get, then switch it to Simulation and tweak the sliders a little bit. Either way you’ll be happy with “Live 2004”. This is the best version since “Live 2000” (a classic in my opinion) and I’m looking forward to see how the game improves in the future.