Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: October 14, 2003
There once was a time when if you wanted the best digital replication of the sport of basketball you needed go to only one place: Electronic Arts. And while EA Sports still balls with the big-boys, no longer are they the simulation sports powerhouse they once were. Sega has made sure of that with their newly titled ESPN series of sports games. But whether EA's newest basketball game, NBA Live 2004 will come out on top in this year's rivalry has yet to be seen. Both bring the obligatory improvements to the table such as enhanced player animations, subtly refined controls, and up to date rosters, but which is the better game will be a matter of some debate and ultimately boil down to personally preference.
Last year's NBA Live 2003 was a great game, no question about it. Delivering on all the expected aspects of true-to-life b-ball dynamics and introducing a few very interesting gameplay additions such as the right-analog-stick freestyling ability, which many praised the game for but also drew criticism for slightly unbalancing the game in the favor of offense. EA has recognized this problem and thusly tightened up and toned down the effectiveness of freestyling. You'll still be able to freestyle with the right-stick, but whereas in the last game you could almost always count on slamming one home by utilizing freestyling, this game forces the player to develop a stronger strategy of defense. No longer will games boil down to an incessant dunk-fest. Oh no, you'll actually have to analyze the D and spot chinks in your opposition's armor in order to drive to the basket without drawing an offensive foul or getting your jump shot swatted.
Another substantial change to last year's formula is the addition of separate buttons for jump shots and dunks. While using the square button to execute a close-to-the-basket lay-up/dunk or hitting circle to perform a long-range jump shot does take some getting used to, it is a change for the better in the long run since last year's version was susceptible to automatically choosing a style of shooting that wasn't always ideal to the situation. This improvement goes a long way to put control in the hands of the player and perfectly compliments 2004's streamlined method for switching between players, which can now be done simply by tapping a different direction on the right-analog-stick when you're playing defense. Last but not least is a new control mechanism called the "pro hop". While bordering on traveling, the pro hop allows the ball handler to hop in the direction of the hoop on two feet, slicing through defenders like a hot knife and giving you a chance to put up the rock using your shot of choice.
Fans of NBA Live will undoubtedly appreciate the various subtle yet useful tweaks to the foundation of the series, though newcomers may want to play a few practice games to get a feel for the game's unique control system. Once players have been properly acclimated with 2004's gameplay nuances, the dynasty mode should prove to be a lengthy and rewarding experience that caters to multiple play preferences regardless of skill level. By winning games through a series of seasons you'll earn points for playing exceptionally. For example, by scoring a certain amount of points in a single quarter, or keeping your shot percentage above a certain amount, you'll be rewarded with points that can then be spent on upgrading the stats of your team or decking out your players with an assortment of NBA garb.
For those who don't have a hundred hours to invest in a multi-year dynasty mode, fear not, all the included modes from last year's game make a welcome return here. You can play a one-on-one game of 21 either against the computer or against another player, work your way through an entire season, or skip the formalities and go straight to a playoff series. But it's the online component that allows you to go up against other NBA Live 2004 players across the country that really stands out as this game's most satisfying multiplayer experience.
It's hard not to be impressed by NBA Live 2004's ten-man motion captured player animation, it makes for the most accurate NBA game recreation to date. Players perfectly interact with the surrounding players and changing circumstances as they dive for loose balls, post screens, and call out for alley oops. The actual character models used to represent the league's huge roster of players, however, is somewhat disappointing. Most of the well-known stars of the NBA have been faithfully recreated from the neck up, but a lot of lesser-known players have received only minimal attention, sporting only mildly familiar faces and body detail. This wouldn't be much of an issue if it wasn't for the fact that Sega's ESPN NBA Basketball, which is basically going toe-toe with Live 2004 this holiday season, has substantially upped the player detail watermark by including unique facial mapping for every player based exclusively on their likeness and also sports detailed body elements that Live is sadly without. Nevertheless, EA has done a commendable job with bringing the realism and feel of every NBA arena to the game.
In terms of sound, NBA Live 2004 does a great job of presenting an authentic aural presentation with ripped-from-the-court sound effects of player's shoes squeaking on the wood floor, the undeniable swish of the ball slapping into pure net, and dynamic crowd reactions. The new-to-the-series announcers, Marv Albert and Mike Fratello, perform admirably as they call out plays, offer strategic insight, and spout enthusiastic catch-phrases and quips relating to the on-screen action. And to cap off the excellent sound package in NBA Live 2004 is a soundtrack featuring a host of rocking songs from popular contemporary artists such as Outkast, Sean Paul, and Black Eyed Peas.
What all this boils down to is a NBA Live game that plays better than any previous installment and offers more justification to keep playing than nearly every other basketball game on the market. All the signature trademarks of the series are completely intact while a wealth of improvements are seamlessly integrated considerably enhancing the overall experience. Playing offline in the game's dynasty mode or one-on-one with another player are excellent ways to elevate your game, and playing against other gamers online is the perfect way to put your newfound skills to the test.
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