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NBA Live 99 (N64) Review

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: November 1998

Background Info

With the NBA lockout continuing and the prospect of a cancelled season on the horizon, the only NBA season any of us may see might be on our game consoles. EA Sports offers the first NBA release of the year with NBA Live 99, the latest in its successful basketball franchise. While the Nintendo 64 has had previous NBA titles, including Kobe Bryant's NBA Courtside and In the Zone, this is the first version of EA's Live series to be released on the N64 console.

Presentation/Graphics : 82
Live 99's graphics are very good, but not spectacular.

The players are smooth and detailed, but look a little too angular and boxy. The players have faces supposedly based on each NBA player's real face, but the results are a little freakish. When the virtual Nick Van Exel stared across the screen at me from the free-throw line, he looked more like a B-movie mutant zombie version of the All-Star point guard. Their heads and faces just don't always seem to match - it often looks like Hannibal Lecter peeled off a player's face and slapped it on top of someone else's head...

But if you avoid looking at their creepy faces, the players in Live move naturally and realistically. The animation seems a little sluggish at times, however. Shooting animations are widely varied, with everything from lean-in jumpshots to fade-away baskets to finger-rolls. There are countless dunk animations as well. EA put a lot of extra graphic touches in the game as well, such as players that fidget at the sides of the free-throw line, while free-throw shooters go into extended free-throw routines, such as spinning the ball and bouncing it a few extra times. All these animations are beautifully done and add to the realistic look of the game.

The camera angles are excellent in Live 99 and include dynamic angles that zoom in, out, and around the action.

Live 99's graphics and animation are good, but not as impressive on the Nintendo version as one would expect. The graphic difference between Madden PSX and Madden N64 is dramatic, but in Live, the N64 version actually seems less impressive than the PSX, with duller colors, more sluggish animation, and an overall flatter presentation.

Presentation/Audio : 80
The announcer in Live is solid, but nothing impressive. He gets excited, but doesn't go over-the-top. The announcing is often understated, but lively, which works well. For example, on some missed shot attempts, he simply says "No!" On other occasions, he notes with delight "Count it, baby!" He also seemed to react with appropriate dismay to particularly bad plays, like missed lay-ups "He misses!" Compared to Courtside, however, the announcing isn't as good. In Courtside, the announcer does a better job creating a sense of arena atmosphere, playing to the home crowd, whereas the Live announcer is more limited and generic.

The sound and crowd effects are well done. The game has all the usual sound effects such as sneaker squeaks, backboard thuds, clanging rims, and thunderous dunk sounds. The crowd is active and reacts to situations, chanting "De-fense! De-fense!" and reacting appropriately when the home team scores. There are also some nice elements of arena organ music that gets the crowd fired up.

Interface/Options : 86
The game begins with an uninspiring title screen which has animations of Antoine Walker in front of a background with the title of the game. This leads to the main menu, which is stylishly animated and slick, but also clean and easy to navigate. A simple setup screen leads to further submenus. Everything is smooth and easy to get to, but the menu transition animations, while initially impressive, get annoying after a short time. During pauses or at menus, the game has a variety of funky R&B tunes.

During the game, you can set plays on the fly with your controller or in a menu where you can select from dozens of offensive and defensive plays. You can set strategies, such as whether to crash the boards or hustle back on defense, when to double team a hot shooter, or how much pressure to apply defensively.

The substitution options are excellent. In addition to standard individual player substitutions, there are "situational substitutions," where you select a group of players, such as your "big man" lineup, your "speed" team, your "three point" desperation squad, or that late-game, preserve-the-lead squad, the "free-throw" team. The CPU intelligently selects your players based on their skills and attributes and fills the squad.

Live 99 offers standard game options: exhibition, season, and playoff, plus two additional modes: a practice court and the 3-point shooting contest. The practice mode is a nice addition, allowing you to try out some moves with a single player, out of uniform, practicing alone. There's also an entertaining arcade mode, which provides over-the-top gameplay and simplified rules, cartoon sound effects, no fouls, and seemingly no limit on NBA-Jam-style dunks.

The game allows you to trade players, but the CPU doesn't use any judgment as to whether or not to accept a trade offer. For example, as much as I love my Lakers, they could still use a few more All-Stars, so I traded Rick Fox for Scottie Pippen, Robert Horry for Tim Duncan, and Derek Fisher for Allen Iverson. The computer happily obliged. I tried this on the PSX and the computer rejected all of those trades.

Another problem with Live 99 is the rosters. Due to the NBA labor problems, the team rosters are obviously not going to match the final lineup that will result from pre-season trades and free-agent signings. In addition, there are no rookies in the game, since none have been signed yet - another ugly consequence of the lockout. The game does feature a fine player creator and editor, however, so you can create your own Antawn Jamison or Vince Carter and sign them. You can also modify existing NBA players - the mysterious shooting guard #99 for the Bulls can be edited to become Michael Jordan. EA Sports has hinted that it will offer an updated roster file when (if?) the real NBA season finally starts. EA will support Interact's soon-to-be-released DexDrive, which will allow save files to be up- and downloaded through a PC, so getting roster updates may be as simple as going to the web.

Live 99, as with any EA Sports game, tracks just about everything statistically, and the stats are viewable during games. One problem is that player stats seem much higher than CPU stats, so don't be surprised when your players seems to lead all categories. Unfortunately, EA hasn't figured out a way to realistically simulate league stats to match your preferred game length and speed.

Live 99 has a solid range of features, offering arcade play, exhibition games, season play, playoffs, and a surprisingly addictive 3-point shooting contest. However, the game would benefit from two additions: First, a true franchise mode (like Madden) that requires teams to stay within a salary cap and draft new talent after each season, and second, a "classic teams" matchup mode - Madden has had all-time great football teams for years, when will Live have all-time great NBA squads? It would be great to match up the '87 Lakers against the '88 Bulls, or the '85 Lakers vs. the '84 Celtics... The possibilities would be endless.

Gameplay : 70
Live 99 has simple, intuitive controls, but offers a huge range of special moves and controls for advanced players. You can fake passes, stutter-step, and "back down" players with special button combinations.

Unfortunately, the nice range of player controls is marred by two big gameplay problems: sluggish play and awkward controls. The response from the controller to the screen often feels sluggish and delayed, making critical moves and timing difficult. The control just feels loose and unresponsive compared to Courtside or Live 99 on the PSX. This is compounded with a basic problem with the layout of the action buttons on the N64 controller. Unlike Courtside or Live on the PSX, where you can engage "speed" or "turbo" with the "shoulder" or L/R buttons, you have to use one of the N64 controller's teensy C-buttons. The game offers a configuration change menu, but it doesn't allow you to change the "speed" burst to one of the shoulder buttons. This sounds like a minor problem, but it isn't. Anyone who has played basketball video games knows that using "speed" or "turbo" to make a move around a defender or to catch up to a fast break on defense is essential. The problem with having the speed button where it is on the N64 controller is that it makes the combination of speed with other moves difficult. For example, if you're driving to the basket, you may want to speed up, spin around a defender, pump-fake, and shoot in one quick move. In Courtside or Live on the PSX, this combination of controls is easy to execute, since you can use your index- or ring-finger to hold down the shoulder button while you hit the other button with your thumb. But with Live, the control buttons are too close together to comfortably hit simultaneously. You either need to stop hitting one button to hit another, or have a third hand surgically attached to your right wrist. Okay, maybe you won't need surgery, but suffice it to say that it requires very awkward manipulation to execute.

So gameplay is Live 99 is mixed. The AI is solid and challenging, and realistic fatigue forces you to make smart substitutions just like a good coach, but the gameplay itself is more sluggish and awkward than the competition.

Difficulty : 80
The AI in Live 99 is reasonably smart. At the high levels of difficulty, winning in Live 99 is no cakewalk. Not only does consistent scoring demand balanced offense and passing, but it's a lot harder to steal the ball on defense. In earlier versions of Live, you could press all game and count on scoring off of a lot of easy turnovers. You can still steal the ball, but not as easily any more. Likewise, if you drive to the basket every time, the other team will often strip the ball or block your shot this year. Unlike other versions of Live, big centers can't dominate every game, so Shawn Bradley isn't likely to score 30 points on you this year. Positions seem pretty balanced in terms of effectiveness.

EA did a nice job making this a game that can be played at a variety of levels - the arcade mode is easy, entertaining, and fun; the low levels of simulation play are challenging, but easy enough that beginners can enjoy the game and beat the computer; and the high levels of difficulty will challenge the most experienced players.

Overall : 80
Live 99 for the N64 is a fun, entertaining, and challenging NBA basketball title. It has a great number of gameplay options and features. However, its graphics, audio, and gameplay, while good, don't set this game apart from the competition. This game is missing a lot of the features and improvements that makes Live 99 PSX one of the best sports games of the year. And compared to its main competition on the N64, NBA Courtside, this game doesn't quite match-up. It offer a few more bells and whistles than Courtside, but at its heart, the gameplay, control, and sense of being "live" at an NBA game just aren't quite as good. If you have a PSX, get that version of Live 99 - it's a superior game in almost every respect. If you have a N64, Courtside is a better game, if only by a little bit. Live 99 for the N64 is a good game, but just isn't quite ready to take the title this year.

By: Matt P. 11/23/98

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