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NBA in the Zone 99 (PSX) Review

Publisher: Konami
Release Date: March 1999

Background Info

The original In the Zone (ITZ) was one of the smash successes of the first generation of PSX games--a straight, in-your-face slamfest arcade basketball game with few frills but (then) stunning graphics. Its successors, In the Zone 2 and In the Zone 98, veered towards the simulation side of things; Somewhere along the line the game lost a little bit of its original soul (and the initial effort on the N64 proved an outright disaster). However, 1999 offered Konami a new opportunity to make up lost ground. First, EA decided to release NBA Live 99 while the lockout was in full force; as a result the game's rosters were dated. Second, several past competitors (989 Studios's NBA Shootout and MBA Fastbreak) backed out altogether for the 1998-99 season. By waiting until the end of the lockout, Konami was able to update rosters (although only to the beginning of the season) and offer players an alternative to EA's game. Will the gamble of letting EA go first prove worthwhile?

Presentation/Graphics : 85
Crisp, clean, and sharp, with vibrant colors, ITZ 99 is certainly a visual treat. To be sure, the players show some signs of pixelation, but the game does a good job of capturing the appearance of individual players (size, gear, physical appearance). However, created players will have to sacrifice seeing names on the backs of jerseys.

The motion-capture is excellent and the animations are superb, creating the impression of a real contest; however, sometimes during key moments players are left standing around, to the point that they resemble lifeless spectators. When in motion, however, the players are well-done, from calling plays to setting up shots and battling for position under the hoop, along with the occasional behind-the-back pass.

The crowd and the benches are animated (although they seem to move in the same rhythm regardless of the situation); the rendering of the courts is solid; the shifting camera angles during foul shots offers good portrayals of arena lighting (although the arena layout is generic). Players control the position of the camera, the angle to the court, zoom and replay options (although all too often some of the auto-replays are too close to the action).

Presentation/Audio : 74
The menu music is understated and a bit uninspired, but then I've never known anyone to buy a game for the menu music. In contrast, the in-game sounds are right on, from the squeak of sneakers and the sound of the ball to crowd noises and realistic renderings of arena music. Good job!

Less commendable is how Konami chose to handle the matter of a public address announcer and the play-by-play/color team up in the booth. Although the addition of an announcing team may enrich one's enjoyment of a game, it can have its problems, especially if the announcing team can't keep up with the action or if it becomes too predictable or repetitive. This past year some game designers have also taken a step back from some rather complete renderings of the public address system, an unfortunate sign. ITZ99 can't decide what to do, and so it offers a restrained PA voice who also feels compelled to blurt out a few words to celebrate a particularly exciting play or to tell the user what just happened--"he got him on the arm," and so on. This has been the case in this series previous incarnations, too. I find the result somewhat annoying; there are other ways to punctuate certain plays (as in a fan, player or coach saying something) without going to a TV/radio team.

Interface/Options : 77
No serious problems here. The pregame menus are clear and straightforward. Players may choose to play an exhibition game, a season (with 82- and 50-game options), an All Star contest (with rosters one may alter), or go straight to the postseason. Also included are two mini-games: a three-point contest and a dunk competition. These simply call for nimble and timely button presses; they will not hold one's interest for long.

There are extensive in-game options. Although ITZ 99 offers preset simulation and arcade modes, many players will look to customize these settings. You can determine the frequency of replays, audio and video options (including a rather flexible camera), information displays (formation and score; on/off), and toggle fatigue, "auto steal avoidance," auto player change, foul settings, 3, 5, 10, and 24-second violations, back court violations and out of bounds. Additional game options determine difficulty (five levels), quarter length, number of fouls to foul out, team fouls, and stamina; toggle options exist for player lock, injuries, and home court advantage. You may even choose what color ball to use! The manual fails to explain several other options: there's an option called "shoot" that's adjustable, but what it means (accuracy? frequency?) is left to the imagination; in exhibition mode, one may adjust a bar next to a team's logo, but exactly what this does is nowhere to be found.

ITZ 99 is analog-controller compatible, and those players so inclined may use the dual shock vibration controller. Players may also configure their controllers as desired. There is icon passing (here called "Pin Point Passing") as well as the more traditional directional passing. Shoulder buttons access offensive and defensive formations; pressing various combinations of buttons will allow players to attempt an alley-oop pass, fake shots, dunk off a rebound, double clutch, square up for the 3-pointer, call for screens, cover the ballhandler, take a charge, and drive toward the basket.

Users may trade or create players; the latter employs a rather detailed menu to construct a player's appearance (down to eyes and nose options as well as sweat bands, knee pads, and high or low sock). In creating a player, one must allocate a fixed number of points, resulting in players with strengths and weaknesses (and allowing me to give the Knicks the outside shooting presence that they so sorely need; now if I can only repair Patrick Ewing's Achilles' tendon...). While the rosters are updated for the beginning of the '98-'99 season, somehow "Roster Guard" has yet to leave the Bulls for the golf course. Users may also alter the All-Star lineups or add players.

The game is deep in stats, but they are poorly organized (and there are no leader menus during the playoffs that I could find). It's also a bit difficult to uncover individual player ratings. Finally, I failed to discover a memory card manager utility; there's a little guesswork involved in saving and loading. Konami may want to think a bit about both the on-screen options and the omission of certain information from the manual.

Gameplay : 77
At first glance one might think that ITZ99 offers players a real basketball game. Instead of the end-to-end, fastbreak game that NBA Jam made famous, this game emphasizes the half-court offense. In fact, it's a bit difficult to push the ball up the floor effectively on a consistent basis; even applying the speed burst does little to pick up the pace. While it is realistic to recall that most plays in a basketball game involve walking the ball up and working it in the paint or setting up plays, the bursts of end-to-end ball featuring steals and the transition game suffer in this particular rendering of roundball.

However, even the half court game suffers from some problems. Post play consists of pushing for position, nothing more. Sometimes, when a player's route to the basket is blocked, instead of colliding, he'll reel back, off balance for several seconds (and then may try again). The alley-oops are uneven and a bit risky. And squaring up for a three pointer can become pretty funny; although it is time-consuming, in many cases the defender just watches or makes a half-hearted stab for the ball.

Critical to the performance of the CPU-controlled opponent AI is the level of difficulty chosen by the player. At the easier levels the CPU team will pull up on fast breaks, pass up open shots under the basket, and be vulnerable to pick and roll and pick and drive plays. It will also milk the clock, not a wise idea when one needs points. However, it will rarely foul, especially if you prefer a perimeter game. In contrast, at the more difficult levels the CPU team can shoot with deadly accuracy and turn all sorts of plays, even in heavy traffic. Neither level is really basketball. Nor is an interesting consequence of the animation in which players lean against each other to fight for position. At times the animation is activated far outside the paint, and you discover that the reason you're a man short is because he's rubbing shoulders with his counterpart off screen. A skilled player can use the animation to trap opponents in the paint, causing 3-second violations. One also has reason to question some of the computer's coaching and gameplay decisions in close contests (again, depending on AI). Once, as the Knicks, I went up by two with eight seconds to play in a situation where I might have been better advised to work the clock down a bit more. The computer team in-bounded the ball and did not even attempt to get off a shot. Now, if I can only get the computer to coach the Indiana Pacers...poor Reggie Miller. :)

The coaching options are disappointing, especially on defense. On both ends of the floor the user has a choice of sets (and on offense players run generalized plays off these sets). On defense, the sets are defined in terms of when you pick up the ball handler (full court, 3/4 court, trap, half court). Unmentioned in the manual are a number of options available in the in-game menus under strategy, including match-ups, how closely each defender should guard his counterpart, and overall team emphasis (fast breaks, defense, crash the boards, etc.). The impact of these choices was not always evident in gameplay, although stressing fast breaks opens up the floor a little. On the other hand, I liked the option to draw the user-controlled player to the opposition's ball handler simply by hitting triangle, and option which facilitates double teams and recovering on coverage. Finally, Konami's always had a problem setting up substitutions; in many cases a player will have to expend a time out.

In light of all the above, one might get the impression that the game is not worth playing. That's not true. With the right combination of options and difficulty levels, one can structure an enjoyable arcade game with sim glosses, complete with dunks, blocks, and long jumpers from three-point land. But don't mistake some of the realistic aspects of the game for a solid simulation; real b-ball devotees may find the uneven mix unsatisfying...

Difficulty : 80
There are five levels of difficulty; as suggested above, the difference in computer AI and performance is very evident. Play back-to-back games on very easy and very hard and watch the computer team wake up. The game will give you a good contest at the higher levels, and by cutting down the length of quarters, one can come close to realistic scores.

Overall : 78
ITZ99 offers players an entertaining package, with good graphics and in-game sound. It also offers players an entertaining if imperfect game of arcade basketball with some sim touches. Sim players will prefer NBA Live 99 (or several other 1998 titles, including NBA Courtside). However, the folks at Konami might think more about what they really want to produce (sims or arcade games, or a more satisfying mix)--and spend a bit more time in preparing manuals so players can get more out of their product.

By: Brooks Simpson 6/7/99

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