Would an achievement like being the most improved sports title of the year be a good or bad thing? I always wonder how guys in the NBA feel when given the Most Improved Player award. Did they suck previously? Well, yes. But did they turn it around the next year? Well, yes. I think a parallel can be drawn to NBA Live 2003. Frankly, Live has hit the bottom of the barrel the last few seasons, but all that has changed with a much (and I mean much) improved NBA Live 2003.
Presentation/Graphics : 92
EA knows how to mix up the colors in their sports games. Of all the developers, the EA titles seem to have coloring schemes that attract gamers. The overall appearance is much better than its main competitor, NBA 2K3 with its more washed-out coloring. From the players to the fans, the vivid colors make the game more lifelike. Player models are equally good, though the faces aren't as detailed as they could be. It's not until a close camera shot that you'll recognize many of the players. However, the bodies are accurate, complete with rippled muscles.
The animations are one of the better aspects in the game. They are diverse and mimic NBA moves. The addition of the Freestyle control has made the animations that much more diverse. You can perform a step fake, palm the ball, crossover, stutter step, anything -- you name it. Each one looks as good as anything Stevie Franchise can do on the court. Near the basket you get a variety of layup and dunk animations. On defense, you'll find players getting knocked over and struggling to rejoin the action.
There are a few problems with the graphics, however. The default camera is not my favorite. I instantly switched to a low angle up-and-down camera. I also had to adjust the zoom factor since too many times I wasn't able to see my players sitting out on the arc. Also, the ball at times has a Hoover effect. The ball can tend to get sucked into the basket or hands and jump instantly.
Presentation/Audio : 90
Compared to the other basketball games on the market, Live has the best sound. First the play-by-play is spot-on. The color commentary rarely sounds off, but usually isn't that interesting. Accompanying the voice talent is a nice hip-hop soundtrack, but the best feature is fan participation. I was let down by the silence of the fans in NBA 2K3. Live 2003 has, well, a lively fan base. They cheer when a run is occurring, chanting, "DEFENSE!" and keep the home team enthused when holding a lead. The only complaint I have with the audio is the unrealistic clank the ball generates off the rim. Also, EA throws in a bonus CD in the DVD case that features the game's music.
Interface/Options : 70
You get all the modes you are accustomed to in a sports title - exhibition, season, playoff, practice, and franchise. If you want to practice your Freestyle moves, you can play some one-on-one. Speaking of Freestyle, EA implemented the right analog stick for advanced moves. The crossovers, fakes, swats, and more add a new level of control to the game and are a great feature. What's not so great is the poor franchise mode. Inexplicably you can't negotiate dollar amounts in the franchise mode, only years. Also, when drafting players you only get an overall skill score, not a breakdown in each basketball skill.
Unfortunately there are no AI sliders. If you want, you can edit the ratings of every player in the game. The speed of the game is quick, but after reducing the speed rating of each player in one match up, the game played at a realistic pace. I also adjusted shooting accuracy and blocking power with decent success. However, the settings don't appear to carry over to the franchise mode and you can't modify skills from within that mode.
Gameplay : 93
I find a comparison between this title and EA's NHL series. For the last few seasons, hockey fans have been upset with the arcade style of the NHL series. I personally feel that series has balanced just the right amount of arcade and sim in one game. The result is a hockey series that may not be realistic, but it is certainly a blast to play. EA followed that recipe with the much-improved Live. The game, with its arcade elements, is one fun game.
Despite some definite arcade gameplay, there are some distinctive sim-like elements in the game. The post play is exceptional. Once you dump the ball down low, the defensive AI often shifts an extra player over to help out on defense. If you stand there with the ball or pump fake one too many times, the defense will strip the ball. The only time you can really hold the ball is outside of the paint where the defense plays a looser style. Of course, getting double-teamed in the paint opens up a man for a clear shot. Find him and you can usually sink the basket. Another area where the game excels is defending passing lanes. On offense you really have to be cognizant of where the defense is positioned. The defense will pick off the ball if you try to force it through a defender.
Other positives with the game include a realistic fatigue and fouling model. Players will fatigue with or without using a speed burst, and they take time to recover. They won't be fresh 10 seconds after depleting their energy. If you set fouls to the maximum in the options menu, you finally find a basketball game with an accurate number of fouls. At one point my opponent went to the line when I clearly fouled on the floor. Then I realized it was the second foul in the last two minutes - free throws. I'm so used to lack of fouls in console basketball games that I was taken aback. One of the nice features in the game is you have the ability for your player to take a charge. Position is all important. If you are too far away from the basket, your opponent will just run around you. Finally, there is diversity in shot selection for both teams. The CPU will take open midrange and long shots if given the opportunity. Rebounding has improved greatly. Now rebounds are dominated by the defense, perhaps too much so. Boxing out is too difficult and you are rarely in position to get an offensive rebound.
Unfortunately no game is perfect. Live still has a few nagging issues. Shooting percentages are about 20 to 30 percent higher than they should be, and blocks occur way too frequently. Point guards and centers can block with nearly identical skill, and when they do block, the ball is swatted to the next county. Also, three-point shots are too easy. If you have an open look, you'll drain a three well more than half the time. Even center Kelvin Cato can hit the three. Some of these issues can be addressed with modifying player attributes, but doing that for the entire league can be time consuming (editor's note: Maybe with the new PS2 adapter, some sort of updated roster download will take care of that). Unfortunately there are no gameplay sliders to make adjustments. And why is there no "call for a pick" button?
The only other complaint I have with the gameplay is with the transition game. No basketball game has accurately portrayed fast breaks yet. Offense is easy, but getting the defense back is tenuous. As the opponent pushes the ball up court, your players instantly assume a crab style defense. They shuffle their feet while running backwards down the court. You can speed them up with the turbo button, but this style of defense is highly ineffective.
Replay Value : 92
Despite some obvious flaws, the revamped NBA Live 2003 is a blast to play. It complements the more sim-like NBA 2K3 from Sega. This is an instant "pick-up-and-play" basketball game. Sure the stats may be a tad unrealistic, the blocking way overdone, and the franchise mode deficient, but the bottom line is this game packs in some raw fun.
Overall : 90
What a difference a year makes. It just goes to show you that when a developer gets serious about improving a product, they can come through. NBA Live 2003 is a huge improvement over the past few versions of the game. The game has a good balance between realism and fast arcade style action.