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NBA Tonight Preview

Product Info
Publisher : ESPN Digital Games
Platforms : PC,Playstation
Release Date : Cancelled

Background Info
Newcomer ESPN Digital Games enters the crowded NBA basketball market with its inaugural basketball game, ESPN NBA Tonight. With the longtime dominance of EA Sports' NBA Live series and Midway Games' surprising NBA Fastbreak '98 of last season, ESPN Digital Games has its work cut out. In this hands-on preview, we take a sneak peek at NBA Tonight: is it going to be a contender or a pretender?

Basketball games these days place a greater emphasis on the aesthetics of the interface, and ESPN NBA Tonight is no exception. The interface is crisp and sharp, and has perhaps the shortest load times of any game on the market. All game options are laid out in a straightforward manner and are accessible from the main menu. Going back and forth between menus is simple, and the interface includes the welcome option of hitting the "play" button to go straight to a game.

NBA Tonight boasts "Read and React Artificial Intelligence," which it claims is the most advanced and accurate AI to date. Players are supposed to react as they would in real life. As far as I am concerned, players seemed to react well to evolving situations, such as motion offenses and getting back on defense, but it is a stretch to say that this is the most advanced AI ever created. Players do their best to get open and create their own shots. However, at this point in the development cycle, the shooting percentages at every difficulty level are much too high. It is not unusual to have your team shoot well above 60% while the computer will shoot well above 75%. The computer can go on runs where it will make 8-9 shots in a row, and most are of the easy variety, such as short jumpers, layups, or dunks. The defensive AI is questionable whether the user takes control of the player or lets the CPU take the shooting player. The defensive AI seems overmatched in this area. There are enough missed shots so that a game with 8 minute quarters can produce fairly realistic scores of between 80-90 points per team (which mimics the scoring averages per team in the NBA in recent history).

Shot animations are definitely a mixed bag. Long jumpers seem to hit the side of the net rather than over the rim and in, making it difficult to know if you made the shot. Often times you'll know you made the shot simply because your score or their score has increased by two! Layup and dunk animations are done well, especially in auto-replay mode.

Gameplay is made a bit easier by the implementation of the speed burst button. This helps you to get back on defense quickly or to run up the court rapidly. A minor gripe is that unlike in other games, you must repeatedly hit the button to get a semblance of speed continuity. NBA Tonight should take the "turbo mode" of NBA Live and NBA Fastbreak into consideration, where a player can run rapidly while holding done a single button.

Defensive players can either move backwards when guarding a player, although the animation looks awkward (it appears as though the player were wobbling backwards). It is fairly difficult to steal the ball in the game. Blocked shots are a more frequent occurence. The foul level can be adjusted from low to high.

Pump fakes cannot be done with the shooting button, but rather there is a separate button to do "fakes." Again, it would be much better to include the pump fake by just tapping the shoot button rather than use a separate button for this function.

Some of the minor gripes I discovered during gameplay included:

1. Players (CPU and human controlled) apparently standing around while a shot takes place, and not agressively going after the rebound. An oocurrence I found all too frequently was having a ball hit the rim and then bouncing several times before one player or another would finally stumble around and get to the ball.

2. Slippery control. At times, players appeared to move on their own, causing numerous out of bounds violations and fouls. Control is otherwise tight except for these rather obvious lapses in control.

3. Individual stats and fatigue cannot be accessed during the substitution screen. Therefore, it is very difficult to determine if your player is ready to come out or not, since they don't appear to show any visible signs of fatigue, even in 8-12 minute quarters in simulation mode. In addition, the game stats are for team stats only: no individual stats can be seen from that option.

4. During the listing of the starting lineups, players are listed in the wrong position. For example, Brian Williams of the Detroit Pistons was listed as a forward while Grant Hill was listed as a guard.

5. When a user quits a game, the game still shows a "Player of the Game." Not only is this a waste of a feature, it causes an unneeded delay in load time when trying to go back to the main menu. This feature should be disabled when quitting a game.

6. At this stage in the development cycle, the minutes played is incorrectly calculated. Players who played, say, 16 minutes of a 32 minute sim are shown as playing 53 minutes!

At this point, the gameplay glitches could be bothersome enough for some gamers to put this game down and load up NBA Live or Fastbreak.

The player graphics are well done, although by no means groundbreaking. The graphics are not on par with NBA Live and are a tad lower in quality than NBA Fastbreak. The quality of the player graphics really is dependent upon the camera settings. The closer the camera is (especially during replays), the sharper the detail.

The stadiums are done nicely and appear to match their real life counterparts in terms of logos and subtle differences. There are scrolling banners on the sidelines that add a touch of realism to the game.

The pre-game music is catchy, if not pulse-pounding. The highlight of the game, of course, is the ongoing commentary between game announcers Dr. Jack Ramsey and ESPN news host Stuart Scott. Ramsey and Scott exchange informative and detailed banter, such as Ramsey describing what a team should do in the waning seconds of a quarter, and Scott yelling out his favorite sayings such as "Can I get a witness from the congregation!" or "Boo-yah." Ramsey and Scott provide the first detailed commentary in electronic basketball, and it is a refreshing switch from the standard "scored by no. 22, Clyde Drexler" found in most other basketball games.

Pre-game introductions are also well done by the generic stadium announcer.

There are three types of games you can set up: Practice, exhibition, and season/playoff modes. Practice mode gives players the chance to perfect their jumpshots as well as a forum for human players to play each other in one-on-one or two-on-two games in a local playground setting. When starting a new season, you can select either a 12, 28, 56, or 82 game full NBA schedule. In addition, some games are considered "rivalry" games, and will be stated as such when two particular teams are selected. Rivalry games include games between the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls vs. the Utah Jazz. I have not noticed any changes in gameplay when comparing a rivalry game or non-rivalry game, however, so this might have been done more for an informational perspective.

The game includes 9 different camera angles, each of which can be zoomed in and out as you wish. The best view seems to be the default TV Cam view with the middle zoom enabled.

There are two different types of controls you can select, a "novice controller" where two buttons are all you need to play, and an "advanced controller" option where you have the full gamut of buttons to use. The controller can have buttons that are custom configured, or you can choose between one of three preset configurations.

ESPN NBA Tonight looks to be a solid effort so far, but as mentioned before, the gameplay leaves you a bit wanting. If the gameplay can be tightened up prior to its release, as well as add functions such as the ability to view stats and fatigue during the game, NBA Tonight could make some noise in a very crowded basketball genre. At this point, the game is like a talented but raw rookie: the promise is there, but it is not quite ready to start.

This preview was based on the preview copy not FINAL.

By: Gabe G. 8/27/98

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