This basketball series, originating on the Dreamcast, is the only Sega Sports game that's universally accepted as better than its EA Sports counterpart from critics. In the football, baseball and hockey genres, the better game depends mainly on whom you talk to. This ESPN Basketball game, which was called NBA 2k3 last year, is clearly a cut above the NBA Live series, although that series, too, is improving.
The series has been on the PS2 since 2001 and this last August ESPN bought the licenses to the Sega Sports franchise, changing the names of all its games. Early sales of the football game by NPD group, a leading marketing company, revealed Madden still was No. 1 on the top 10 sales list in September. The PS2 version of ESPN was not listed in the Top 10, while the Xbox version ranked No. 7. Numbers were not available from October, November or December.
Presentation/Graphics : 85
Although the faces look great, the suits worn by the many NBA head coaches look tattered near the collar. It looks like their dogs ate part of their dress shirts. I'm not updated on the newest uniforms for all the NBA teams, but the uniforms look current, as do the stadiums.
The environments of the various street ball courts have a Tony Hawk-like feel to them. A pick-up game in a Philadelphia factory has the drainage grates near half court, oil spilled near the left three-point arc and fork lifts transporting things in the background. A smaller court in Maine, appears to be in a used-car store as parts of the three-point line nearest the sidelines are cut off.
Presentation/Audio : 80
The audio package is OK. The once play-by-play is solid, with Tom Tolbert, Kevin Frazier and Bob Fitzgerald. The commentary doesn't quite have the old pizzazz and charm of old, but the banter is still good. The ESPN presentation, like in all the other games, shines. Whether it's the pre-game introduction of the team match-ups or the post game reports, you feel like you're watching the game on television.
Interface/Options : 95
The number of options and game modes are plentiful. The game modes include four types of street basketball, three season modes, a tournament mode, practice, online and the new 24/7 mode.
The 24/7 mode is interesting and innovative. You first create a player, then you travel across the nation trying to beat others and improve your own attributes. This is similar to the Build a Legend mode in NBA Street Vol. 2. The twist here is that this mode incorporates the time settings of your PS2 and makes you schedule games. So, if you want to schedule a one-on-one game with a CPU opponent in Philadelphia, you have to do show up for the game at the real time. In that way, this is sort of like the Sims, where you feel you have to always be on call. I didn't like this aspect of the mode since I have too many other time-obligated matters. I like to play video games on my own time.
The franchise mode is deep and the college basketball game can be imported.
Gameplay : 95
This ESPN game tweaks some of the weaknesses of last year's version and tweaks the system. ESPN certainly has its own feel and pace when compared to the jittery NBA Live. It's slower, but more realistic. The animations aren't as elaborate.
On offense, professional basketball is well portrayed. While the college game features lots of ball movement on the perimeter incorporated with screens and cutting, the NBA game does not. Instead, the pros rely on isolation and pick and roll plays. ESPN does a good job of keeping the CPU players spaced and cutting when appropriate. The scores are realistic and so are the field goal and three-point percentages. This year ESPN decided to put in the Isomotion ability similar to the Free Style ability in the Live games, meaning you can do crossovers and spin moves with the right analog stick. The two differ, however, as the Freestyle is more twitchy than Isomotion. You can some times pull off three or four moves in a matter of seconds in Live, where as with the Isomotion you can have one crossover move take that long. I guess the two work with the personality of their games.
ESPN allows you more control with your passing, as most times there are three possibilities for a result: a pass fake; a normal pass; and a lobbing, lead pass. You have to press the X button pretty hard for a pass, but I like the flexibility for the fake. The opposing defense is tough to shake when you want to penetrate to the basket. I wouldn't say an invisible shield, but they tend to latch on it seems. I think some of the fluidity I was used to from playing NBA Street Vol. 2 skewed my beliefs of what dribbling moves should be, but that's OK.
The post moves animations take too long. Although there are buttons for spin moves (moving the left analog stick left or right) and a drop step (holding L1), but the animations are slow to finish. They just aren't fluid. I can understand if Dikembe Mutombo takes his time for a hook shot, but when a violently quick post man like Shaquille O'Neal or Jermaine O'Neal is that cumbersome, it's hard to believe.
On defense, I still haven't adjusted to playing one-on-one defense. There is no face-up button that allows you to simply move left and right as the defender dribbles, so it makes defending an angular dribble difficult. On the default sliders, there are too many blocked shots as the total from both times can exceed 20 (a normal number would be around 10). The fouls are well done, as if you repeatedly press the steal button, you will be called for a foul.
Rebounding is accurate but the collision detection seems off. Some times I'll jump up for a rebound with no offensive rebounders around and watch as the ball bounces off my shoulder blade. Loose balls also have the same problem where you'll sort of run around the ball instead of grabbing it.
The transition game still doesn't seem fluid as the passing isn't precise in the open floor. Sometimes a pass to a wing man is instead sent to a player trailing. There is icon-based passing, but there's no time to press triangle and then the corresponding button when you're also holding down the turbo and direction buttons.
Overall, the gameplay is very realistic. Although I would have liked a more fluid-style game, the pace does represent the NBA quite well. A few of the game's intricacies could use some fine tuning.
Replay Value : 90
I think there's a lot here to play with, depending if you're a fan of the 24/7 mode or not. I did not play an online game, but the franchise mode has a great number of statistics, awards and customizable features. The franchise is multi-player as well. The A.I. sliders are there and so is solid gameplay. I actually prefer multiplayer basketball on this game as opposed to Live's run-and-gun style because you actually feel like there's strategy to the game. In Live, you can rely solely on the three-point shot.
Overall : 92
ESPN is a great portrayal of professional basketball. While its counterpart, NBA Live, may have more razzle and dazzle, ESPN has the fundamentals covered. If you know the difference between a "2" and a "5" when it comes to basketball positions, ESPN is your choice.