NBA Live 98
Windows - 1997
Also available on: Genesis
Description of NBA Live 98 Windows
Fourth year in a row. Have they learned their lesson?
EA Sports is, without a doubt, the most successful PC sports games company in the world. Their "yearly" franchise, which includes games from most major sports, has become so successful, that a lot of people are buying them year-in, year-out, as loyal as puppies. And so, every year in time for the holidays, we have a new bunch of 'em coming in, most simply changing the title by adding one to the yearly designation.
To be honest, they wouldn't have been so successful if they weren't any good. Yes, failures occur from time to time, but that can only be expected. Overall, though, EA Sports continue to supply us with perfectly serviceable games annually (except, maybe Fifa 97, winner of last year's "game which sold a huge number of copies even though it was almost unplayable" award by a huge margin). One such series is NBA Live, the first of which was the first really good 5-on-5 game since TV Sports Basketball. The successor to Live 95 was called, surprisingly, Live 96 - remember, that was before everyone started accepting the change of two digits at the end of the title as normal practice. It was much worse, and made me feel very sorry for myself because I already traded my original Live 95 copy. The third incarnation, Live 97 (this time it was less surprising), was somewhere in between- it regained some of the original's playability, and upped the ante on graphics, but it was still not as much fun as it were two years back.
EA Sports had to do something, fast, or they would lose their fans. And so, this year, in came NBA Live 98, stomping around the arena with the usual showmanship. But is it good enough to restore our faith?
So many polygons... may actually do you good
EA Sports have never really cared for the simulation part of their games. Yes, they have this "If it's in the game... it's in the game" thing, but in truth, their games were always more arcade than real-life oriented. This isn't necessarily bad, as games like Fifa 96 and the original NBA Live 95 easily prove. We want the thrills of exciting matches, not the boredom of, well, boring ones. Anyone after a simulation of a real season should go for a stat based management game anyway- after all, there is no sense in allowing a player to actually participate in a match if the game world is simulated, as player skill (as opposed to simulated player skills), for example with a joystick, can never be factored into the simulation.
So EA Sports chose a middle ground, of arcade based games that are influenced by statistics. Their main problem was always getting the balance right, and how NBA Live 98 answers this issue will be discussed later. But what I wish to discuss now is another of EA Sports very well known market footprints- a hallmark, really- graphics. Every new game, every year, breaks new ground. First it was Virtual Stadium technology, then motion captured polygonal players that actually looked like real humans... this year, EA Sports concentrated in refining their technology. And the results, dear reader, are no less than amazing.
You see, what they did was, they added frames. A LOT of frames. This helps the fluidity of the movements immensely, and allowed EA Sports to include things like real player moves- not only generic plays, but also specific ones. Malone delivers like Malone, and Barkley (yes, he's "in the game" this time) dunks like Barkley. It's great fun, and is doubly impressive when you realize that all players have their real-life counterparts' faces bit-mapped onto them. Since all spectacular plays are automatically shown using a great close-up replay, the fact that the players seem so much like themselves makes for a real incentive to play well. On my wishlist for Live 99: make those faces move like in real life. THAT would be a treat!
But frames do not the whole story tell. The players are constructed with a larger number of polygons, and they look better than ever. Muscle tones are clearly shown, and the fact that a close up looks just as good as a wider camera shot is only one more reason to enjoy this game. EA Sports also took the time to fix one of the annoying faults of previous games, that of the rims, which now move realistically and affect the ball when appropriate.
"Rim physics", then. Anything else? Yes, of course. Live 98 has too many camera views to count, and all the details you can think of, and as usual, they are all "tweakable" during the game. But, much more importantly, this year EA Sports are offering built-in 3dfx support. Now, I may sound like an over-enthusiastic teenager, but people, NBA Live 98 looks SO good with a 3dfx card, that you simply MUST have one ready. It still looks very, very good without, but to be honest, I see no point in playing it this way- get Santa to buy you a Voodoo. You won't regret it.
Back to basics
I could go on and on about Live 98 's graphics, but one has to put a stop to oneself somewhere (No! No! The dunks! Did I tell you about the Dunks?! And the crossovers? Wow, they look SO goo... urm). As far as installation goes, NBA Live 98 builds on the experience of a company which churns out new titles like chickens lay eggs, so naturally, it's perfectly round and tasty. Or in other words, the installation is quick, painless, and fully customizable, allowing you to choose exactly what components should be on your drive. This is important, as the "normal" installation is over 170MB in size, excluding some crucial sound files, and some clever resizing is possible if you choose carefully. In this regard, if you have a fast, preferably SCSI CD Rom, then you can easily save a lot of disk space.
The opening and in-game videos are superb, the best I've seen in a PC sports game. They are fast, smooth and fun to watch. And watch them you will, because NBA Live 98 includes a "half-time show" (which you need to specifically ask for, thank god), and it is a different one for each home court and game. Game options include all the usual Live options, with a new three-point competition, which I will mention later, and General Manager mode. This new mode allows you to create a fantasy league of your fancy (or choose the NBA), participate in a draft for your chosen team, and run through a season. Live 98 simulates a lot of games to create "the world before this year's draft", which means that the players may come our differently than in real life. The whole business is quite exciting, and my only wish is that I could play through several seasons instead of just one.
As for interface, I do have a complaint. EA Sports designed a new interface for this year's hoops game fashion model, and although it is pretty, just as some designer clothing, it can get pretty cold in there. Every new screen is opened with a drawing of funky looking "computer lines" (remember Tron?), and although the end result looks nice, the fact that you have to wait between 3 and 4 seconds each time for the drawing to be complete becomes tiresome rather quickly. I couldn't find an option to turn the "drawing" off, sadly enough, so all that's left for me is to bitch about it.
Otherwise, the interface is similar to what we know and love from previous generations of the family, with everything understandable and easily accessible. Oh, wait, I did find one friendliness problem- in the controller configuration screen, it is not always clear which controller you are currently working on. The "highlight" feature, at least on my monitor, is simply not distinct enough. There are actual bugs in the interface this time, though, and the two I found are: setting up the rules to "sim" (or "custom"), then choosing a different number of fouls than stated results in the rules reverting back to "arcade" when you restart the game- but still staying under the "custom" heading. Also, there is an option to change the difficulty setting of controllers separately from the game, to allow setting a different difficulty level for each player. Fine, only this changes back to default if you do not change the game difficulty (from the main menu) to the same level, again when you restart the game.
It's the game that count
But all of these are minor quibbles. The most important thing is that NBA Live 98 plays very well indeed. First of all, EA Sports have listened to our cries, and have included a save game and replay feature. And saving replays is an option you will use a lot, because you can see some amazing stuff happening on court. No, this game did not suddenly become the king of simulations, but as a simulation-arcade, it certainly delivers.
For starters, EA Sports got their act together, and sat down to fix those glaring errors of Live 98 's predecessor. Passing the ball to the center for a sure two pointer will not work anymore, and the centers do not dominate the game as before. The three-pointer fests are gone too, as the computer actually tries to play intelligently when down by a big margin, running rotations and looking for imbalances in your team. You will get punished quickly if you do not react, and I have almost lost a game with Seattle vs. Vancouver, even though I led 35-19 by the end of the third quarter. If the result seems low, it is because I was using 3 minute quarters. This points to the fact that it is still ridiculous to play 12 minute quarters, unless you like 220-195 scorelines, but- and this is But with a capital B- other games' scores are finally calculated using the same quarter length as your own. This fixes the main problem with seasonal play, as it gets the statistics in order.
Control is kept simple, yet can become very complicated if you have, for example, a Gravis GrIP. You can assign buttons for things like forced dunk (a "direct shot") and Alley-Oops, crossover and spin moves. A minor gripe is that I couldn't make a "quickshot" by will, say when under time pressure and wishing to just release the ball without jumping. The engine simply insists on wasting precious time on executing a jump shot.
A more serious problem with the controls is in the fun "3 point shootout competition" available in NBA Live 98. The competition is duplicated from the all-star game, and is quite enjoyable, especially as you can choose any mix of up to 8 CPU and human players. The problem is that when shooting, one cannot, again, execute a shot quickly- a full jump shot is required, and not only that, it cannot be executed before the previous ball actually hits something (floor, net, board or rim). If you get under time pressure, this can quickly throw you off balance. Two other, minor issues with the 3 point competition are the fact that one cannot skip CPU players, and that balls have no "collision detection", which means that they may come to rest "on top" of each other after identical shots. But all in all, the idea is great, and the whole thing can get pretty exciting, especially played against human opponents.
In actual gameplay, the computer players' AI is quite reasonable when played in "superstar" mode. I found that any mode below that is simply too easy, as it hurts the one aspect of the play where the computer excels- transition offense. The thing with this game is that the "tougher" it gets, the better the computer plays the offense. Yes, it marginally improves the defense, too, but it is still relatively easy to reach a reasonable shot position with two or three quick passes, mainly because the defense is not aggressive enough. The main improvement to the defense at the higher levels is that the computer is less susceptible to fast breaks finding two or three players alone on the attack with a simple long pass. A major improvement in this year's title is the fact that the computer doesn't cheat anymore, or at least if it does, it isn't noticeable- and you don't see any more of the ridiculous "dunk blocking" from yesteryear.
As I played the game, I noticed an interesting effect: there is no real need for the turbo button, and in fact, it ruins the game. I eventually disabled it completely. Without using turbo, a match goes at just the right pace, and you avoid seeing too many unrealistic plays. All in all, I strongly recommend that you do the same, and disable the turbo function in the controller menu. In any case, while playing, I found two severe problems with gameplay. The first is that computer attackers can get "stuck" with the ball if surrounded by too many defenders (say, your computer controlled defenders double-team and you supply "third person cover"), and if that player has a low pass rating, he will simply stay there, bouncing the ball until either the 24 second shot clock ends or 3-in-the-key is called. This works especially well on Power Forwards, who usually have lower pass ratings.
A much more severe problem, one that ruins the game and prohibited me from giving it an otherwise justified award, is the fact that the computer almost never fouls. In all my games, I was only fouled once, when shooting a desperate 3 pointer with a terrible shooter, using a lean shot, bumping into a defender more than actually having him hit me. This hurts the flow of the game very much, and is unpardonable. EA Sports have already admitted this is a bug, and will be releasing a patch to address this (and some of the other problems) sometime in the near future. But as it stands now, NBA Live 98 suffers greatly from this phenomenon, making anything other than exhibition matches or 3-point shootouts quite pointless.
No, I haven't forgotten, I still owe you a few words on sound during play. Well, to keep it simple, this is the first time I have played a PC sports game where the announcer doesn't make stupid mistakes. Announcing is done on cue, when needed, is unintrusive and fun to hear. Great job there, EA!
Well then. NBA Live 98 is, currently, the best PC 5-on-5 basketball game in existence (I haven't seen NBA Action yet). But until EA Sports fix some of those nasty bugs, especially the "no fouls" one, I cannot recommend this game without reservations. Get it if you have someone to play it with, or do not mind playing exhibition games and shooting threes until the patch comes out. But don't get me wrong- it's a great game, and if you don't mind the wait for the patch (which should not be too long), and especially (or maybe, mandatorially?) if you have a 3dfx card, go and grab a copy off the store shelf nearest to you. And dump Live 97 in the nearest trashbin, while you are on your way.
UPDATE, DECEMBER 12, 1997: EA Sports have just released the patch for this game, which deals with many of the problems, and most importantly, the no-foul bug. This makes an already great game better - and also makes the game worthy of a silver award, as mentioned in the review. Also, I was in error, and it is indeed possible to turn the line drawing between screens off, via the options screen. Apologies for the mistake
Review By GamesDomain
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