ESPN NBA Basketball Review (Xbox)

Flash vs. Substance.

This is what I planned to discuss in the introduction of this review when I was first asked to review “ESPN NBA Basketball”. I was going to talk about how much I loved “NBA 2K3” when I first bought the game. About how I loved the player models, real arenas and franchise mode extras. Then I would talk about how after a few weeks, I began to see some of the flaws that ruined the game for me. Things like the lack of fouls, non-existent post game and every team playing with the same style began to annoy me and I found myself playing other basketball games after a mere few weeks. That was going to be my intro until I bought “ESPN NBA Basketball”.

The great comedian Chris Rock once said, “the money is in the comeback.” What that means is that most companies need people to continually buy their product, so in order to do that they must offer some incentive. Most of the time, companies add features to the current product, making it “New and Improved”. However, video game companies seem to be different when it comes to games that they make annually. I’m not saying that the companies don’t add features to their games each year - because they do. But they also remove features; only to put them back in years later; all the while trying to pass them off as new. Electronic Arts has done it in the past with versions of “Madden” and “NBA Live” and now Visual Concepts has begun to do the same thing with “ESPN NBA”. This has always annoyed me greatly. Do these companies think that we don’t realize they removed important features? So, what did Visual Concepts remove? Even with those things removed; is it still a great game? Read on to find out.

Nobody does player faces, player models, and arenas better then Visual Concepts, and “ESPN NBA Basketball” is another example of this. Not only are stars like Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson’s faces spot on, but most of the subs are too. I have to give credit to Visual Concepts for their dedication when it comes to getting the player faces right. When a game has Tyronn Lue and Junior Harrington looking like their real life counterparts, you know the developer really worked hard to get the faces right.

While this may seem to be a small thing, I have always felt that it is important for a basketball game to have accurate arenas. There should be an entirely different atmosphere when I’m playing at Madison Square Garden than when I’m playing at the Target Center. The lighting should be different and the Garden should seem as cavernous as it really is. Visual Concepts has always done a great job with this, and they do it once again with “ESPN NBA”. This year they did what they were supposed to do. They added to their already great stadium models by including any and every change made to an NBA arena this past season. I was impressed that Visual Concepts even added little things like the electronic advertising boards that can be seen in many of the newer arenas in the league. Once again, another great job by Visual Concepts.

I remember that this illustrious site’s owner, Steve Noah, mentioned in his “ESPN NFL Football” impressions, that he hated the fact that after a score or a big play, the crowd wouldn’t stay loud for long enough. I also noticed that in “ESPN NFL” and it really didn’t annoy me, however, the same thing occurs in “ESPN NBA” and it annoys the hell out of me. After a dunk or big play by the home team, the crowd will roar but will go quiet just a few seconds later. It’s a small gripe, but it just sounds odd to have the crowd go crazy one moment and quiet the next.

Another small gripe is over the choice to use the same in-game music as “ESPN NFL”. After hearing it over and over again while playing the football game, I certainly don’t want to hear the exact same music again in “ESPN NBA”. I also don’t see why they couldn’t use original music during the game.

Visual Concepts added Tom Tolbert to the commentary this year. Unlike in Visual Concepts’ football game; I’ve never been a big fan of their basketball commentary. It’s always been very bland and ordinary, and never stood out to me in any way. Adding Tolbert to the commentary has actually made it worse. I never thought Tolbert was a good commentator in the first place, but I understand that Visual Concepts wanted an actual ESPN color man to be in the game this year. However, the commentary sounds disjointed now with Tolbert in the booth. Even though we know that most play by play and color commentaries are recorded separately, we aren’t supposed to be able to tell that during the game. The commentary doesn’t flow and occasionally Tolbert’s comments will have nothing to do with the on-court action. In my opinion, the commentary is even worse this year then it already was last year.

The biggest additions to this year’s game are the “24/7” mode and “Isomotion”. I have to give Visual Concepts a ton of credit for “24/7” mode. It’s original, inventive and addictive. The basic premise is that you’ll create a player and compete against many players and different challenges all the while building your reputation. There are multiple features in this mode; including games against legends like Larry Bird, that are only available at certain times and competing against other street legends. I honestly feel that this was the most enjoyable feature in “ESPN NBA” this year. That said, I can only give this mode so much credit. When I buy a NBA basketball game, I don’t buy it for the “Crib”, street or one-on-one mode. I buy it with the hope that the game will play a fun and realistic version of basketball. No matter how great “24/7” mode is, it doesn’t matter if the gameplay in the other modes is lacking.

“Isomotion” is very similar to EA’s “Freestyle Control” in its purpose. It works on both offense and defense. On offense, the user moves the right analog stick to initiate a crossover or move to the basket. On defense, the user moves the analog stick in order to anticipate the move and counter it or to take a charge. It is designed to be like a chess match where the offensive player makes one move, the defensive player counters and the offensive player counters that move. While I compared it to “Freestyle Control”, its much more complicated than that - and that’s part of the problem. You won’t be able to crossover and move with ease like you can with “Freestyle Control”. With “Isomotion”, it takes a few games of practice before you can master it. The only problem is Sega’s inability to provide us with a manual or tutorial that accurately describes the moves, so most people are left in the dark at the beginning. Without a manual, tutorial or practice, a person will find himself constantly getting charges called against him. I have to say that I like “Isomotion” once you get the hang of it but be aware that there is a steep learning curve.

Now, I’d like to go back to what I talked about in the introduction: companies removing features that they had in their previous versions. When I went to the camera options, and saw that options such as setting your own camera view and the zoom function had been removed, I was in shock. I have no idea why Visual Concepts would remove this feature from the game when it has been in this series since its inception. Please don’t tell me it was because of a lack of memory or some other lame excuse. If you asked the majority of people who bought this game: “Would you rather have adjustable cameras, a crib mode or a game of 21?” - I believe that most would say adjustable cameras. On a personal note, I play all basketball games from a baseline or behind camera view and its damn near impossible to play “ESPN NBA” from this view. You can barely tell if a shot goes in or misses, and it looks like you’re watching a game from the upper deck. Now I acknowledge that not everyone plays the game from that view and that not everyone is affected by this change, but I find it unacceptable that you are unable to adjust the camera in this game. I can’t wait until next year’s game when Sega advertises “ESPN NBA Basketball 2K5 - NOW WITH NEW ADJUSTABLE CAMERAS!”

As I always say - the gameplay is what matters and that is where I feel the game falls a little short. Now, I’m going to be honest with you. When reviewing this game, I’m not just comparing it to last year’s version. I’m comparing it to the other games in its genre, “NBA Live 2004” and “Inside Drive 2003”. Compared to the two other games, the off the ball movement of other teammates leaves a lot to be desired. I will admit that this aspect of the game has improved compared to “NBA2K3” (which had no movement whatsoever), but it still hasn’t improved nearly enough. Players still do a lot of standing around, and only seem to move when a play is called - and that’s the problem. Players should only be standing around when an isolation play is called or when an outside shooter is spotting up for a three-point shot. You should not have to call a play to get players to move on offense. I’ve heard people on the Operation Sports Forums claim that “ESPN” is more realistic because players stand around a lot during games; I haven’t found that to be the case. While writing this review, I’ve probably seen four NBA games on TV and attended two games live this season, and I’ve found that teams constantly move and run around screens - whether a play is called or not. Even though certain teams like the Mavericks or Nets move more than others, constant movement is a part of most offenses in the NBA. The bottom line is this - I simply shouldn’t have to call a play to get my players to move.

While we’re on the subject of play calling, for some strange reason Visual Concepts has decided to change the way plays are called. In previous versions of this series, each team had four plays out of roughly 80 to choose from. There were diagrams that showed you how each play was run. This year, there are four play sets. Read that last sentence again. Four playsets. When you call one of the playsets, the play that is run is determined by where the ball handler is on the court. The worst part of this is that there is no way to tell what play you’re calling. No diagrams, no tutorials…nothing. I have no idea what Visual Concepts was thinking when they decided to change the playcalling.

The Xbox version of the game also seems to have a problem with button response. You have to press extremely hard to get important buttons - like the pass and shoot - to respond. This is an entirely new problem; as last years game did not have this issue. Also, for some crazy reason Visual Concepts decided to designate the pass and fake pass functions to the same button. If I recall correctly; in last year’s game, tapping the pass button initiated a lob pass; while holding it made your player perform a “bullet” pass. This year, tapping the pass button initiates a fake pass. It’s extremely frustrating late in a game to want to pass the ball and being unable to because you didn’t press the button hard enough. No other basketball game has their functions organized like this and I can’t understand why Visual Concepts would do this.

There are a few other small gripes I have about the game. The post game still needs a lot of work. While it isn’t as hard to move back players as it was in “NBA 2K3”, it’s still a little too hard. Shaq should be able to back down a smaller player with ease, but that still doesn’t seem to be the case. The lack of different animations is kind of glaring when compared to other games this year, as well. It’s very “hit or miss” with the foul animations. Once again, nearly every foul call appears to be called a shooting foul even if the animation doesn’t show the player attempting a shot. This was a small problem in “NBA 2k3”, and it wasn’t fixed this year, either.

I know this seems like this is a mostly negative review, but there are a few positives about this game. The substitution AI is much improved from previous versions. In years past, the AI would substitute based strictly on position and not ability. For instance, the Sixers usually use a three-guard rotation of Eric Snow, Allen Iverson and Aaron McKie. Previously, the AI would substitute a PG for a PG - no matter how bad the backup was, and would rarely play McKie at SG and move Iverson to the point. This year, the AI seems to substitute based on placing the best player available into the position. In fact, “ESPN” has the best substitution AI I’ve ever seen. The fast break is extremely realistic, and the best that I’ve ever seen in a video game. Players get out on the break; run their lanes and position themselves well in order to finish. Watching a team run a fast break on TV, and then watching it in this game is great – they look exactly the same. The new dunk animations have been redone and look fantastic. Unlike last year, players actually get more then three inches off the floor when they dunk. Finally, unlike “Live”, this game runs at a great pace and the presentation is very similar to what you’d see on TV.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was disappointed in “ESPN NBA Basketball”. Part of that disappointment stems from the high expectations I had for this game. But most of my disappointment comes from the things I felt Visual Concepts should have worked on but didn’t, and the features they took out of the game. Even though I know Visual Concepts will never admit it, it’s clear that they designed this game to play more like “Live” did last year out of the box. While that will probably help them sell more copies of the game, I feel Visual Concepts should have focused on other more important problems; like off the ball movement and in game AI, before adding other modes and removing key features.


ESPN NBA Basketball Score
out of 10