Game Review - by Jeremiah Pratt
EA Sports returns with their proverbial "new" edition of pro basketball in NBA Live '99. This title comes out in impressive and timely fashion and should garner a lot of attention due to the 1998-99 NBA lockout--after all, this is the most basketball we'll see this season!
The multitude of features that accessorize this game can only be compared to a hundred-dollar shoeshine for a ten-dollar pair of loafers. The ten-year season mode offers top-notch depth of play with individual players appreciating or depreciating in their various qualities every year. While this mode would have been more effective and enjoyable with the addition of an amateur draft, this doesn't amount to a hill of beans because seasonal play is ultimately reduced to a mere formality. As long as you play in All-Star difficulty or lower, you will not lose, and the string of eighty-two plus games will only delay your inevitable championship wine throwing party.
There are two sides to every sports game these days--the statistical/simulation and just plain fun (arcade) side. One of NBA Live '99's strongest aspects is that it provides both styles of gameplay with good balance. If you wish to play an all-out arcade style game, NBA Live 99 provides all the glitz with monster dunks and big steals, with complete replay and close-up player celebrations afterwards. You can configure the rules to include things like defensive fouls or going out of bounds. More realistic games can be had with the simulation mode, which behaves a little more like real basketball without a drive and dunk on every play. Statistics become more realistic and important in this mode as well. The three-point shootout mode essentially remains unchanged, but my favorite addition is the practice mode, which whisks you away to the beach for a little streetball. This feature is useful since you can pick your player of choice and get used to the controls on an empty court with just a few bystanders. You get none of the pressures and all of the fun. I'm usually irked by games that force you learn the controls as you play, usually causing you to get drilled in the process, which just isn't fun. Looks like EA took a hint from Sega's NBA Action '98 in this area.
I couldn't fathom much more than the word 'wow' when I first saw the new graphics for this game. This is clearly the biggest improvement in this release, and I seriously doubt anyone else will come close. Certain changes have been made to the graphics engine that will certainly separate NBA Live '99 from the competition. The only gripe I have is with the performance. Some of the transitions between the player animation sequences seem a little jumpy, but that could be a performance issue with my own computer since I have yet to get a 3d graphics card for my PII 266. Otherwise the gameplay is smooth and the player animations are smooth and fluid like real life players. The first change to the graphics engine I noticed was the ability of players to change facial expressions. More polygons have been dedicated to player faces also making them look frighteningly realistic. The engine then manipulates certain polygons the player's faces, stretching and shifting certain parts of the face to express player emotions. This is best showcased in the Auto Replay feature where quite often players will look straight into the camera and wink or point and will also put on mean, happy, and laid-back faces. The second significant improvement is the refining of the player's body types. The players look much more realistic and have are sized to humanoid proportions. The shoes look like real shoes instead of poor remakes of Mafia style concrete blocks on the feet. The players also look better with some muscle detail in close up shots. Players also strut a variety of hairstyles, armbands, kneepads, headbands, eyewear, and sock lengths as Rodman even sports his tattoo collection on his arm. Other graphic improvements include a bench and coach on the sideline, improved arena detail, better looking crowd and crowd animations, reflections of the courts on the glass backboards, and 3-D player portraits instead of action shots. EA has combined these improvements with the extravagant lighting effects that the game already impressed to rack up high score in this category.
On the sound side, NBA Live '99 doesn't disappoint. They got rid of the drab play-by-play man of last year and brought in someone better. This guy sounds a lot like Dick Vitale of NCAA fame with catchy phrases such as "boom baby!" after a great shot. His enthusiasm is a welcome addition to the game. The crowd sounds pretty much the same as it always has - nothing groundbreaking, but solid nonetheless. Players and coaches now supposedly chat with each other during the game too, but it hasn't been too noticeable to me through about 30 games. The usual hip-hop tunes lead you through the interface and the same PA announcer of years past chimes in every now and then. Overall, there isn't much to complain about. The music in this series has been outstanding and NBA Live 99 is no exception. CD audio hip-hop fills all screens and some moments during the game after a spectacular steal or dunk. I'm happy to see that EA Sports opted to not use a MIDI track since the quality is not up to CD audio and the more aurally tuned of us can immediately hear the difference.
Gameplay will be the dominant factor in this title's success and seeing that the game is more difficult and realistic, it should be satisfying. Some adjustments to ratings could make the game play even better. If you're into arcade basketball and don't mind waiting for a roster update and a patch, NBA Live 99 might just be for you.