After missing out for a year, fans of the PC NBA Live series can rejoice in the fact NBA Live 2003 is back on the PC. With the NBA back to its flourishing self gamers need an experience matching that of the high flying excitement found today in the worlds biggest basketball league, but does NBA Live 2003 have the inside drive to take it all the way?
NBA Live 2003 doesn't really feature any exciting new game modes, all the basic modes including exhibition, season, franchise, 1 on 1 and practice are present. However one relatively new addition is the playoffs mode, which allows you to play out the tournament style post season found in the NBA without having to play an entire season first. Nothing to call home about, but it could come in handy along the line.
Most of the above modes are self explanatory and don't need further analysis in this review, however out of all the above modes franchise will probably be the most played by any gamer, it certainly was for me. After choosing a team and the usual settings you start your season obviously going out trying to win the most you can. Along the way, other teams will offer player trades giving Live 2003 a realistic feel to the team management side of things. This isn't a new feature, it has been in the NBA Live series for a long time now, so it is great to see EA keeping the fundamental features that make this game unique.
If you want to focus on the GM tasks solely then you can use the simulate function and simply concentrate on player contracts and transactions, however ever due to the somewhat basic features in this area you might get bored quick. Despite the CPU trade offers, GM enthusiasts are left in the dark due to such aspects as basic player contracts and the inability to utilize features like draft pick trades. These features and more are expected to appear in future versions of Live which will certainly make the franchise mode of play even better.
The ingame gameplay in NBA Live 2003 generally comes off with mixed impressions. Firstly, rather large steps have been taken to provide a much more realistic feel to the game. One example of this is the jumping aspect of the game, where players now don't jump higher than the top of the backboard like they did in many previous Live versions. This may be a simple improvement but it makes rebounding and shot blocks much more down to earth, excuse the pun.
Another realistic aspect of Live 2003 is the player ratings and characteristics, and how they effect gameplay. For the past few Live versions we had finally started to see players with higher speed ratings running faster, players with better rebound ratings rebounding more etc etc, and Live 2003 further improves on this. The most notable is the lay-up vs slam dunk ratings, where smaller plays like Allen Iversion and Jason Kidd very rarely take it to the hoop with a slam, rather they execute an equally dazzling lay-up. This has been something that gradually got better in every Live release, with 2003 finally getting the right formula.
Much like EA's FIFA 2003, where the ball acted less like an extension of your body and more like an actual ball, NBA Live 2003 has made ball possession a factor you must take care of while playing the game. Instead of effortlessly passing the ball to anyone like previous Live versions, Live 2003 makes you use your head and time passes for them to be successful. This is not as hard as it sounds, but you must take note of the fact careless passes will probably be turned over to the opposing team. Not only does this add a new dimension to the offensive gameplay, but it also works in your favor on defense. If you make the effort to actually try and intercept a ball you may get lucky, which was generally not an option in previous versions.
However one gameplay aspect of NBA Live 2003 that does need attention is the ingame statistics, which generally comes down to the AI. It is not uncommon to see a point guard make 5 blocks in one game, and on the other side of the coin it is not uncommon to see centers making less than 4 rebounds a game, most of which never seem to be offensive rebounds. If you play the game in a realistic manner, i.e. spread the ball and shoot outside of the paint on occasions, then these tend to improve but they are still clearly present.
CPU teams can become very tedious in the way they attempt to score. If you disregarded the blocked shots as missed field goals, it is very rare for a CPU controlled team to have a realistic field goal percentage. Infact if it wasn't for the magnitude of blocked shots I'd say the field goal percentage for most games would exceed 80%, which is fine for a team like the Lakers on a hot streak, but when this is happening against the Cavaliers you know there is a problem. If you choose to control the CPU team before the game starts and set their offensive scheme to something other than dynamic it helps keep the shooting realistic, but doing this every game gets annoying. Due to this lack of realism on offense sometimes you are forced to play in an arcade fashion to keep the scores even, which is where this game loses its simulation appeal.
Visually speaking NBA Live 2003 PC is simply top notch, however you will need a high spec PC to turn everything up to the max settings. All previous NBA Live versions which featured a 3D engine were beyond the industry standard in graphical quality for their time and Live 2003 is no exception. Each player model has a unique face, unique tattoos, accessories and more, easily allowing them to be recognized as portraits of their real life counterparts. Even if you don't like the appearance of a certain player for whatever reasons, chances are there is an update to download from sites like NBALive.org or NBA-Live.com where various other addons can be downloaded including roster updates. If you still aren't happy with the appearance of a player, or pretty much anything else in the game, then you can download a few tools to get you started making your own updates.
Another impressive aspect of Live 2003's graphical subsystem is the animations. In many previous Live versions, the high paced action got the better of the game engine leaving such animations as dribbling and dunking to be desired. However in 2003, animations are silkier than silk itself. Players going in for the dunk now actually touch the ring with coiled fingers making for much more realistic slams. On top of this, blocked shots look and feel much more realistic and dribbling animations are in the same category.
Perhaps the most innovative feature in the entire game can be found in EA's "Freestyle" control system. Requiring a gamepad with two analog sticks, Freestyle generally allows you to mix up a countless amount of moves in an effort to free yourself from defenders. There are three basic positions - dribbling, face up and post up, which each have their own freestyle functions which in turn can be combined for one big move to the basket. Sometimes these can work too well, with a lane to the basket almost always emerging upon the execution of a few simple moves, but regardless their a treat to watch but only if you use them in moderation.
If you do not have a gamepad with two analog sticks, then you will not be able to take full advantage of the freestyle control system. This is not a huge disadvantage, as much of the time the freestyle moves are unnecessary, but you are missing out to some degree. Sometimes a nicely timed freestyle move like a tight inside spin with your point guard gives you a basket that otherwise would have been impossible, so basically if your serious about your gaming it would be a good idea to invest in a supported control pad.
It is good to see NBA Live back on the PC after the absence of a 2002 version. Live 2003 is far from perfect, many feel it lacks real simulation characteristics and this is true for some areas, however the fact remains it is a fun game with some pretty impressive detail, especially graphically. EA should be able to perfect the gameplay balance within the next few versions, but for the mean time NBA Live 2003 does a reasonably good job in providing a solid NBA experience, which is good because at the moment a PC gamer looking for an NBA fix doesn't have much else to turn to.