"Third in the franchise, and the best so far"
NBA Inside Drive was a franchise created when the Xbox was first released, two years later we have the third version and High Voltage like last years game have improved the series immensely. The question is, if you have Inside Drive 2003 should you upgrade to this one? The answer is yes.
NBA Inside Drive 2004 features a variety of game modes; practice, season, single match, playoffs and others. Obviously the mode where you will spend most of your time is season and this lets you play either one single season giving you one crack at the championship ring, or build a team up over twenty five season with many more tasks to deal with. The season can be highly customised with options such as fantasy draft, quarter length and season length all able to be changed. You can even change the number of games in the playoffs, so if you don't like playing seven games you don't have to.
Obviously choosing the franchise mode over only playing one season will lead to a more in depth game experience. Throughout the season before the trade deadline teams will offer you trades which you can decline, you will have to deal with injuries and other problems as well as new players coming through from the NCAA. If you don't want to deal with all that you can quit after one season. Although the season mode on the front GUI says you can play a franchise or individual season, it does not give you this option and assumes that you want to play a franchise.
The practice mode allows you to practice tasks such as free throw shooting, passing and normal shooting. When free throw shooting a bar comes up with two categories, power and accuracy. You have to press X when the ball is over both to determine whether the shot will go in or not. The weaker the player is at free throws, the faster the ball moves making it more difficult to get the shot right. This system works well, however if you miss you're last shot you are called for a foul.
If you don't want to deal with anything from the franchise or season mode then you can jump right to the playoffs. This lets you get right to the business end of the season straight away and is obviously the quickest path to the championship ring. The playoffs game mode allows you to customise which teams are in the playoff brackets as well as options like the quarter length and how many playoff matches are played in each round, much like the season game mode.
The gameplay in NBA Inside Drive 2004 is based around a simulation mentality. You can't just drive towards the paint and hope for the best, you have to setup plays and pass the ball around to find an open man. Three point shooting for most players is difficult but of course for the stars of the long range shots they will be able to sink most of them. You can adjust which fouls are called by the referee. One problem with the game, especially with the default "Drive" camera is the out of bounds lines. You can feel as if your about four or five centimetres in from the line but the game may call you out. It catches both you and the AI out at times and can be quite frustrating.
NBA Inside Drive 2004 is officially licensed by the NBA and thus includes official uniforms for the teams both home and away, official logos, official players and official stadiums. The game also includes the All Star game during the season and you are offered the chance to play in this game should you so desire. The stadiums featured throughout the game are unique for each city and have aesthetic touches such as cheerleaders and the coach and substitute players on the sidelines as well as a fully animated 3D crowd.
The controls for the game are good with the face buttons used to pass, jump, try to steal the ball etc and the triggers used for blocking and other tasks. You can charge the paint and duke with certain button combinations to get to the basket as well. Sometimes it can be frustrating because pressing A is meant to change to the player closest to the ball but the game can sometimes be confused by just who is closest to the ball. You can also use the DPAD in the middle of a game to change tactics on the fly without having to pause and change coaching options.
Both the opposition AI and your team mate AI is quite impressive. On the lowest difficulty level they still offer a challenge and you will have to work to get your championship ring. When you're not in control of them your team mates will move to block players on defence, or try and find open spots when you are in control of the ball. Sometimes the AI as mentioned before are caught out by the exaggerated out of bounds rules but for most of the game they play well and don't foul other players often.
Visually NBA Inside Drive 2004 is impressive and features some great graphics no doubt stemming from the fact it is an Xbox exclusive. Players have changed this year and now feature tattoos and correct hairstyles and along with this the animations seem to have improved and the players move fluidly and react in a realistic manner. For instance if a player charges the net, the defending player may be knocked to the ground.
Kevin Collaboro and the other commentators return again this year and offer some decent commentary. However in one game I played the commentary seemed to just totally drop out for some reason and didn't return till the next game. The ambient and environmental sounds are good as well with crowds reacting to plays and a stadium announcer talking about players and other things to do with the home franchise.
For the first time, NBA Inside Drive this year features online support via Xbox Live. The game is also XSN compatible which allows you to run your own individual tournaments via XSNSports.com. You can also play multiplayer on the same console as well. Play on Xbox Live is great but after each match the game drops you out of the lobby and you can't have a rematch without finding your friend or the other player again. The game also supports downloadable content via rosters and some rosters are already available for download now.
Overall NBA Inside Drive 2004 is another welcome improvement to a franchise which is moving ahead each year. The addition of Xbox Live play may bring some new fans to the franchise, but for those who have stuck with it since its inception, the 2004 edition breathes new life into the franchise as well as offers some great gameplay. There are other games on the market for basketball fans but you really should try this one before making a decision.