NBA Live 98
NBA Live '98 is EA Sports' latest edition in its now classic NBA Live series, and there are plenty of new features in this latest offering, including direct dunking, direct passing, more player moves, a GM mode, 3-point Shoot-out game, 3D polygon players with cyber-modeled faces (actual player face shots were used), 3Dfx support, DirectX support, and incredible virtual stadiums. You can play a single exhibition game, a whole season (or any game from a season) or the playoffs, and can do it all in single or multiplayer mode. You can also use the GM mode to draft any player in the NBA except Jordan (more on that in a second) to make up new teams. And with the nice addition in NBA Live '98 of a player editor, you can create custom players.
When I first fired up the game, I chose to play the Seattle Sonics against the Chicago Bulls. After playing for the first five minutes, I noticed something essential was noticeably missing: Michael Jordan. I popped out of my game, went to the Bulls roster and lo and behold, good old MJ was replaced by someone called "The Player." I guess MJ didn't approve. No problem; with the player creator tool I could create MJ by entering all his stats for the previous season. Very nice feature for EA to have thrown in.
Okay, like a lot of other people out there, I thought because the graphics were incredible the gameplay and controls would probably suck. No game that looks this good is going to play that well. Well, to my surprise the controls are excellent and pretty intuitive, and the gameplay is a sheer blast. I played with my SideWinder Game Pad, and sure enough the players moved about as I directed them. I intuitively passed the ball, pointing in the direction of the player I wanted to pass to, and sure enough the ball went to the right player. Being one to play first and read later, I started to test the various buttons on my SideWinder and found that each button actually did a different thing. I could crossover, drive, run, and pivot. After reading the manual, I found that I could also call plays.
One thing I really like about $NBA Live '98 are all the options. You can select your skill level from Rookie, Starter, All-Star and Superstar, and game rules from Arcade, Simulation and Custom. You can either control the whole team, pressing a button to switch from one player to the next as in most basketball games, or you can actually select one player to control throughout the whole game. I found that the difficulty settings covered everything from the super-easy to the super-hard, with Simulation, All-Star being the most "realistic." You can also create your own teams and/or select from all the teams in the league. All player stats are available and customized players are simple to create. Players pretty much play like their human counterparts and their performance is affected by their stats. The Season mode is great in that you can play along with the current season in real life. I also found the Season calendar pretty handy in seeing what games were coming up on the tube.
EA has definitely taken the graphics to a new level. Everything, including the players, is true 3D. If you are one of the lucky few with a 3Dfx board, you are in for a treat with this one. The courts are accurately modeled and simply beautiful. You can see reflections of players, lights and advertisements along the sidelines. The logos, wood and reflections are done so well, at times you almost feel like you're seeing the real thing. Without a 3Dfx card, the graphics are still pretty good—a hallmark of EA Sports titles. The player movements are natural and more varied than in previous incarnation. Players crossover, pass from behind, fade away and lean in when shooting; they slam backwards, slam straight in, and, in my favorite move of all, will fall and slide when tripped or fouled. The audience is also a bit more detailed and actually moves now and then. When oppenents get drawn to the line, the crowd in front of the basket goes nuts trying to distract the player. It would have been a nice touch if EA included streamer sticks, but they didn't.
All the players have snapshots of the real players wrapped on their polygon heads. Players also vary in size like the real guys. On the down side, the best graphics are the up-close replay graphics and not the actual gameplay graphics. These sequences, although accurate replays, are a bit choppy, as if you're watching mannequins or robots playing. The ever-still, plastered faces of the players range from being pretty funny to almost creepy. Imagine coming around a corner in Quake 2 and seeing -- Karl Malone. Still, considering today's technology, the graphics are mighty impressive, better than any other basketball sim I have seen, and are a promising glimpse of what we can look forward to in the future.
The audio for NBA Live '98 is excellent as well. There is play-by-play commentary from TNT's Color Analyst Verne Lundquist who does a pretty good job. Calls are made at the right times, and are always correct. I found this to be amazing considering how smooth and quick the commentary was. The audience cheers and boos appropriately, including the ever familiar, "Defense!...Defense!" The music in the game is your typical NBA jam type we've heard a million times during commercials, but unfortunately most of the music only stands out during the menu screens. Within the game itself, you only get a similar track playing now and then. It would have been nice to have some classic stadium tracks, including the well known trumpet lead to "Charge!" or the late-game "Dr. Who" kazoo. But overall, the audio is better than most other basketball sims and will hopefully be perfected in releases to come.
Multiplayer Support & Experience
NBA Live '98 supports multiplayer functionality over modem, serial connection, network play, and on a single computer. One annoying thing about NBA Live '98 is that you are forced to have a CD for every PC on a network. This really sucks if you have more than one computer set up at home for multiplayer gaming. Basically you have to either pay for the game twice or stick to playing on one screen. EA should have made it so that only one CD would be needed for the one PC hosting the game. This was a major disappointment for me and cost this game some major points.
NBA Live '98 comes with a good manual that covers everything you need to know. Although the gameplay is pretty intuitive and you can figure things out with the well-laid-out menus in the game itself, the manual does come in handy. I especially like the quick button layout on the first two pages, followed by the index on the next, making things particually easy to find.
Win95, P100, 50 MB hard drive space, 16 MB RAM, high color (65,535 color) compatible 1M PCI SVGA video card with DirectDraw compatible driver, 4X CD-ROM drive w/ Win95 drivers (MPC2 compliant—most are), DirectX 5 (included on the CD), a keyboard and a mouse. I definitely recommend a gamepad with more than four buttons. I tested the game on a P90 with 40 MB RAM and a 4 MB Rendition Verite based card and the game was pretty choppy, but playable. The odd thing was, changing the resolution settings up and down did not make a difference, so make sure you test it before you turn everything off.
Overall, EA Sports has another winner in the lineup. With the amazing virtual stadium graphics, 3D polygon players with cyber-modeled faces, new player moves, an in-depth GM trade mode, and all player stats, NBA Live '98 is the best the PC world has to offer in basketball simulations, hands down. Hopefully next time EA will let those of us with access to a network have the ability to play multiplayer off a single-hosted CD. If EA keeps going at this rate, sport simulation fans have a lot to look forward to; even without improvement, NBA Live '98 rates a solid 90.