ESPN NBA Basketball – XB – Review

You, dear friend,
are a lucky reader, because I’m going to give you the straight dope, the real
deal, the skinny on ESPN NBA Basketball and why it is deservedly the best NBA
game on the market… for some people.  I will also tell you why ESPN NBA
Basketball is possibly the worst NBA game for certain gamers out there,
particularly those who lack patience and time to invest in this hard-court gem. 


Basketball (also known as NBA 2K4) has made several improvements to this year’s
game, most notably with the nifty (and frustrating) Isomotion feature and the
addictive (and frustrating) 24/7 mode.  These additions aren’t just icing on the
basketball cake, they’re integral layers on this courtside confection that give
the game quality and long-term value. 


Before we get to
the great new features, it’s important to know that the solid modes and gameplay
from last year are back and appropriately updated.  The franchise mode that puts
gamers in control of an NBA team is back, with fantasy drafts, multiple user
options (for those who want to battle through the season with a buddy
controlling a competing team), and the same owner features such as drafting
players, trading players, and dealing with overpaying your players. 


Other modes in the
game include one-on-one, street mode (which allows for anything from one-on-one
all the way up to five-on-five) which plays either half-court or full court, and
the multi-player old-school game of 21 that’s a blast to play with your
buddies.  Each of these modes is surprisingly more fun than you’d expect, and
are great options for multi-player games because they can be customized to your


For the first time
since the onset of franchise modes in sports games, the franchise mode is NOT
the most playable mode in the game.  That title belongs to the all-new 24/7


24/7 mode is the
Hoop Dreams of video games.  This mode challenges players to build up a
character from a basic gym rat into the baddest, flashiest streetballer in the
country.  The create-a-player initially isn’t that impressive; there are only 7
or so options to choose from in skin tones, hair styles, and faces.  You can
customize tattoos, knee braces, etc, but the idea of the game (and the reason it
is so addictive) is to defeat other NBA players in games of one-on-one or other
streetball games in order to acquire ranking points and individual items to
equip your player.  In that sense, it’s a mix of basketball and The Sims as you
battle to get as many trophy items as you can. 


Of course you
can’t just jump out onto the court with flashy sunglasses and expect to beat NBA
stars like Rasheed Wallace or Kevin Garnett.  Regardless of what Allen Iverson
says, it takes practice and training to be a playground king.  Training sessions
allow players to boost various attributes, from lay ups and three pointers, to
offensive or defensive awareness.  Each training session (except for free
throws) is a game to 21 either solo or with a partner.  In order to boost the
attributes, certain criteria need to be met on your way to winning the game. 
The sessions get progressively harder, and always have a bit of variation, even
among the same category.  For example, when boosting your passing skill, one
game may require the player to complete 5 lead passes without a turnover to your
teammate, and the next game may require the player to successfully pull off some
shot-to-passes.  This is a great way to turn what could have been mundane into
some entertainment. 


After you’ve built
up your character a bit, it’s time to take him to the streets.  There are
different regions you can take him to around the country, and each station has a
different game to play.  Games can be straight-up one-on-one, but most have a
unique twist to them, such as no turbo, giant basketballs, or even reversed
controls.  The opponents are real NBA players, and they progressively get better
and better.  Once a player is defeated, he gives you his cell phone number so
that you can partner up with him in two-on-two matches later.  After you feel
like you’re ready, it’s time to take on some boss characters in order to move on
up to the next level. 


24/7 mode is tied
to your Xbox’s internal clock (hence the name 24/7 mode).  Each hour, the games
for each region change, so you’ll have to check the schedule if there are some
games that you’d like to try.  For the forgetful, appointments can be set up to
remind you of upcoming matches.  Certain items are unique to holidays, so don’t
forget to play your character on Christmas Day.  Once you’ve decked out your
character, he can be taken online via Xbox Live or can play offline against your
friend’s 24/7 character.  The number of items allows for several permutations of
characters, so expect to see all kinds of wackos online.  Be warned though: if
you don’t play your character for a few days, his attributes will deteriorate. 


The gameplay is
slightly peppered with small glitches, but is still the best simulation
basketball you can buy.  Unlike its main competitor, NBA Live 2004, ESPN NBA is
much more focused on the game of basketball, i.e. setting screens, getting room
for a jumper, or creating the fastbreak.  NBA Live, in comparison, runs up and
down the court like a Bobby Knight coached team after a bad day of practice. 
The slower pace of the game may turn off the casual gamer or the fan of flashy
plays at every end, but the basketball fan will enjoy the strategic side of the
game.  New controls added to the game this year include a lead pass (great for
fast breaks), shot altering to avoid a blocked shot, and some nifty alley-oops. 
But the biggest addition to the game is the Isomotion system, Sega’s answer to
EA’s Freestyle control.


Isomotion is used
both on offense and defense, and is critical to understand, particularly in
one-on-one games.  With Isomotion, the offensive player goes into a hesitation
dribble, sort of lulling the defender to sleep.  From the hesitation, he can
crossover to the right or left, make a quick move forward with a spin move, or
take a step back to give himself some room for the jumper all with the right
thumbstick.  Doesn’t sound too fancy yet, does it?  The trick is that during any
of these, the move can be cancelled instantly by pulling back on the right
thumbstick.  This allows for tons of moves and great control when you need it. 
On the defensive side, gamers can counter the moves with moves of their own. 
The defensive Isomotion moves cut off the dribbling lanes and often result in
steals or general pestering of the dribbler.  This works out into a nice game of
cat and mouse, a sort of “show me what you got and I’ll show you what I got”. 
The Isomotion isn’t completely polished and will make gamers think about
throwing their Xboxes out the window at first, but, like the game itself, once
it gets accustomed to it, it is a lot of fun.  Isomotion takes a long time to
get used to, and is a complete 180 from EA’s Freestyle control.  Fans used to
pushing a few buttons that allow them to split the defense like the Red Sea will
be very disappointed with Isomotion.


I’ve always
disliked the menus and presentation in Sega’s sports games, and this year is not
much different.  Presentation is such a small part of a game, but Sega could
easily do a better job making the game look a little nicer.  Hey, I’m just
looking for things to be ticky-tack over.  Other small shortcomings of the game
include difficult rebounding, the profuse amounts of offensive fouls, and a
rather difficult freethrow shooting system, although these can all be adjusted
with the gameplay sliders. 


As can be
expected, the graphics of ESPN NBA are highly detailed and the most realistic
out there.  They still look a bit like mannequins, but no other basketball game
looks as realistic.  The artists spent a lot of time getting each characters
detail down as much they could, accurately recreating tattoos and free throw
motions, but some of the tattoos seem to be backwards (Richard Jefferson’s “RJ”
looks like a mirror image of itself).  Even so, it’s the attention to detail
that sets this game apart from others.  The crowd is mostly 3-D, so don’t expect
to see any cardboard cutouts in the audience.  The arenas are fantastically
rendered and really seem different from each other to give your team that sense
of being at home or on the road. 


If the game has a
weakness, it would have to be the sound.  Most of the on-court audio sounds
hollow and distant, almost like your listening to the game through some
earmuffs.  The game should be louder to bring out the intensity of the game, but
it’s not.  The commentary from Tom Tolbert and Bill Fitzgerald is okay, but some
lines should clearly have been omitted from the script such as “That’s a rare
rebound for (Maurice) Taylor!”  Taylor is a power forward and averages nearly
five rebounds per game for his career.  The soundtrack, which doesn’t feature
any top tier artists, is surprisingly listenable.  But even if the hip-hop laden
songs aren’t doing it for you, ESPN NBA offers the Xbox only custom soundtrack
feature.  Hooray for custom soundtracks!!!! 


Basketball comes highly recommended to those NBA fans who want to invest
sometime in a franchise mode and 24/7 mode.  It’s a game derived of skill and
basketball IQ rather than fast button-pushing.  It definitely won’t appeal to
everyone, as, like the other sports games in the Sega-EA rivalry, its appeal
depends on what kind of gamer you are.  In my opinion, this is the best
basketball game to hit the video game market ever.  The franchise mode is
fantastic, and the 24/7 mode is an incredible addition to the game that makes it
two games in one turning ESPN NBA Basketball game into a great value and a
permanent resident in your Xbox.   



Gameplay: 9.2

Basketball offers great basketball gameplay.  It may not be full of super
razzle-dazzle moves, but it’s all the more rewarding when it does happen. 
Nothing in the game is given to you… it’s all earned. 


Graphics: 8.8

The graphics are
slightly better than last year, but not much.  To the untrained eye, the game
may not seem all that different.  Props to the personalized moves for star
players and the great looking arenas though. 


Sound: 7.7

Not a whole lot to toot about
with the audio here, as the commentary is so-so.  The arena sounds are a little
tinny, but all the necessary things are there such as squeaking shoes, stadium
announcers, and other ambient noises.  The soundtrack is better than you would
expect, but who needs that when the game allows for a custom soundtrack?


Difficulty: Medium

It will take a
while to get used to at first, but once the controls are figured out, the game
plays great.


Concept: 10.0

BAM!  A perfect
ten for the inclusion of the awesome 24/7 mode and supporting modes like 21 and
street.  The franchise mode is the same as last year, but the updated rosters (Yao!)
make it worthy of picking up.


Multiplayer: 9.0

On Xbox Live or
playing with friends at home, ESPN NBA Basketball is a winner.  The inclusion of
taking your 24/7 guy online is awesome.   


Overall: 9.5

The regular NBA
portion of the game wouldn’t warrant this high of a score, but with 24/7 mode,
this game really takes off.  Definitely a worthy purchase for basketball fans
willing to invest some time in a game.  NBA Live just doesn’t have the depth of
ESPN NBA Basketball.  What are you still doing reading this review?  Go out and
buy this game!