NBA Live 99 Preview

The next incarnation of EA Sports' popular hoops game promises better AI and markedly improved visuals

EA Sports is synonymous with quality sports games. Madden, FIFA, NHL, Triple Play. When people think of sports games, they think of those titles. And when gamers think of electronic basketball, they think of EA's NBA Live series, arguably EA Sports' premier sports franchise. NBA Live's blend of fast action and sports simulation over a hidden mass of stats is an award-winning combination that has won over many fans, including me. As recently as a few years ago, I wasn't much of a sports game fan, but one play of NBA Live 96, and I was hooked. The fast action roped me in, and the rest of the game's polish and depth kept me a fan forever.

With NBA Live 99, EA Sports has given us its best NBA game to date. In most respects it stays true to the previous NBA Lives and, on the face of it, doesn't really play that differently. However, the better engine, greater graphics detail, enhanced AI, and several other gameplay tweaks have elevated this game to a new level.

The first thing you notice about NBA Live 99 is the improved graphics. The animation and motion capture for the players onscreen is amazing. While not quite as fluid as the animation in FIFA 98 or the upcoming FIFA 99, NBA Live 99 nonetheless offers good enough animation that the players look and move as realistically as they do in real life. The way the players cross over and pivot conjures up visions of watching actual NBA games. There are also now new fake shots and fake moves. Other animations also add to the impression of controlling lifelike players. When the announcer starts a game off, you see your players streaming out of the locker room, high fiving each other, jogging gingerly up to center court, or rotating their arms for last-minute stretches. And, of course, the animation is really nice for the layups and especially dunks. While many of the dunks in Live 99 look similar to those in previous NBA Lives, they just look better this year. You'll see Ostertag hanging for a few seconds on the basket, swinging left and right a little, and then dropping down to the ground. If you go for a replay, you'll even see his mouth open and his face turn into a visage of determination, thanks to the more detailed engine. And when he finishes a particularly good dunk, you'll see him celebrating, waving his hands in the air and pumping his fist.

Not only does the new engine add moving mouths to the game, but it also brings 3D faces to life. All the players now have expressions, which are most noticeable in the lineup screens. You'll see the players smiling or scowling. Sometimes the expressions look goofy, but other times, the realism is eerily fascinating. The 3D faces also look amazingly like the real players' faces. Rodman looks like Rodman, and Kukoc looks like Kukoc. It's uncanny the way the engine is able to deliver such accurate-looking faces. However, during the game, the resemblance tumbles a little. The new engine is also better at differentiating the sizes of players. So now, big guys like Ostertag and Smits look huge compared with tinier players like Muggsy Bogues.

While the engine and graphics are nice, the enhanced AI is equally impressive. The computer is just plain smarter than it was in previous versions of NBA Live. Now, when you drive into a group of opposing players, you are almost guaranteed to have the ball stolen. You wade into that many hands, and the ball is bound to be slapped away. The defending players are also better at getting rebounds. The increased number of steals and better overall defense are a welcome addition to NBA Live 99.

Your own computer-controlled players are also smarter. They run to the basket more to add assists or rebounds, so when you go for a three-point play and the ball misses, it's now more likely that you'll have a guy under the basket to tip in the ball. I also noticed that the tendency to foul too much at the end of quarters (especially for the losing team) has been curtailed somewhat. The beefed-up defense now adds incentive to pass more often in games. And because defending players don't play as close on defense (they give a slightly bigger cushion now), you won't have to worry about having the ball picked off.

With the better engine and AI, NBA Live 99 promises to not only continue the excellent gameplay of the series, but also add more challenge and beauty to this EA Sports gem. With live drafts and multiple season play to go along with the other enhancements, NBA Live 99 should more than satisfy digital basketball junkies.

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