NBA ShootOut 2001 Hands-On

989 stopped by the GameSpot offices with a burn of its upcoming PlayStation 2 hoops title, NBA ShootOut 2001. Can it topple EA's NBA Live series for top roundball honors on the PlayStation 2?

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989 went through some rough times recently with its first sports game for the PlayStation 2, NFL GameDay 2001. GameDay was once the most revered sports franchise on the consoles, but the PS2 version is riddled with bugs and full of AI problems. More importantly, when compared with EA's remarkable Madden, it is embarrassingly inept. It was hoped that 989 could pull things together for its long-standing basketball franchise, NBA ShootOut. Ultimately, while NBA ShootOut 2001 certainly shows several improvements over 989's latest pigskin effort for the PlayStation 2, the question remains - is it enough to supplant the graphically splendid NBA Live 2001 from EA?

We've come to expect a plethora of modes from sports games of the 989 lineage, but the selection of modes in NBA ShootOut 2001 for the PlayStation 2 is somewhat limited. There are three modes of play for both the simulation and arcade settings, which include exhibition, season, and playoffs. There's no three-point shootout, no one-on-one mode, and no franchise mode. Season mode supports full stat tracking, and you may call up to 450 team-specific plays. You may also control the pressure your defenders apply to the opposition and which players will be double-teamed. The hot streak feature, similar to that of the NBA Jam series, has returned, ensuring that games turn into a steady flow of point runs. And as you have come to expect from modern sports video games, the quarter length, fatigue levels, and presentation may be changed to suit your taste.

ShootOut's controls were simplified for last year's edition, and 989 decided to keep it that way for the series' first PlayStation 2 roundball excursion. Icon cutting has been removed, create-a-dunk is nowhere to be found, and there is no all-star game. Sony claims that icon cutting was rarely used and was not implemented due to time constraints. The same holds true for ShootOut's once innovative create-a-dunk mode. There is one button for all the special dribbles, and the move performed is relative to court location and the distance between the offensive and defensive players. Thankfully, icon passing and icon switching have remained, along with 989's patented touch shooting, which uses a meter for increased accuracy. On-the-fly play calling has also made a return, but like in last year's game, you're a sitting duck while calling plays. One innovation in ShootOut 2001 is the read-and-react AI. This feature allows you to turn control of the defense over to the computer by holding in the X button. This feature still needs some tweaking, as the majority of times I used it, the other team seemed to score at will. Another problem with the control scheme is that pressing the shoot button anywhere in the key automatically initiates shooting sequences. If you're looking to pump-fake a defender into the air, this feature can be quite unpredictable. The post game is also somewhat limited. You can back a defender down low in the paint, but which move is performed is at the computer's discretion. Blocking shots is difficult, and the games we played quickly became run-and-gun slamfests.

On the visual side of things, 989's first next-gen b-ball game takes a step up with improved visual clarity and more believable player models, but it falls well short of the stark realism achieved by EA with its Live series. The face maps, though, are one area where 989 may have EA's Live series licked. Each player is immediately recognizable by his face alone, and small nuances like Allen Iverson's cornrows are instantly noticeable. Sony stated that facial expressions and taunting have been included, but we did not see an example of these features in the games we played. There are over 1000 different animations included in ShootOut 2001, and the feeling of power while dunking the ball that was strangely absent in the latest PlayStation version has been more or less restored in the PS2 version. There is a slight pause, though, between initiating a dunk and its actual execution. Sony claimed this was purposely included to accentuate big plays. Whether or not this feature will make the final cut is yet to be determined. Hopefully it won't, as it tends to halt the natural flow of the game. 989 could also afford to increase the overall speed of the game. Players move so slowly that the turbo button must be constantly pressed in order for them to react effectively. Also, some of the animation routines seem disjointed, as they lack transitions from one to the next. If you attempt to steal the ball and fail, your player is left in the dust with his arms flailing while you wait for the brutally long animation routine to run its course. Players also behave unnaturally after committing fouls - they immediately dart toward the bench and stand there until play resumes. In its current state, ShootOut 2001 looks markedly improved over its PlayStation cousin. But when compared with NBA Live from EA, it falls short.

It's disappointing to see 989 pushing ShootOut 2001 out the door in its half-baked state. The potential to compete with EA's excellent Live series is certainly there, but it seems like modes and gameplay options are being cut for the sake of getting the game to market. With just a scant month left to polish things up before release, it remains to be seen whether 989 can pull all the loose ends together to get ShootOut 2001 in ship shape. One thing's for sure - it already eclipses the disappointingly low standards set by the PlayStation 2 version of NFL GameDay 2001. NBA ShootOut 2001 is currently scheduled for release in the middle of next month. Look for our full review soon.

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