It might come as a surprise to some that Sega's NBA Action 98 gives some good competition to NBA Live 98, especially considering it took EA Sports four years to get NBA Live where it is today. The last contender, NBA Full Court Press, couldn't knock off the lone king of the hill even with Microsoft's muscle behind it. But Full Court Press tried to take a different approach. Had it followed NBA Live's example of focusing on graphical realism and trying to capture the excitement of the NBA, it could have stood a chance.
Where Full Court Press failed, NBA Action succeeds. Instead of trying to do something altogether different from NBA Live, it realizes that creating 3D polygonal players making spectacular moves and dunks, giving lots of control options, and capturing the nuances of the game are the natural progression of the computer basketball game. Even though NBA Action 98 knew what it had to do to even contend in the marketplace with NBA Live 98, a lot of what it tries falls a little short. But then what do you expect from a rookie?
The players come alive through a 3D polygonal engine and texture-mapped faces, which is the future - if not the present - of computer sports games. By using 3D players, a greater variety of animation can be used, giving them a more realistic appearance. The key to making them look real is getting the motion-capture data of the real basketball players incorporated into the computer players properly.
Their moves are there, to be sure, but the animation comes up a little short in shooting, when the animation speed of the shooter slows by a few notches. Not only does this disrupt the pace of the game, but it also allows defenders more time to maneuver over for a block attempt. It's not that way with all the shot animation, but it happens enough to be disconcerting.
Graphics overall are not nearly as polished and attractive as those in NBA Live 98, both on the court and in the front-end interface, but that may come from the years of polishing NBA Live has had. In fact, the front-end interface looks a few years old due to the lower resolution and minimal color palate, yet the functionality is still there for the most part.
The play-by-play announcing also adds to NBA Action 98's amateurish feel, unless you like Chick Hearn's (LA Lakers) somewhat feeble voice. It's great to use a real NBA announcer for your game, but it might not add any celebrity to the title outside of Los Angeles, so you're better off using someone who can create some excitement.
You can change offensive and defensive plays right from the court (like in NBA Live 98), which is a great feature if you're into strategy. But again, NBA Action 98 comes up short by allowing only five offensive plays. On defense, you're not so much calling plays as calling sets, of which there are only four. Even worse is that you are only allowed to customize three for offense and defense. On offense, the default ones are alley-oop and pick, and on defense the default one is double team. Defensive sets are handled in an interesting manner. Instead of choosing a predetermined set, you adjust slide bars for pressure, aggressiveness, crash boards, and how far to extend the defense (quarter-court, half-court, etc.) for each set, which gives you a lot of different combinations.
Game control utilizes as many as nine buttons, something that NBA Live finally came around to incorporating for the first time this year. But there is a flaw in it that isn't so immediately apparent, and that you should be wary of: The game was designed to be played using a Microsoft Sidewinder Gamepad, although you can also get by using a Gravis GamePad Pro (or the keyboard if you really want). If you use another controller with fewer than nine buttons, you won't be able to access the pause menu choices specific to your team, namely time-out, substitution, and coaching strategies. The reason is that you need the ninth button, which is the start button on the Sidewinder and the GamePad Pro (notice that this is the Gravis GamePad Pro and not the regular four-button Gravis GamePad). If you hit the Esc key to pause, the game considers it to be the player controlling with the keyboard even if there isn't one, like if you're playing against a computer opponent. Sega admitted this error and promises to release a patch to fix it.
Game balance, specifically between offense and defense, might actually have been a little bit better than NBA Live 98 if the game clock didn't seem to run so slow, which results in inordinately high scores in a 48-minute game. And where NBA Live 98 is so offense-oriented, NBA Action 98 makes the defense too strong. Blocked shots come easily, too easily, as do steals, and the lack of an illegal defense call empowers the defense that much more. You can bump up the foul frequency to quell this a bit, if you want more realism, but then you might feel too constrained on defense.
It's undeniable that NBA Action 98 is a great first attempt, probably the best competition NBA Live has ever had. And it is certainly fun to play. But when you hold it up against the veteran from EA Sports, you have to go with NBA Live 98 for its polish and pizzazz. NBA Action still has a few kinks to iron out, but when it does... well, let's just hope that Sega doesn't bench NBA Action next year.