As you run down the features of Microsoft's NBA Full Court Press, there's good reason to believe it has the potential to seriously challenge the primacy of Electronic Arts' NBA Live games. It has all the essentials: 29 NBA teams and nearly every NBA player (Michael and Shaq can't be included for contractual reasons), along with Western and Eastern Conference All-Star teams and four custom teams you can mold to suit your tastes.
You can play a single game, play an entire season consisting of 32, 56, or 82 games with variable lengths for playoff series, head straight for the playoffs (again, you choose the length of each series), or even take your team on the court for practice. The team editor lets you trade players to reflect current rosters, and the player editor lets you change names, number, ratings, and hair style.
It's after you've adjusted your line-up and selected your coaching strategies (offensive and defensive stances, up to five offensive plays out of 100) that you'll get to the most fun part of NBA Full Court Press: the action on the court. Four-button joystick support gives you a high degree of control over the players, and an option to control a single player (instead of always being the ball handler or switching from defensive player to defensive player) means you can call for the ball on fast breaks, alley oops, and backdoor slams. Player animation is extremely smooth and realistic, with defensive players backpedaling, dribblers spinning to evade a press, and shooters launching turnaround jumpers - and, of course, various slams and jams. The only gripe I have with the animation is that players on the receiving end of a fast-break pass stop dead in their tracks to make the catch before resuming their journey to the basket: It looks silly, and allows the defense to catch when they shouldn't be able to.
Adding to the experience is the play-by-play commentary by Kevin Calabro, voice of the Seattle Supersonics. He's one of the best in the biz, and if you've never heard him before you'll get a real kick out of his trademark expressions, like "24-second violation, camping in the lane - Kumbaya," "He's on him like Cagney with half a grapefruit," "You gotta get up for the downstroke," and my favorite, "Googily Moogily!" (pardon the spelling).
But once you've dug into the game, you'll start finding many, many problems - some big, some small, all annoying - that keep this from being anything more than a fun arcade-style hoops game. For starters, there's no manual, only online help. True, the online help is extensive, but it's a real pain in the butt to exit a screen and load the help file, instead of simply having a manual opened up by the keyboard for quick reference.
On the strategic side, you'll notice that the schedule is from last season, and that there's no way to create a new one to reflect this year's action. Team rosters, too, are from last season, and swapping players two at a time to reflect current rosters would be quite a chore - not to mention the fact that you won't find key rookies such as Kobe Bryant, Marcus Camby, John Wallace, Stephon Marbury, and many others unless you edit an existing player or a player on a custom team. Speaking of custom teams, they can only be used in single games, not season or playoff modes. And don't bother to check for box scores during or after a game - there are no team stats for a game, and you can only get game stats for individual players while the game's in progress.
But you ain't seen nothing yet. It might sound strange, but where FCP reaches its highest frustration quotient is in the same area where it looks and feels the best: out on the court. Just take a look at what's wrong here:
Mishandling of the 24-second clock. The 24-second clock is supposed to reset after a defensive foul, but in FCP it just keeps going and going. This is wrong, dead wrong, and that it made it past the developers and Microsoft is simply amazing.
Substitutions after scores. The only time you're allowed to sub players in real life is during a time out or after a foul, but computer-controlled teams in Full Court Press are allowed to - and will - send in subs after nearly every other basket. What's more, your team will be subbing almost as furiously if you allow the computer to handle the chore for you. You'd think with this much practice the computer would make good substitution decisions, but it doesn't: Playing as Indiana, I saw Reggie Miller get five fouls in the first half (I wasn't controlling him on four of those penalties) and the computer kept him in the game!
Unnecessary five-second violations. Regardless of whether players are controlled by you or the computer, they'll sometimes just stand around as the ball lies out of bounds after a break in play, with no one moving to pick it up until the ref calls a five-second violation. There's no excuse for this serious - and maddening - bug.
Too many lob passes. There's no way to specify whether to throw a bullet pass, bounce pass, or lob pass, and it seems that at least half of all passes are lobs - some arched so high you'd think they'd hit the scoreboard hanging at mid-court. All this results in a lot of stolen passes, especially by the computer-controlled team; in fact, I suspect that the key difference in the game's difficulty levels is how many passes the computer-controlled team steals. If you'd seen 15 or 20 in-bound passes picked off in a single game, you'd think the same thing.
Senseless 24-second violations and weird player behavior. Some pretty strange things can happen when the computer-controlled team has the ball in FCP. Coast-to-coast baskets are the order of the day; a single player will dribble in one place for the last 15 seconds of the 24-second clock before either heaving up a desperation shot or twitching in an epileptic frenzy until the buzzer sounds; point guards always start up the court with the same maneuver; players guarding in-bound passes can cross out of bounds with no repercussions; and certain shots - a hook, for instance - always drain the net.
No double-dribble or traveling calls. Yes, computer-controlled players in FCP can dribble, stop, and start again with no foul called. And while it's true that NBA officials are more than a little lax about traveling violations, to never see one called in four 48-minute games (and several shorter ones) is mind-boggling.
Inflated scores and shooting percentages. Playing on the veteran (medium) difficulty level, I guided the Indiana Pacers to a 170-130 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Realizing I needed a little more competition, I cranked it up to the All-Star level - I left officiating on normal - and managed to pull off a 180-155 win. Still looking for some challenge, I controlled the Canadian roundball powerhouse known as the Vancouver Grizzlies as they took on the Miami Heat - and thrashed Riley and Company by 189-127. (All these were with fatigue and player injuries toggled on.)
In case you're not an NBA fan, take my word for it: Those scores aren't realistic. They're not even close. Shooting percentages for the computer-controlled teams in those games were high - always over 60 percent - but didn't hold a candle to my constant 70 and 80 percent numbers. Again, those figures just aren't realistic, especially for a team like the Grizzlies, and I got the distinct impression that I could rack up totals like this anytime I liked.
Players all look the same. Sure, you can spot Dennis Rodman's blue hair or Matt Geiger's bald head in a crowd, but the only visible difference between players in FCP is skin tone. You can sort of make out player numbers if you're playing at 800 x 600 (resolutions of up to 1280 x 1024 are supported), but in full-screen mode the numbers are just too blocky for quick recognition. Without the option to display names or positions of the player you're controlling, it's tough figuring out who your go-to guy is.
But what's even more amazing than these flaws is the fact that, in spite of them all, I'll still load up Full Court Press and play a full game even though I know it's about as far from reality as NBA Jam. Hey, even with all the problems, it's still a fun arcade game. But if you expect at least a modicum of reality in a pro basketball sim, then Full Court Press is your front-row seat to frustration and disappointment.