Many would argue that the NBA today is more about highlight clips than good basketball fundamentals, and that a solid defense doesn't get you those multimillion-dollar contracts. But it's undeniable that the great teams are great at both ends of the floor. Look at the Chicago Bulls of the '90s. Their dominance could never have happened were it not for their ability to shut down the opposing team's offensive threats.
Past versions of NBA Live have held true to the "highlight clip" mentality. Passing the ball was usually an afterthought, since you could just as effectively force your way to the hoop for a slam dunk. At the other end, it was unrealistically hard to block a shot, and even steals were not under your control - your player would automatically swat at the ball when he was close enough to the ball handler.
This year, EA Sports contrived to fix these problems by offering more gameplay control and player moves, both offensively and defensively. But there are still some lingering problems, some of which date all the way back to NBA Live's inaugural release. The worst of these is that the offense still reigns supreme because the defense is not effective enough to stop the shooter.
Let's consider what happens when a great center like Olajuwan gets the ball down low. Your defensive setup is to double-team him with high pressure. With the ball and his back to the basket, Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley collapse on Olajuwan, keeping him from getting any closer to the basket. For added pressure, you take control of Larry Johnson and run him in for a triple team. The Rockets certainly are not short of offensive options, so in this situation Olajuwan would probably kick the ball out to one of the two open players. Instead, Hakeem turns, shoots, and sinks the 15-foot jumper with three hands in his face, not one of which even touches the ball. The next time down the court, same thing. Olajuwan is one of the best players in the league, but come on!
NBA Live 98 does have many options to tweak the game to your liking. But I like my sports games to be as realistic as possible on the score board, on the court, and statistically - yet, there is nothing you can do to make NBA Live 98 ultra-realistic. Here's why:
There are four skill levels in NBA Live 98. At the rookie level, your players make shots way too easily, and scores can get up past 150 points in a regulation 48-minute game. The reason: poor defense. At the next skill level, starter, the computer team plays a little bit better defensively, and your guys don't sink shots as easily. Still, scores hit the 130 to 140 mark, but in a closer game. The reason: poor defense. Let's bump it up again to the all-star level and forget about the results of the game. The NBA Live 98 manual explains that at this setting "It's difficult to make steals or block shots, and the computer offense and defense are cranked up." Great, just what you need - a diminished defensive ability for you and a better offense for the computer. The computer does play a little better defense, but what isn't mentioned is that your offense will also struggle. Fine, you'd expect to miss jump shots even half the time, but when your 7-foot center misses an easy put-back beneath the basket, that's ridiculous. The superstar level, the highest difficulty setting, takes the problems of the all-star level even further. Starting to get the picture here? There is no way to set the game for a good offensive/defensive balance.
There's also the lingering problem of inconsistent foul calling. In the past, a player would go flying across the floor when he was fouled. It's still that way, except the refs don't blow their whistles much of the time. Bump up the foul frequency levels a tad, and it seems that it only makes the refs watch your team more closely. Part of the weak defensive effort is due to the relaxed way many of your computer-controlled players match up. Even with overall defensive pressure set to high, your guys will stand and watch their man shoot without even so much as putting a hand in his face.
Other lingering minor problems are things like court awareness, since there are still an inordinate number of in-the-key calls, and guys will still shoot from behind the backboard or let themselves get bumped out-of-bounds. The man you're controlling also ends up off the edge of the screen a lot, making it difficult to use the option where you control one individual position for the whole game.
But don't write off NBA Live 98 just yet (besides, you only have one other choice for five-on-five NBA basketball, and it's not any better). There are some new additions in NBA Live 98 that improve things. The best of the new defensive moves is the face up. While you hold this button down, your player will maintain a defensive stance with his back to the basket no matter which way you move. This makes a lot of difference when trying to keep your man from driving to the hoop. On offense, the two most useful new moves are a fadeaway shot and direct pass, meaning you can pass to any player on the floor by hitting the button that corresponds to him. There are also many other new moves that make playing more versatile.
There's a neat three-point shootout, like at the All-Star Game, and the 3D graphics are stellar. You can also call up to eight plays - for both offense and defense - from the court, but you still have to exit the game to make personnel changes (but at least you don't have to wait for the court graphics to reload anymore like past years).
Call me a purist, but the lack of a good defensive effort in many of today's NBA teams is a problem, and maybe NBA Live is just mimicking that style. There are still some fundamental problems in NBA Live 98, but it is a lot of fun to play and captures the sensationalized aspects of the NBA very well. With the added controls and improved playability, and the lack of any real competition, NBA Live 98 is undoubtedly the best basketball game for the PC.