So you're sitting on your couch, trying to will the regular season rematch between the Bulls and Jazz into existence by staring at the television set. Well, I have news for you, it's not going to happen. The 1998-99 NBA season is all but dead. But I have one thing to say to that: So what? You can start your own NBA season. Who needs greedy players and owners? EA Sports' NBA Live 99 lets you simulate as many seasons as you like of fast-paced, all-out hoops action, without the whining, the high-priced players, or the strangled coaches.
EA Sports' NBA Live series has always been a winner, and this year is no different. The game isn't fundamentally different, so if you've played previous NBA Lives, the 99 version will be a familiar experience. However, that's not to say that NBA Live 99 isn't full of surprises and improvements. Live 99 takes the series to the next level, with great new graphics and more gameplay options.
This year's NBA Live looks better than ever. The 3Dfx graphics are incredible, and the new 3D faces and facial animation are uncannily similar to the players' real faces. You'll recognize each player instantly: Shaq looks like Shaq, and Sprewell looks like Sprewell. Players also sport new facial animation. You'll see players yawning, wincing in pain after an injury, screaming during a big dunk, or wagging their tongue on the way to the basket. Players also liven it up after a dunk or nice layup, jumping up in celebration, pumping their fists in the air, or even pointing at the opposing players for some "trash" pointing. You'll also notice more differentiation between players when you play the game. I played a game between the Golden State Warriors and LA Lakers and saw that Shaq was nearly twice the size of Muggsy Bogues. I played as the Lakers against the Utah Jazz and saw that Hornicek was a virtual stick next to Shaq's wide body. These new facial expressions, 3D faces, and the varying body types make this NBA Live the most visually realistic and impressive of all basketball games.
The graphics aren't perfect though. While the animation and player motion is for the most part smooth and lifelike, there are times when players stutter or get caught against each other. After a brief moment of shaking, the players will again move into their regular patterns and movement, but the momentary lapse is jarring to the otherwise beautiful virtual reality this game's graphics create. During replays, I was a bit bothered by the inarticulate hands, which don't show enough motion during the dunk. But this is really a very minor point and shouldn't detract from the game's great graphics.
There are some new features for NBA Live 99, the most prominent being a new practice mode and multiple-seasons play. The practice mode is a pretty cool feature, but it could stand much improvement. I would have liked to see a button list like those furnished by today's fighting games like Tekken 3. With all the new fakes and dunks, it's hard to read a manual, memorize everything, and then try to perform the moves. An option to see a move list onscreen with appropriate buttons would have been invaluable. I also wanted to be able to practice with a teammate for passes, assists, and two-player moves. A practice mode with a player on defense (like a one-on-one game) would also have been great for testing out those fakes and dekes. It's easy to fake out nobody, so how do you know if your fakes will really work on an actual player in a game?
The new multiple-seasons play allows you to build a team completely from scratch through the draft and then play for ten seasons. You can build a dynasty by trading for players and try to outdo the Bulls. Players will age during those ten seasons, either improving with experience or declining in old age. I don't know that I would play ten seasons of 82 games each, at the full 12 minutes per quarter, but the option is there. Of course, you can also specify 32- or 54-game seasons and adjust quarter time from two minutes to 12 minutes, just as you could in previous NBA Lives, so even those of us with less time can try our hand at dynasty building.
As always, NBA Live allows you to play in arcade mode, where all the rules don't apply, and simulation mode, where the game takes on the intensity and challenge of the real game. However, this year's arcade mode is even wilder, with high-flying, slow-motion dunks and even faster-paced play. There are no flaming basketballs, NBA Jam-style, but this is a good mode for a fast arcade fix. Simulation mode seems to have toughened up this year. Playing on superstar difficulty was a great challenge. As the LA Lakers, I lost to the Phoenix Suns by 30 points, and that was in a 16-minute game. The computer makes better use of the clock, takes advantage of mismatches on defense, and really moves the ball between players a lot better. It also steals and blocks more aggressively, and successfully, in superstar mode. Of course, there are two, less masochistic, difficulty settings. They aren't quite as tough as superstar mode, but they have all the rules of the NBA and pose a challenge. Teams and players will perform as you'd expect. There might be the odd occurrence, like Hornicek missing two free throws, but I chalk those up to the randomness of the game's calculations. For the most part, teams that suck will suck, and players that rock will consistently post MVP-like numbers. Gameplay has also been tweaked some so that losing AI players don't constantly foul in the final minutes, which essentially gives the already winning team a chance for two more points.
When you strip away all the great new graphics and new season play, the core of the game is still great fun. NBA Live 99 is a fantastic game to play with others, especially on the same screen, where you can trash-talk after a monster dunk (hotseat, modem, and LAN play are supported). The game is still fast and fun basketball action, with some coaching options for making substitutions and calling play guidelines, but when the rock is in your hands, it's just you, the basket, and your hoop dreams. Like the NBA says, "I love this game."