NBA Inside Drive 2002 marks Microsoft's first attempt at making a dent in a basketball market dominated by the likes of EA and Sega. Unfortunately, Microsoft is going to have to wait another year or so before that will happen, as Inside Drive seems to be a year or so behind what the competition offers. That's not to say that Inside Drive is a horrible basketball game, because it has all the necessary fundamentals intact, but a general lack of polish and a long list of annoying quirks make it difficult to recommend when there might be a better alternative on the horizon.
The aforementioned quirks manifest themselves almost immediately. When you jump into the exhibition mode, you'll notice that it's impossible to choose the same team for both sides. Granted, this is irrelevant if you're playing a game against the computer, but if you and a friend are looking for bragging rights on who plays best with the same team, then you'll have to look elsewhere. In addition, in the main options screen, you'll probably notice the decided lack of options. NBA Inside Drive offers only exhibition, season, and playoff modes, which under any other circumstance would be fine, but when the competition is offering create-a-player, street ball, and other secondary modes, this just doesn't cut it.
The season mode lets you play through an entire 82-game NBA season, complete with trades and injuries, but even something as simple as the season mode isn't immune from what appears to be a general lack of effort in tying up some loose ends. In one season, a starting center fell victim to a season-ending injury during an automated game right before the playoffs. However, in the first playoff game, it still listed that center as a starter, and when the game started, a shooting guard replaced him when the regular replacement center was left on the bench. Alone, it's a minor problem, but these minor problems start to pile up as you spend more and more time with the game.
Despite these problems, NBA Inside Drive still has a solid foundation that can easily be built from future games in the series. In fact, the game plays quite like Sega's NBA 2K series, with offensive and defensive mechanics that appear to be the same, but the execution could be a little better. For example, the passing game in Inside Drive is solid. It forces you to be a little more methodical and not pass the ball to players when there are defenders sitting in the lane, waiting to steal the ball. If there happens to be a defender fronting one of your postup players, you can lob the ball over the defender's head by clicking the right analog stick. This works great in the half-court set, but when you're running the ball on a fast break, the computer's ability to intercept passes (in the veteran and all-star modes) with great frequency becomes apparent, making the game a little unrealistic and incredibly frustrating. Moreover, the inability to pass out of layups seems to be the root of another problem: blocked shots.
While you'll get your fair share of blocked shots over the course of a game, the computer exhibits the unnatural ability to block what seems like one out every eight or nine shots. Most blocked shots occur when a point guard tries to drive and make a layup, which is a crucial part of any offense because it draws in the defense. But, since you can't pass the ball out to a player who's wide open on the perimeter, the opponent swarms on the guard or whoever's driving to the basket, so the shot gets blocked. For shots that are 10 or 12 feet from the basket, blocked shots aren't as frequent, but they happen more than they probably should. Normally, an easy way to counteract this is to execute a shot fake or try a fade-away jumper, but the computer rarely falls for either tactic.
Another offensive tool at your disposal, the postup game, has some minor issues. When one of your postup players has the ball, you can press the left trigger to start backing down an opponent to get closer to the basket for a small jump hook or a dunk--the only problem is that you never really feel like you're backing an opponent down. Basically, your player just magically slides toward the basket (while the Xbox controller gives an irritating buzzing noise), and with the five-second back-to-the-basket rule, you'll have little to no chance of establishing a good shot unless the player was already fairly close to the basket.
There are a few significantly more irritating features in Inside Drive. The rebounding AI in the game is absolutely horrible. Even if you go into the menu and manually set the rebounding to "high," some of your players will just stand around the basket like statues and completely ignore a ball that has just fallen in front of their face. Fouls are called inconsistently and almost always favor the computer opponents. Charges are also called way too often, and since there's no way to adjust the sensitivity on charges (you can turn them only off or on), you'll just have to be really careful when you're dribbling the ball past an opponent.
If you're lucky enough to get to the foul line, you'll be treated to the game's awkward foul shooting system. Essentially, when you press the shooting button, it causes a little ball to move across a meter with two circles, labeled "power" and "accuracy." When that ball moves up the bar, you have to time it so that the ball lands in the accuracy circle, and when it comes back, you have to do that again so that it lands in the power circle. It's definitely a little strange at first--especially because it forces the shot if you don't press the shooting button a third time--but you get used to it after a few games.
As far as player-controlled defense is concerned, there's nothing particularly wrong other than the problem associated with blocked shots. By pressing the left trigger, you can enter into a defensive stance and move up and down the court while in that stance. Stealing the ball causes your player to lunge forward and go slightly out of control--which acts as a good deterrent for those who have the propensity to try to steal the ball on every possession. In addition, you can call for a double team if you happen to end up with a mismatch between an offensive and defensive player.
Unfortunately, NBA Inside Drive doesn't have any real bright spots--even the graphics are somewhat disappointing. Most of the character models in the game are accurate representations of their real-life counterparts, but some of the textures on these models look a little strange. The jersey textures in particular aren't all that good and look as though some gravitational force (other than gravity) is pulling down on them. All of the arenas look great, but the crowd could use a little more variation in terms of its overall look and animation. The sound could use some work as well. The two-man commentary gets the job done, but the chatter that occurs between players is horrendous and of such low quality that it shouldn't even be in the game to begin with.
At its core, NBA Inside Drive 2002 has everything basketball games from two years ago had. It lacks the extra features that have become commonplace in other franchises, and the laundry list of small problems really hurt its chances at attracting fans from the NBA Live or NBA 2K audiences. If you're really desperate for some NBA action on your Xbox, then look toward NBA Live first, but if you can, try waiting for Sega's Xbox basketball offering and compare the three games before making that final decision.