It was probably for the best that NBA Live 2002 was never released on the PC, because the gameplay mechanics in last year's game were in serious need of fine-tuning. Fortunately, EA Sports has almost completely reworked the NBA Live series for 2003 by quickening the pace of the game, adding a new "freestyle" control system, and generally making NBA Live 2003 play more like the classic 16-bit console games that helped start the series. The result is an incredibly fun, albeit unrealistic, game of basketball that anyone can pick up and immediately start to enjoy. In addition, the PC version unquestionably has the best online features of any of the game's versions, since it lets you create clubs and track various stats online.
Live 2003 still offers many of the same modes found in previous games in the series. The franchise mode returns in 2003, and while it's not quite as in-depth as the one featured in Sega's console game NBA 2K3, you still get to perform all the basic functions of an NBA general manager. At the beginning of a season, you can adjust your roster by trading and releasing players and signing free agents. The trading system is similar the one found in previous games in that players are given point values. In putting together a trade proposal, the point value of the players you want to trade for has to be within a certain range, otherwise the computer will reject it. You'll also get to pore over different sets of statistics, including overall team stats, individual player stats, your personal user stats, and the league leaders in different statistical categories. Also included in the franchise mode is a GM's desk option that lets you go behind the scenes to the business side of the NBA. You'll see information on player contracts, injury reports, MVP candidates, player progression, and a list of upcoming free agents.
At the end of a season, the game will hand out awards such as League MVP, Sixth Man, Rookie of the Year, and Defensive Player of the Year. The game will also name its All-NBA team, All-Defensive team, and All-Rookie team. While the off-season may be celebration time for some teams, for others, it marks one of the few opportunities to make significant changes. First, you'll see a list of retiring players, so you'll know what holes, if any, you will need to fill via the draft, free agency, or trades. You'll also have to take care of re-signing players if any of them are coming to the end of their contracts and you want to keep them on the team for a few more years. Unfortunately, when you make it to the rookie draft, there really doesn't seem to be enough information to make an educated choice. After completing the draft, you can sign any remaining free agents, make last-minute trades, and then begin a new season. Again, it's not quite as in-depth as the franchise mode in Sega's console game NBA 2K3, but it also won't be as intimidating for some, and it seems to fit well with the new gameplay style.
The other modes in NBA Live 2003 aren't nearly as involved as the franchise mode. the game features straightforward exhibition, season, and playoff modes, as well as a practice mode that lets you move around the court with a single player. Live 2003 also features a one-on-one mode in which you can select any two players in the league and pit them against each other to see who's better.
Whichever mode you select, you'll undoubtedly notice how much faster NBA Live 2003 plays than the games that came before it--or, for that matter, any other five-on-five basketball games currently available. Though there are differences between them, every player on the court is relatively quick even when you're not using the turbo button, making it much easier to execute fast breaks or create a path to the basket.
The shooting percentages seem a little out of whack out of times, but not necessarily in the bad sense. With the default settings of the game, it's not unusual to have two or three players on your team hit at least four three-pointers over the span of a single game, and you'll rarely ever miss shots that are within five or so feet of the basket. When you increase the difficulty, the computer will score on almost every trip down the court if you don't keep a defender on each of its players.
The passing is surprisingly precise for such a quick game, and like in the older games in the series, it quickly becomes an integral element of play--not only for the purposes of having fun and showing off, but also because it's one of the many methods you can use to break down the defense. Yet, the one thing that truly makes NBA Live 2003 play differently from most other basketball games is the freestyle control. The game is surprisingly playable using a keyboard, but it's best with a good gamepad. Instead of just going for the basic one-button juke move--or any sort of button-activated juke moves, for that matter--you control the ball with the analog stick of your gamepad, or by holding down a button and moving the D pad, if you don't have an analog controller. If you want to dribble in between your legs behind the three-point line, you simply lightly tap the right analog stick from left to right. Likewise, if you want to perform a sharp crossover when driving up the court, press lightly in one direction on the analog stick then quickly press it back in the opposite direction. This system makes it feel as though you have more control over the player, since the guesswork of context-sensitive juke moves has essentially been removed. Plus, you can create some really spectacular-looking plays that will actually be worth looking at in replays over and over. However, you can be penalized for using these moves, especially when executing them in a crowd of defenders, which often results in a steal. In addition, the freestyle ability really makes the better point guards in the league overpowered, and you'll probably find yourself relying on them more than any other player. Though, since it's obvious this game wasn't meant to play like a true simulation, it's really not that big of a problem. It's worth mentioning that the freestyle control system works best with an analog controller, and it can be slightly more difficult to execute these moves if you only have access to a standard D pad controller or keyboard.
The post-up game still comes in handy when going up against irritating zone defenses, but generally, it really seems to be useful only as a "last resort" strategy, which is unfortunate. The post-up game in Live 2003 is quite fun to use, as it lets you back down a defender until he starts to hold his ground and then either put up a jump shot or roll off and drive to the basket. It functions similarly to the system in NBA 2K3, only everything happens much faster.
You might think it would be difficult to play defense in a game in which all the players are so quick, but it really isn't. As long as you stay up on an opposing player, or generally stay in his way, cutting off lanes to the basket, you'll be fine. Likewise, defending a man down on the block is equally straightforward as long as you play right up on his back. Shots can frequently be blocked, but doing so usually sends the ball flying out of bounds. Steals are also relatively frequent, since playing the passing lanes usually results in a turnover. So, the defense has been adequately equipped to handle the high-speed offense in the game.
The PC version of NBA Live 2003 has much more robust online features than the PlayStation 2 version of the game. Not only can you just go online to play against other people and tracks several kinds of statistics for your online persona (such as field goal percentage, three point percentage, points per game), but you can also form clubs made up of other players. Clubs are then ranked based on performance of individual players, and acting as a general manager for one of these clubs is quite similar to working as a general manager in the single-player game--you'll try to recruit the players with the best statistics.
NBA Live 2003 looks great, but that doesn't necessarily mean it looks realistic. You can see all the trademark details for individual players, like headbands, tattoos, or certain facial features, but the players have a somewhat cartoonlike look to them. All of the arenas in the game look nearly identical to their real-life counterparts, but the crowds, which look like a series of cardboard cutouts, could use a little more work.
NBA Live 2003's audio is probably its weakest point, at least in terms of the commentary. The two-man commentary team gives makes nice comments on the game and repetition is kept to a minimum, but the commentary doesn't really flow throughout the game. There is some good crowd noise, particularly when you're shooting a three--you'll actually hear the crowd yell "threeee," much as they do for the home team in real life. It's too bad that there aren't more sound effects like that in the game. Like in other EA Sports games, the soundtrack consists of licensed music from various artists such as Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg, which may or may not interest you.
The gameplay in NBA Live 2003 is fast-paced and fun, but it still retains enough simulation elements to prevent it from being a completely arcade-style basketball game. In addition, the online component for the PC version is excellent and lets you create clubs and track several different statistics, so it should provide ample motivation for playing the game long after you've purchased it. However, if you plan to play the game online for any amount of time, you should be aware that you'll need to subscribe to EA Sports Online, an online service that offers a free 60-day trial period but charges monthly fees thereafter. EA Sports has also done a great job of integrating the freestyle control scheme so that you really feel as though you have more control over the ball. It's true that there aren't too many other basketball games on the PC to choose from, but any fan of the sport should give NBA Live 2003 a try, keeping in mind that the game is best enjoyed with a dual analog gamepad.