You should be happy to hear that NBA Live 97 is an improvement over the last version. - and you should not be surprised when you hear that there are no major improvements in gameplay. Better graphics and audio are always welcome, but my repeated gripe when I review sports games - and I won't stop until I'm finally satisfied - is always in AI and gameplay.
The graphics and player animations - like in EA's hockey counterpart, NHL 97 - are stunning, and they achieve a level of visual realism that should make any sports game fan eagerly reach for a gamepad. Although the game's feel is similar to the very first one in the series, NBA Live 95, the players have a greater variety of moves and appearances. In fact, the texture mapping of their faces and heads closely resembles the look of the actual players. Other noticeable, and well-done, physical characteristics are height, but not so much girth, and skin tone and hair color and style. (Although they all appear to have the correct visage, I look forward to the day when their expressions change, too.)
The audio is topnotch, particularly the sound effects, as has been the case in EA Sports games for some years. My favorite effect is the sound of the ball making contact with the basket. Whether swishing through the hoop with nothing but net or bouncing high off the rim after an errant shot or thunderously pounding from a gorilla dunk, the sound is close to the real thing and adds an element of satisfaction or disappointment to every shot. EA Sports also always does a terrific job with the sounds of its interface and the music played off the court - kudos to their whole audio crew.
EA Sports may arguably be the best publisher of electronic sports titles, but there are still simple problems that never get corrected from one year to the next, and NBA Live 97 is no exception. If you prefer to play an Arcade style game, many of its problems won't apply. But if you're like me and prefer to play in Simulation and turn off Auto anything, you'll soon find that performing your coaching duties is a pain, making a twelve-minutes-per-quarter game take much longer to finish.
The main reason for this is that the coaching screens are too inaccessible. At the start of every game, you have to pause and exit the court screen before the tip-off because you are not given the opportunity to enter the coaching screens beforehand. The same occurs after each quarter. You are forced to return to the court screen without the ability to make coaching changes before the game restarts, so you must pause and exit before the ball is inbound or wait until the next stoppage of play. To return to the court screen, the program must reload the data almost entirely. On a low-end system with a slower CD-ROM drive this can take as long as a full minute. It certainly makes you hesitate and think about merely making one substitution.
On the court, the gameplay itself has its share of problems, some of which have existed since '95. For one, the difficulty levels are still not right. Rookie is too easy, Starter is probably the best, and All-Star is too hard. The main reason is that defense is still too ineffective. Even at the All-Star level the game is a scoring fest. I know about the NBA's reputation for playing defense, but geez! At the Starter level, the star players for each opposing team are just too unstoppable no matter what you try to do. If you want to see what I mean, play Miami and see how well you can shut down Mourning. Passes appeared to travel right through my defensive players, and big Zo would just shoot and make an impossible hook shot from fifteen feet out - right over my triple team. A strategy I've found that sometimes works is to do your best to dunk it on every possession and then send a guard to press and try for steals as the opposing player brings the ball up the floor. This should give you more shot opportunities than the opposition, and if you dunk a lot you won't have to worry about not converting for some points each time. Many of the gameplay problems could probably be blamed on an average AI: Computer-controlled players are often out of place and guarding the wrong guy.
For all of its problems, NBA Live 97 is still a blast to play and features almost all of your pro players and teams. If that's not enough, you can always create your own players and teams. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley are in the game sans photo and name (they are just called "Player"), which is better than them missing all together. Many of the rosters are incomplete as well, but you can fix those as you please by customizing them. For great basketball and NBA excitement on you PC, NBA Live is still the way to go. But we'll hope that it continues to get better and better.