Professional basketball has never looked as good as it does in Season Ticket Basketball 2003 (better known online as Fast Break Basketball). The text-based management simulation almost lets you forget about the Latrell Sprewells and Allen Iversons who dominate today's NBA, thanks to developer Brian Nichols' dedication to bringing to life the sport behind the superstars. Few sports management titles do such a thorough job of depicting the ins and outs of running a professional franchise. Fewer still manage to convey depth and complexity while keeping the user interface so clean and intuitive. Yet the developer has accomplished both objectives here, designing a game that is both realistic enough to play for years and simple enough to understand that you can begin building a dynasty right out of the box.
Unfortunately, Season Ticket Basketball 2003 has no real sound effects or music to speak of. Fortunately, the game's interface is almost a cause for celebration. Many low-budget sports management sims feature menus that are really difficult to figure out. That isn't the case here, as the developer has stuck to a system of neatly organized pulldown menus. All of the information is sorted and categorized like a file cabinet. Use the file option for basic operations like saving and loading leagues. Check the franchise heading for all essential team information. Use the roster option to make coaching decisions or arrange a trade, and use the season option to go over standings and other news from around the league. The progress option encapsulates a lot of events that take place on the calendar, such as the free-agency period and training camps, while the draft option includes all the features for running rookie and initial creation drafts, and the history option lets you look over past seasons. Everything is exactly where you think it should be, so there is no interface learning curve. It's a breeze to sit down and dig right into the intricacies of operating a pro basketball club.
And there are lots of intricacies. The developer has spared no effort in making Season Ticket Basketball 2003 a complete simulation of life in the front office. You take complete control of a franchise in a 29-team league patterned after the real NBA, overseeing everything from player personnel moves to every possession during manually simulated games. Solo play is a strength, although up to 29 human players can take over clubs, and there are a number of Internet leagues out there.
Season Ticket Basketball's player and franchise names are fake, whatever graphical flash it has is provided by colored text, and the game has no audio at all, but the gameplay is as authentic as it comes. The game's team-management options are remarkably complete. Players are rated in six categories--inside offensive skill, outside offensive skill, hands, defense, rebounding, and potential--and are also characterized in terms of attitude. The latter comes in handy when you're looking to make a trade, as does the preferred team listing that lets you know if the player is interested in swapping zip codes.
The game's coaching options are equally expansive. You can set a pace between very slow and very fast, establish how often you want to trap and press, and determine an offensive focus that favors inside, outside, or balanced shooting. A depth chart governs substitutions, and the "offensive key players" rating determines which three players get the ball the most. Managers can adjust these settings before games and then simulate the results, or manually coach games and change them on the fly. You can choose to simulate each possession, play a quarter at a time, or push through full games. No matter which option you select, you have the ability to stop the simulation at any time. Like the rest of the interface, the coaching screen is very well designed. A play-by-play window shows all of the on-court action on the left, the scoreboard takes up the middle of the screen, and a graphical representation of the court with basic player stats, current energy levels, and a moving basketball showing possessions and shot attempts sits on the right. Pertinent facts can be ascertained simply by glancing from one window to the next. All of these functions work extremely well, giving you a great deal of impact on game results, although the adjustable simulation speed could have used some extra tweaking. Setting the speed slider bar all the way to the right results in play-by-play that scrolls by too quickly to read, while nudging it just one notch to the left results in game sim times of 10 minutes or more.
The results from games in Season Ticket Basketball 2003 seem accurate whether you generate them through coaching or simulation. The numbers are right in line with the statistics of the real-world NBA, albeit the NBA of a decade ago. The actual scores are high for the present day, though they seem perfect for that brief golden era of the early 1990s when the numbers weren't as inflated as they were in the 1980s or as depressed as they have been over the past five or six seasons. We noticed nothing out of the ordinary in the dozen or so seasons that we simulated in a couple of career leagues. Even the most stat-conscious basketball fan will find very little to criticize about Season Ticket Basketball's numbers.
Season Ticket Basketball re-creates boardroom transactions as solidly as it does actual games. The developer has obviously spent a lot of time working on the trading aspect of the game, which is so true to life that the computer-controlled teams are absolutely cutthroat. This is particularly noticeable in personnel moves. Computer-proposed trades are always astute, even cunning in that the deals always benefit the computer-controlled teams in subtle ways that aren't always immediately noticeable. Trades that look good in the numbers often seem less attractive if you check on the offered player's attitude and desired destination. Free agency features more good design and smart AI. A free-agent signing period opens up at the end of each season, giving every team the opportunity to make bids. You look over the players, see if they have preferred teams, and then make an offer before simulating a day's progress to see if any signings were made.
Computer clubs are also astute and aggressive. Make a lowball deal and you will lose out. Bidding almost always rises well above the player-designated minimum. Also, players stick to their preferences. Even if you offer a star the biggest contract, there is no guarantee that he will sign on the dotted line unless he really wants to play for you. Players will also hold back on inking a deal if they are at all reticent, in anticipation of getting a better offer from somebody else as the signing period winds down. Some will even opt for good short-term deals over those with more money and long-term security, especially if they're not fond of your franchise. The same general formula works when hiring coaches and general managers--if you don't put in serious, competitive bids, you won't be able to sign the cream of the crop.
In Season Ticket Basketball, money is a serious issue all by itself. A salary cap dictates how much you can spend on player salaries. Every city in the game is rated according to market size, economy, number of teams in the region, and desire to have a team. This largely determines how much cash you'll have to spend on players, as you have to balance what fans will pay with what you will charge for tickets and luxury boxes. Additionally, you have to worry about ownership. Every franchise owner in the game has his or her own name and a set of characteristics that govern how much money will be put at your disposal each year to run the basketball club. Some are greedy and put making a profit above winning. Others want to win at all costs. Either way, you have to please the boss man, a welcome frill that most sports management games lack.
Actually, Season Ticket Basketball 2003 isn't like most sports management games at all. Few games of this type are so fulfilling, so lovingly designed with a real appreciation for both the sport in question and for sensible user interfaces. Solid play, authentic number crunching, dedication to the fine details, and online league support make this one of the best sports management titles on the market.