Reviewed: December 5, 2003
Released: November 18, 2003
For any given sport for any given system you have basically one of three choices; EA, Sega (now ESPN), and Microsoft. Okay, four choices if you want to count Midway who is going ďseriousĒ this year. Last year Microsoft released NBA Inside Drive 2003 for the Xbox and while it wasnít the best basketball game ever made it was the best one the Xbox had to offer.
This year things have changed. EA is cleaning up their act, at least with the single player version of NBA Live 2004, but (and I guess I get to complain about this in every sports review this year), EA refuses to support Xbox Live creating a huge multi-player hole in that release, at least on the Xbox. Also upping the ante is ESPN with their new NBA title, which, much like their football and hockey games, sets new levels for all competing sports franchises.
Microsoft also returns to the competition with NBA Inside Drive 2004, a slightly polished version of last yearís game with the most noticeable nod going to the XSN online support. For those looking for the most realistic NBA gameplay experience, you may have found the game you need to be playing, but in the past few weeks Iíve encountered enough issues that the more casual basketball player might not be able to overlook.
There has been a great deal of work gone into making NBA Inside Drive 2004 the truest electronic form of the sport ever made, and in some ways High Voltage succeeded. There are subtleties to the sport that have never been present in a console game until now and many of those are exclusive to this title. Most of these improvements are in the AI of the players that makes the game look and flow much like the sport itís based upon. Some of these enhancements are so technical that only diehard fans of the sport might even notice.
As technically advanced as the gameplay and AI are this year there are also a surprising amount of new bugs that found their way into the code. These range from the occasional glitch in selecting offensive and defensive plays to some glaring glitches in embedded player attributes that make many of your favorite players perform like exaggerated versions of their real selves.
The Franchise and Dynasty modes are back and slightly improved from last year but there are still some obvious oversights that keep these modes from achieving the same thoroughness as other competing titles. Inside Drive offers the most basic features for these modes which is enough to keep you interested once but wonít entice you back for additional careers as a GM or aspiring rookie player headed for superstar status.
I have my suspicions that High Voltage put most of their effort into making Inside Drive 2004 a fun online experience. If this is true then I fear for the sports genre and perhaps console gaming in general. Online gaming is still a niche portion of the market and if developers start to sacrifice conventional gameplay everyone stands to lose.
Taking my game online was as simple as any other Xbox Live supported title. You can locate a quick game or head to XSN and create a tournament. The biggest and most obvious flaw, and one that has and will continue to plague online gaming indefinitely, are those sore losers who bail out of the game when they start to lose. Ego not withstanding, Iím pretty good at these games and I tend win, or at least I would if I could find players that are willing to suck it up. Iím all in favor of some sort of stat tracking system that shows if potential players have a record of bailing on games Ė something like a blackball list. Meanwhile, we will have to settle for the opposite, which is our Friends list.
Playing Inside Drive online is just as much fun as playing alone with no obvious issues provided everyone has good solid connections. There were a few games with some framerate issues but most of the time the game flowed smoothly.
Graphics really havenít improved upon last yearís edition, but in the face of new games like ESPN NBA Basketball that are setting new levels of graphical awareness Inside Drive 2004 is a bit lacking. The first thing that bugged me was the poor player models and the fact that many of the players shared the same model making it difficult to identify even the most famous players by sight.
Set these players into motion and you will be definitely disappointed by the animation. There is little variety for each of the primary moves and the transitional animation isnít handled very well so players seem to lurch from one move to another. Even signature moves for the key players are so limited they may as well not exist.
The presentation is adequate with some nice camera work and fun replays. The stadiums look realistic although the crowd is generic and not as interactive as they should be. Scoring and other informational displays are nice, but the overall package once again pales when stacked up to the authentic ESPN presentation of that other game.
The music, which is primarily confined to the opening movie and menu screens, is good and traditional sports stuff. Itís nothing noteworthy and there is no custom soundtrack support but then who needs music drowning out your commentary.
Kenny Smith, Kevin Calabro, and Marques Johnson are heading up the broadcast booth to deliver some lackluster commentary. There is about an hours worth of color commentary that grows all-too repetitive all-too fast and much of the play-by-play commentary is either not tied to the gameplay or simply exclamations made after big plays. There is nothing too analytical or remotely insightful.
The Dolby Digital mix delivers a great audio presentation with plenty of reverb to give you that big stadium feel. The bouncing ball, squeaking sneakers, and vibrating rim shots all sound totally realistic. The crowd, on the other hand, is disappointing and subdued, or at least not as excited as I wanted them to be.
Assuming you enjoy the new direction this franchise has taken you will find countless hours of single-player gaming in the Franchise and Dynasty modes. Taking your team online will keep you playing this game until next yearís version assuming you can find dedicated players willing to see a game down to the buzzer.
Even when you remove the competing basketball titles from the equation, NBA Inside Drive 2004 is still only a marginal improvement over last yearís game. The gameplay mechanics have certainly been stepped up a notch to make this the most sim-like basketball game of the ďBig ThreeĒ, and the XSN support will extend the life of this title long past the single-player game.
Whether this is the right game for you depends on what you are looking for in your game. You might want to rent this one just to be sure before you slam-dunk your $50 on this title.