Realism takes leap in hoops games

By Jae-Ha Kim and Misha Davenport
Chicago Sun-Times
March 28, 2002

March Madness nears its close this weekend with the matchups of the Final Four men’s college basketball teams, with only one emerging Monday night as the NCAA titleholder.

Hoop dreams don’t have to end, though. Thanks to hardworking video game programmers, another season is as nearby as your video game system.

We go courtside with the following college and professional basketball titles:

NBA Courtside 2002 Nintendo • Rated E for everyone • GameCube • Highly recommended

You will be blown away by the visuals. At one point, the players’ real-life team photos are shown alongside their virtual doppelgangers. The likenesses are so striking you’ll do a double take. The same goes for the arenas, which are faithfully depicted here.

“Courtside” takes a little more leeway with the action. The players are bionic in their skills, taking everything to the Nth degree. The dunks are executed with superhuman strength, and the dribbling is so intricate at times you’d think it was being judged for style. Diehard basketball fans won’t like it. But for the rest of us, it’s a fun kick in the pants.         The audio does little to enhance gameplay. The players don’t talk, and the running commentary grows redundant after a few games. It would’ve been nice to hear a more amped-up crowd to go along with those soaring plays. —Jae-Ha Kim

NBA Street EA Sports •  Rated E for everyone • Reviewed for PlayStation 2; also available for GameCube • Highly recommended

First things first: This game gives you the option of playing a host of streetside courts, including one in Chicago. As rendered by the game, Buckingham Fountain looks like it’s across the street from the Hancock. And last I checked, there wasn’t a basketball court near either.

With its hip-hop soundtrack, players in street attire, lightning-fast play, attitude and a host of detailed courts, this is one groovy game. You gotta love a title that has Stretch, a 46-year-old schoolteacher, as one of your toughest opponents. His “Black Panther” afro, calf-length white socks and Converse shoes will make you laugh until he slam-dunks, shoving a piece of humble pie in your face.         In addition to the streetball opponents, you have the option of playing the court with a roster of NBA players–including Michael Jordan. Either way, a simple game of 21 was never more fun. —Misha Davenport

NBA Live 2002 EA Sports • Rated E for everyone • Reviewed for PlayStation 2; also available for XBox • Recommended

Visually impressive, this basketball game isn’t quite a slam dunk. Easy to play and fun to maneuver, “NBA Live” offers players access to warmups, arguments with referees and partying after a big win. They can make like Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter or Shaquille O’Neal. Unfortunately, the athletes’ likenesses aren’t translated into their playing style. All the stars move the same, from passes to dunks to rebounds.

I could have done without the running play-by-play commentary, which is the most annoying thing this side of Regis Philbin’s nonstop yammering on PlayStation’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Humorous at first, it grows old fast.

Still, the precise presentation and realistic animation make this a must-have for any video hoops fan. All that’s missing is the spilled beer. —Jae-Ha Kim

NBA Inside Drive 2002 Microsoft • Rated E for everyone • XBox • Recommended

Graphically, this was the most advanced game I played. My first matchup was a Los Angeles Lakers home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It felt like I was actually on the Staples Center court. The only thing that would have made the game feel more real would be Jack Nicholson sitting courtside.

Game play was quick and enjoyable. Offensively, I had difficulty passing the ball to the intended player, and I found it a bit too easy to travel or go out of bounds.

On the defensive side, it was extremely easy to toggle between players to keep a ballhandler well covered. I also managed to rack up a number of personal fouls, though I’m not sure just what I did. —Misha Davenport

NCAA March Madness 2002 EA Sports • Rated E for everyone • PlayStation 2 • Not recommended

If you are the type of person who can’t be bothered with reading a whole mystery and instead flips to the last chapter to find out whodunit, this is the game for you. Most sports titles (including several released by EA Sports) give you the option of playing an entire season before reaching the championship. March Madness gets right down to the “Sweet 16” bracket of college teams.

Graphics aren’t what you’ve come to expect from an EA Sports title, either. One can only assume this product was rushed to market. How else to explain players’ facial expressions and body movements during play? Zombies in any given “Resident Evil” title move with more fluidity. It’s as if Percodan was freely distributed on the road trip to the arena.

Another beef: In my game between Michigan State and Michigan, I was expecting digital versions of Spartans coach Tom Izzo and the Wolverines’ Tommy Amaker. Apparently, EA’s license agreement doesn’t include coaches’ likenesses.

However, they did see to programming every school’s fight song. Pity that isn’t what you play sports games for. –Misha Davenport

ESPN NBA 2 Night 2002 Konami • Rated E for everyone • PlayStation 2 • Not recommended

There was a moment when I thought I was watching the Three Stooges try to play basketball. The players got tangled up with each other. There was a flurry of arms and legs flailing about, but no one was getting anywhere. This may be how I play basketball in real life, but it’s not what I want in a game.

Compared to the other offerings on the market, NBA 2 Night is amateur night. The players are less realistic looking, often with legs so large their heads appear pea-sized by comparison. And the movements are basic and not particularly challenging.

I did enjoy playing the role of general manager, trading players and divvying up salaries. But the paperwork will just annoy some gamers, who’ll be frustrated by the front-office duties and the unfair nature of the trades–e.g., the opponents (OK, the computer) won’t offer any trades, but will just sift through your offers instead. —Jae-Ha Kim



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