Reviewed: June 3, 2003
Released: October 7, 2002
I have played many a basketball game in my quest to find the ultimate round ball simulation, to experience that special something that draws a player into the atmosphere of the court, to feel the intensity of the lights and the pounding on the hardwood. Having played through most of the NBA Live series since I had the PS1 and found that most were too “arcady”, with shooting percentages in the high 60’s-70’s, lack of defensive stopping ability and other absurdities – something was missing. Well, my friends, that special something has arrived, behold in all its polygon glory- NBA 2K3!
Developed by Visual Concepts and produced by Sega, 2K3 follows a solid line of games that challenge EA’s NBA Live franchise, which has a more established niche in the basketball market. Look for 2K3 to turn a bunch of gamers away from Live- for good reason.
The ESPN style interface is clean and ultra-sharp, with tons of options that would please any basketball nut. There are several game modes to choose from: Street, Playoffs, Tournament, Season, Tournament, Quick game, Practice and the all-important Franchise mode. 2-10 gamers can also hoop it up over the Internet through the PS2’s network adapter.
Street mode resembles a more arcade like version of the game and is a weak attempt to capture the spirit of NBA Street- it just feels like NBA 2K3 in gym shorts and tank tops. It does allow for teams from 2-5 players from some of the worst, like 7-foot journeyman center Greg Ostertag to some of the best players, like Garnett, in the game-even past stars. This latter feature is especially neat, there are All-Star teams from the 50’s, 60’s 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, so legends like Bird, Pete Maravich, Chamberlin, Bill Russell and Magic Johnson can play on the same court.
Playoffs, Tournament and Season are your basic basketball game modes and need no explanation. Tournament mode allows up to 16 teams to battle for bragging rights, an ideal way to spend a day with your “homies.” A Quick game mode (read exhibition) is present as well, which helps people jump quickly into action. The mode that has the most to offer is Franchise, where you can choose to lead your team through many, many seasons of glory or shame. You can sign new coaches based on ratings of defense, offense and teaching ability (an ability that helps rookies develop faster).
Support for NCAA 2K3 is present, which enables you to upload graduates to the stardom of the NBA. Too cool! You have to be a wise manager to keep the franchise winning, watch that salary cap and look for bargain deals on free agents during the off season. What skills should your players work on during the off-season? Task them with an assortment of focus areas to choose from, like free throws and their outside game.
The NBA Draft is also well represented in this title. First, the lottery selection begins with the bottom feeders getting their picks, although, sadly, there is no animation present for jubilant GM “dances”, a la Jerry Krause, when he busted out a little shimmy a few years back after his Bulls won the top spot. As a General Manager you can assign workouts to various prospects and see if they could have a chance in the NBA. It makes all that time spent staring at scout reports worthwhile when that player turns into the next M.J. and leads your team to a dynasty filled with championships.
Statistics are in-depth and include “Rookie watch”, a feature that, well, watches all the rookie’s stats during the season and culminates in the Rookie-of-the year-Award. Other accolades include the All-NBA teams, MVP and others. All Star votes can be tracked during the course of the season, which is nice for those of us hoping to be selected for this special event.
In terms of on the court play, this game exhibits some of the most realistic NBA action this reviewer has ever seen. The player introductions are sparkling with lasers and lights flashing while the PA guy gets the crowd pumped up. Players bump chests and high-five each other under the spotlight. You can sense a subtle jiggle in the bodies, especially the arms of the players, showing some more realism. The post game is incredible, with tons of dekes, spins and hooks; it is the game’s bread and butter and the key to being a successful team.
The controls are tight and responsive, although the direct passing system is bit clunky. I used controller config C and use the triangle button to bring up the icons, as opposed to the R1 or L1 buttons of the Live series. This makes you double tap the triangle button on some occasions, and it interferes with some of the game flow. Unlike the NBA Jam esque “Run and Gun” gameplay, 2K3 is full of heated half-court sets that go down to the buzzer. Some of these plays are bit complicated, especially if you really watch the whole play unfold in the game plan menu. Most of the time I would just run a few basic sets and move the ball around looking for an open shot.
On defense, running a zone was easier to manage, since you don’t have to chase your man constantly. Word to the wise: don’t control the point guard-you will get your ankles busted every time trying to defend those crafty AI guards. Rather, I found myself relegated to the “big men”, the power forward or center and patrolled the paint, stalking the weak and afraid…err yeah.
As stated before, realism is apparent in this game. Mutombo can’t pull a 360 spin and crossover finished with a dunk, if he pulls that jazz in 2K3 he would either fumble it out of bounds or get capped by a fearsome looking Ben Wallace. You have to work for everything you get in this title. At times I found myself setting the game on AI control and watching the player celebrations (Shaq upper cutting the air), raucous dunks and buzzer beaters while I snacked on some ice cream from the fridge. I’m not sure of many games that are nearly as enjoyable to watch as the real thing (though Madden comes to mind), but NBA 2K3 is certainly one.
Of course if you don’t like the way the game plays, you can fully customize it with the game play slider feature. Adjustable settings include, but are not limited to, shooting percentage, 3pt percentage, dunk rating and ball handling. I found turning down the shooting percentage for 2pt shots and turning up the 3pt percentage helped to produce a typical NBA box score. Otherwise, get ready for Steve Kerr and Reggie Miller building a house with all those 3pt “bricks.”
Also, it is advisable to tweak the player and game speed setting to a faster level, especially if you are used to more intense games like Live or NBA Street. Without this tweaking, the players feel unrealistically sluggish. As the game announcers put it, “This is the NBA, not the NBDL “(Nation Basketball Development League), and I want my players to move like the world class athletes they are.
Pro difficulty is the preferred difficulty mode; Rookie and All-Pro are on two different extremes. Also, if you want to be challenged night in and night out, max out the crash boards slider; this seems to make the game closer for some reason. Another neat feature is player specific free throws, such as Jason Kidd who blows kisses to his family. Alas, I never noticed Karl Malone’s 20 sec whisperings or Shaq’s one-handed “shot-puts.” Hardcore basketball fans like myself appreciate this attention to detail. A word of advice for free throws, turn on the free-throw help unless you have the patience of a Tibetan Monk and the manual dexterity of a Fly tier, otherwise you will have no chance of making half your free throws.
The visuals are solid and look realistic, although they are a bit stiff in animation. The players look proportionate and true to life; Shaq is bulky while Iverson has a sleek and lithe frame. Faces are modeled accurately for most players, especially the big name stars. Ok, their faces look great… but they don’t really do anything. These NBA athletes have that “zombified” -gaping- mouth- stare, no matter if they are driving to the hoop or rejecting someone. There is no sign of emotion. I really hope some developer can put this much-needed feature in someday; non-expressive faces really take away from the immersive factor.
The so called “glistening with sweat” feature isn’t much to talk about, because unless you zoom in, you can’t tell they are even sweating. The courts are drawn well, with an amazing amount of life-like detail, however, the masses in the cheaper seats still have that blurred out effect, but who buys sports games to stare at the spectators anyway? Reflections are done well, with players mirrored in the glistening hardwood.
The art team apparently spent a lot of time on the fans that wave inflated bangers behind the basket during free throws. These bangers have a balloon-like sheen to them as they bounce to and fro. The courtside seats are really active too; they stand up for big plays and make their presence felt, although I didn’t see Jack Nicholson in the Staples Center or Spike Lee in Madison Square Garden. Guess that’s asking too much, and God knows what kind of identity rights that entails.
It helps to have the instantly recognizable Sportcenter theme in the intro. The rest of the music is also borrowed directly from the highlight reels, a mix of hip-hop and funk. The crowd and player chatter sound appropriate enough, although the announcers are nothing special and actually become annoying after awhile with their over generalized statements. They will often lag behind the gameplay because they were finishing saying some silly comment.
Frequent stastical updates are the one redeeming quality of the ESPN announcers. I personally enjoyed turning all the announcers off- hearing “Alleeeen Iversooon!” 45 times per contest is a bit much. The court sound effects are dead on; shoes squeaks, balls clang off the rim and the blocking effect is a subdued “smack”, as opposed to the “bongo bat” effect found in many basketball games. The crowd and player chatter is active, with cries of “Defense” and “Post –up!” heard throughout the game.
Inherently, this is a sports game, a genre that is known for massive amounts of replay value, but does the game get old sooner than later? I big negative on that one. With 8 play modes, including the deep franchise mode you won’t run out of options quickly. There is also network support for up to 10 players online. Don’t worry if you don’t have a network adapter, 8 of your buddies can play with the aid of multitap. This game stays fresh and enthralling for months, especially if the NBA season or playoffs are on, watching the real deal and playing the simulation makes for basketball nirvana.
If you like realistic basketball titles with sharp graphics and a plethora of options then pick up NBA 2K3. Just don’t forget that you can turn off the commentary. This game rocks the virtual arena and no basketball fan should be without it.