Reviewed: December 24, 2002
Released: October 15, 2002
Sports games have quickly become a major portion of every console’s game library, and with Sega dropping out of the hardware biz and delivering all of their Sega Sports titles for all three platforms there has never been a better time for sports loving gamers. While Sega and Electronic Arts wage their war for sports supremacy, Microsoft quietly sits back and releases their yearly updates for their sports games.
It seems that each of the major publishers have their own cult following and for some reason Microsoft seems to fall behind in popularity to Sega and EA. While Madden, NBA Live, and the NBA and NFL 2k series may offer more in-depth gameplay or complicated tactics, larger playbooks, etc. there has been something refreshingly simple about all of the Microsoft sports game that make them more accessible and more fun to play by the casual gamer.
NBA Inside Drive 2003 is the latest basketball to join the competition against NBA Live 2003 and NBA 2k3. Sega’s game is definitely a hardcore sim for serious gamers while EA’s game nearly approaches the NBA Jam series in it’s over-the-top arcade feel. After playing all three of these sports titles side by side there are some obvious differences, yet in the end, Inside Drive offers the most fun and intuitive gameplay of this year’s crop of hoops titles.
High Voltage didn’t skimp on the content. Fully licensed by the NBA, you have this years currently rosters for every NBA team as well as detailed reproductions of all of their venues. There are plenty of game modes to let you practice, or challenge a friend or the computer to a quick pick-up game. You can also tackle a complete season or if you are looking for the ultimate challenge you can try the Dynasty mode that spans a 25-season career. This mode takes the sport of basketball to a whole new scale allowing you to adjust your player’s skills over the course of an entire NBA career.
Last year’s Inside Drive was a pretty good basketball game, especially in light of the fact that EA’s buggy and glitch-filled NBA Live game pretty much sucked and Sega was still learning how to program for the Xbox. The glaring omission of a franchise mode in last year’s game has been addressed as well as many other improvements to make this the game of choice for serious and not-so-serious basketball players.
For as much that has been improved and fix, there is only so much you can do with each year’s new release of a sports title. It’s easy to become jaded, as these games all seem to play pretty much the same. If you played last year’s game and enjoyed it then it’s safe to say you are going to live this update. Aside from the new practice and franchise modes, there are only minor additions to the actual gameplay including on-the-fly play calling.
Most of the improvements are behind the scenes. The AI has been significantly improved yet remains “friendly” enough to not discourage the casual gamer. There are sliders you can use to adjust human and computer performance such as speed, blocks, steals, special movies, and all sorts of different shots. This is a great feature, one that was missed in last year’s game, and you can spend hours tinkering with the sliders to get a mix that is tailored to your style of playing.
Control is flawless and you can learn the few commands necessary to make you play like a pro in just a few minutes in the practice court. You have your standard passing mode where you tap the pass combined with a direction on the stick toward the desired player or you can choose for icon passing by tapping a button associated with each player. Jump shots are all about the timing of the jump and the release of the button at the apex of your jump and specialty shots like catching air from the free-throw line and slamming the ball through the hoop are a combination of your player’s skill, height, and your use of the turbo button.
There is a new set of post moves added to this new version that gives you much great flexibility in executing your shots. Using the left trigger you can tweak your stance, perform hook shots, and sidestep the defender. These moves all help to push the action into the lane and under the rim rather than firing off three-pointers from downtown all day long, although when I’m playing Reggie Miller I tend to shoot from a different zip code with reasonable success. I even broke the three-pointer world record on my second game playing as the Pacers.
The free-throw system is simple but lacks the clever design of aligning the twin-arcs in Sega’s NBA game. Inside Drive has a meter with two circles. You start the shot and a dot moves to the right. You must tap the button when the dot is in the right circle then it moves to the left toward the second circle. Tapping again releases the ball. Depending on how close to each circle the dot is when you tap the button determines if you hit or miss. The speed of this moving dot is determined by your player’s FT stats, so lousy shooters will have a fast dot and excellent shooters will have a slow moving dot.
You can’t talk about free throws without talking about refs and penalties. Last year’s game was a bit strict in the sense that you could hardly move without getting some bogus penalty called on you. Now you can adjust the “awareness” of the refs anywhere from strict to turning them completely off. Normal mode offers the most realistic experience with only a few calls falling into the “cheap shot” category. Casual gamers will probably find the Lenient setting works best.
The big new feature for 2003 is the real-time play calling using the D-pad. This works best for defensive play allowing you to setup multiple levels of defense, coverage, and even intensity. Each direction on the D-pad opens a sub-menu so you can change your entire team setup in about one second without interrupting the game.
The one thing that did surprise me about Inside Drive 2003 is the total lack of online support. Even if this game did release before the Xbox Live online gaming system Microsoft has had the system in beta more than long enough to allow High Voltage to program for it. Even NFL Fever 2003 has online play and it released in August. There is no excuse for this game not to have online play. Whether High Voltage was either too lazy or just couldn’t get a grasp of coding for the Xbox Live, Microsoft should have made this a priority feature and given the game to a developer that could deliver the online experience.
The other new feature in Inside Drive is the Dynasty mode that lets you create a player and take him through a 25-year career in the NBA. This is probably too overwhelming for all but the most diehard of gamers, but it is still an incredible feature that will give this game a lifespan much longer than any of the competition. Unless this is the only game you play on your Xbox, you will have a hard time completing 25 seasons before Inside Drive 2004 releases.
When you start the Dynasty mode you get the option for a fantasy draft. There is no scouting so you are forced to compare player skills when making your decision. The trading system is very fair keeping all of the teams competitive. It’s a functional franchise system with not a lot of extras to bog things down.
The Create-a-Player option is almost a game in itself. Each player has more attributes than I care to count and each has a slider to customize how the computer will play that character when you aren’t in charge. You get to assign skill points to the various abilities of your player and you will earn new points during normal season play that can be used to increase you player’s abilities and overall rank.
This year’s Inside Drive looks remarkably like last year’s game, which isn’t a bad thing considering that game looked great. There were some frame rate issues in 2002 that seem to have been ignored, but they are infrequent and hardly interfere with the gameplay.
The players look great and you can easily recognize your favorite NBA stars. The colors and textures used for the players are much more vivid than the background making them pop off the court. Oddly enough, this actually makes playing the game that much easier. The animation is excellent with all of the individual movements blending together for a very lifelike look. Players seamlessly transition from a run to a leap or a spin move and many have taunts or grandstanding moves they will do for the camera after a dunk.
You can play from a variety of angles including traditional TV side court views and isometric angles. My personal favorite is the view that puts you up close to the action in full 3D. Even at this close range the camera does an amazing job of keeping all the players in view, and there is an almost Matrix-like panning effect when control of the ball shifts to the other team.
All of the stadiums have been recreated with excellent detail and there are animated crowds that cheer the action. The crowd textures are a bit small so repetition is obvious from the more distant camera angles. The arenas are full of banners and advertisements; there are shiny hardwood floors and colorful NBA logos.
My only minor complaint with the visuals is the lack of effort on the presentation of this game. The opening movie is identical to NFL Fever 2003 in composition with anything related to football being replaced with basketball. While that movie was excellent, it’s a shame they couldn’t come up with something more original than adding a new song and swapping some scenes. The in-game presentation was slightly lacking as well. Perhaps I have become spoiled by the killer player introductions in Sega’s NBA game with thumping music and laser lightshow, but the standard intros for both home and visitors just seemed weak, and you will find yourself mashing the button to start the game.
Master P does the energized opening music for Inside Drive 2003 then this category falls back on the strength of the commentary. This is the only NBA game to date to make use of four commentators; three in the box and one covering the courtside action. Those that played last year’s game will recognize Kevin Calabro and Marques Johnson who provide excellent play-by-play game that is surprisingly accurate and not as repetitive as you might expect.
New to the broadcast team is Akemi Takei who reports from the floor on injuries, player updates, and post-game analysis that are accurate but usually as generic as a horoscope. The biggest addition is Kenny “The Jet” Smith (no relation) who is in charge of color commentary, which he delivers, in grand style. His comments are some of the best, and give the game a fresh and often humorous style that was missing last year. Kenny is ruthless in his comments and will have you either laughing or blushing when he tears into that bad play you just made.
As with all sports titles, this game will last for as long as you care to keep playing it. As the casual pick-up and play game you won’t find a better offering of the sport, and if you are looking to play a season or create a player and take them on a 25-year journey through the NBA, Inside Drive 2003 offers it all.
The lack of online play is regrettable and perhaps even unforgivable, but it doesn’t detract from the quality game that remains. Most of my online sports experiences have been less than stellar anyway, with people getting mad and dropping out of games or not playing fairly. I’d much rather have a group of people sitting around my Xbox playing on the same system.
If you have last year’s Inside Drive then the big question is do you need the 2003 edition. If you want updated rosters or the new Dynasty mode then that answer is a resounding yes. If you are looking for groundbreaking innovations or online play then you may want to hang in there and wait for the 2004 release.
As it stands, NBA Inside Drive 2003 is a great basketball game that delivers everything we should have gotten last year. It falls comfortably between the sim-heavy gameplay of Sega’s title while maintaining a higher level of sophistication over EA’s Live game. It’s perfect for casual gamers or can be tweaked to suit anyone of any skill level. If you have an Xbox and enjoy basketball then this is one game you definitely want to add to your game library.