By Matt James
The first time I played NBA Inside Drive I hated it. I didn't have any control over the game. I felt like I was playing with oven mitts on my hands. I am not a big sports game guy. Not at all. Worse yet, Basketball games are my least favorite. Still, I went into this game with an open mind. Better than an open mind, I really wanted to like it. But that first game was just painful.
I take my fair share of blame for the first game. I didn't really bother to look at the controller setup until late in the game. I have been playing videogames since I was five. I felt I ought to be able to pick it no problem. Sadly I was wrong, very wrong. Watching me play, as I furiously mashed buttons, was a little like watching synchronized swimming: My entire team jumping into the air with arms outstretched, while the ball was in the other teams hands on the other side of the court. I lost that first game (in rookie mode mind you) 48 to 12. Ouch! If I had rented this game, as opposed to having it for review, I probably would never have touched it again.
Instead I turned right around and played another game. I found that I had picked up quite a bit in that first game and this time I won, 45 to 42. You know what was even better? I found out my roommate stunk at Basketball games even more than I did. I walloped him 50 some odd points to 6. Now that is what I call fun. My girlfriend picked it right up. She just barely lost her first game to me, and frankly I was afraid to play her again (for the good of all men everywhere, I couldn't let her put me down). The point is, despite its imperfections, I was starting to appreciate this game. A Basketball game that I would never even have realized existed if I hadn't been sent a copy.
Whether Basketball games fans enjoy NBA Inside Drive 2004 or not really depends on what kind of experience they look for in a game. If you want something that looks and feels realistic, then this is it. If you are looking for insane dunks that are accompanied by flashing stars and exploding fireworks you will probably be a little disappointed. Inside Drive is more like a sim game than anything. It is a little like the difference between the more realistic Amped and the wacky, over the top SSX. Both are great games that satisfy different tastes.
The game has an interesting AI. One minute you think your team is asleep and the next they totally amaze you. Every time I knocked the ball out of the opponent's hands I had to run my little man to the ball to recover it. I got no help from the AI. Not only did my AI teammates never pick up the loose ball, they didn't even move in its general direction, or even seem to notice it. This was very frustrating because it meant that many or most of the times I actually managed to knock the ball loose it was just picked right back up by the other team.
On the flip side of the coin there were a couple of times when a shot would be off and instead of waiting for the rebound my player would tip it in for me. I can forgive a couple of lost turnovers for a nice bit of teamwork like this.
The graphics are fine. However, with so many ultra-realistic sports games out right now it is hard not to be a little disappointed with Inside Drive's character models. The only thing that really bugged me visually was the stats that constantly popped up at the bottom of the screen. I understand what they were trying to do, but it seems wrong for me for two reasons. First off, it makes it more like watching the game on TV. Isn't the point of this game to give a feeling of being in the game? Constant stats on the screen just jar you from the game back to reality. The second reason it bothers me is because they are constantly in the way. Many times while bringing the ball down court my player was completely blocked by the stat box at the bottom. It seems to be a very tough concept for developers to get, but it really freaking sucks playing a game when you can't see your character.
The announcers are of course annoying. They have a small bag of tricks and are repetitive within the first game. Worse yet, the quips don't always seem relevant to the situation. In NBA Inside Drive's defense, I can't remember the last game I reviewed that had decent voice work (outside of games I reviewed I can only think of the DJ in SSX3 that was worth a darn).
The big selling point of this game though is its online gameplay. It is part of the X-Box's XSN that keeps track of online leagues and stats. This is pretty shiny as long as there is someone else online to play (the first time I got on there was only one other player). For the most part it played just as well online. There were a few spots where the game literally paused due to lag but that is better than playing through glitchy graphics. You get ten minutes of pause time a piece. There is a nifty little timer to keep track. You can of course voice chat back and forth, which is essential for realistic NBA trash-talking. Really the biggest shock was how badly I creamed the person I played online. Once again, I found that to be more than a little bit fun.
Since there are so many Basketball titles out there this may be one you would like to rent. It is solid and the online stuff has tons of potential. The biggest problem is the NBA's players' biggest battlefields are not available to play, I'm of course talking about the courtroom. Forget about Grand theft Auto; here is your chance to play as some real criminals. Ever time I played the Lakers I would pass the ball to Kobe Bryant, hit pause, and search for the plead guilty? button. That should really make the crowd go wild!