Full Review: No one do the voodoo like you do.
Last year, Microsoft and High Voltage Software pulled off a surprise by releasing a very competent and entertaining hoops game, NBA Inside Drive 2002. Unfortunately, the game was hampered by a lack of features ? no create a player or Franchise mode makes a sports gamer depressed and neurotic. Despite that, ID 2002 was a real step in the right direction, setting up the eventual 2003 edition that surely would be a deeper game. Plus, with Microsoft's ambitious online plans, the game certainly would have online support as one of the marquee first party games.
With that said, the 2003 version of Inside Drive is here ? and for the most part, delivers. The Franchise mode (featuring a very different version of Dynamic Player Performance) is in there and is very impressive, and the create a player is robust and worthwhile. It's just that MS forgot one teeny thing ? the online play. While it definitely does not kill the game at all, it would be a nice thing to have added in. But on the other hand, at least ID 2003 isn't one of those games that's barely improved over the previous year with online tacked on (looking at NFL Fever?). If you need online play, then NBA 2K3 is the only option ? but if you just want a solid one-player game and the standard multiplayer, NBA Inside Drive is a very good choice for your Xbox.
Inside Drive has all the trimmings with the exception of Xbox Live support (if the intro here didn't give that away) ? there are regular exhibition games, a Franchise, a basic playoff mode, a practice mode, and the ability to create a player. The Franchise mode is very similar to NFL Fever; you take a team over 25 seasons, with full control of your team, from signing free agents or trading players, to offseason activities like the draft and the open market for free agency. During the seasons, the DPP comes into effect with the Achievements feature ? accomplish certain tasks during a game (such as a triple double, 30 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds, and so on), and it adds up to more improvement in the offseason. The only form of true DPP is with your created players ? as your player does more in a game, be it scoring or rebounding and everything else, his attributes improve. While it's disappointing that all the NBA players don't make use of the DPP in the typical, Fever-style manner, the Achievements feature makes up for it and gives more goals throughout a season. The best part of Franchise definitely is the ability to set the length of the quarters for simulated games, so other teams don't average 60 points a game while you average 100 in 8 minute quarters (I mean, NBA teams can't score a lot in 12 minute quarters in reality, but I think they can somehow manage more than 60).
While the action itself isn't as revamped as the modes of play, it makes up for it with the thorough AI sliders. Every little part of the NBA game is yours for the tweaking, from game speed (which apparently is set to ?turtle? by default), to the accuracy of both human and computer shooting, to the frequency of blocks and steals. With these sliders, you can tweak the game to play at the level of challenge you want; if something is giving you trouble, adjust it a bit to make it easier or harder. Also, these sliders can make ID an honest basketball simulation, or a wild arcade game; it all depends on you.
When you take it to the court, ID veterans will be able to notice the changes and tweaks immediately ? which are all very miniscule. While ID 2003 doesn't take advantage of the right thumbstick for special moves like NBA Live 2003, it still uses it for the alternate passing system ? which I bet a few people didn't know existed anyway. Some of the gameplay tweaks lie in the post-up game; the one big weakness area in ID 2002. Posting up is actually quite fun, and pulls off the double or triple threat part of the game accurately. You can lean in and dribble back and work your way into the paint, quick spin around and try to blow by the defender, or work the ball to an open man ? your choice. The pace of the game is the biggest tweak ? at the start, it's a lot slower and more half-court style. However, just going in and tweaking the slider to speed up the game a smidge creates a basketball game that does both the fast break game and the half-court game extremely well (which ID 2002 did very well too). In many ways, it's a perfect combination of the frantic pace of NBA Live and the plodding pace of NBA 2K3 ? and as such, perhaps the most realistic NBA game out there. If you play your cards right, the transition game is smooth and works to perfection.
One of my favorite parts of the game is the overall feel of it ? it just feels right. When you shoot the basketball, you just know whether or not it goes in or not, just by the look of the shot leaving the hands of the player. When you sit back and let a 3-ball fly, knowing that it's going in is a nice feeling, as is the ?aww crap? feeling when the shot comes off wrong. Of course, it's a pleasant surprise when it bounces around the rim and falls in ? the rim physics are really good.
While the sliders can fix this, the defense has a couple nags. First off, its way too easy to steal the ball; when your center has about 5 steals in a game something is up. But the sliders can rectify it, so it's not a really huge deal. Also, the braindead computer defenders that are on my team are sissies; they just let guys plow through the lane and score layups and dunks at will.
Inside Drive's AI really hasn't been tweaked much by default, and many of the same issues plight the game from last year. The computer team has 2 very annoying habits ? a severe fear of shooting the basketball, and a tendency to have just 1 or 2 players do all the scoring while the other guys sit around with their fingers up their asses watching. Many, many times, the computer players will drive the lane or get a wide open shot, and pass the ball to one of the big 2 scorers. When the game ends, it's not surprising to see 2 guys on the computer team with 30 points and the rest with 4 or 5 points. It reminds me of the old-time NBA Live games where the AI just pushed the ball to a single player and he was unstoppable. At least it doesn't cheat and pull off miracle comebacks. When you're the one on offense though, they're tough and rarely give up a wide-open shot, though it is a bit easy to drive the lane for an easy dunk or lay-up.
It all averages out, since ID offers games that usually stay close when 2 really good teams go at it, and when you're playing as a bad team, a great effort is needed to win games. Of course, when you're the Lakers against the Nuggets, things can get mighty ugly (though the Nuggets are actually decent in this game, since video game Camby doesn't get hurt all the time like real life Camby does). It pans out to an entertaining season/franchise mode that might be worth playing a few seasons of, building your team into a Dynasty.
The graphics of Inside Drive haven't gotten a total overhaul, but definitely are improved over 2002. The biggest improvement is the lighting ? apparently the NBA owners finally paid their electric bills, since the stadiums look less like a dimly lit WWF house event and more like a well-lit NBA basketball game. The courts are nice and shiny, and are true to life, as are the moving billboards and a fully animated bench where you can actually pick out the players on your team sitting around. The crowd is still a bit cardboardy, but in the right angle it looks like an excellently detailed live crowd to cheer on the home team (sorta).
Players themselves look pretty good, with most players looking like their NBA counterparts, complete with special traits like headbands, armbands, kneepads, and giant afros if you're Moochie Norris ? though some go the other direction and look completely different. Jerseys on the players are fairly cool; you can see all the details like the airholes in them. Unfortunately, the jerseys almost look like they're glued onto the players; they look really bunched up at the top and don't move too freely. The player animations look good, though sometimes they come off as canned, especially when executing crossovers and fakes. An overhaul complete with freestyle control for ID 2004 would do this game good. However, the moves are smooth to execute and are controllable, which is a big plus.
Inside Drive's sound is actually quite good, with the exception of one small problem. The 3-ego team of Kevin Colabro, Marques Johnson, and Kenny Smith handles the play by play. Despite the possibility of the 3 talking over each other and sounding really crappy, they pick their spots and talk at the right times ? and if not, Colabro will cut the other guys off when a big play happens ? then apologize for it. A handful of the phrases from last year return, but consist mostly of the amusing anecdotes that Colabro spits out, which is why he's one of the better NBA broadcasters (but not NFL, like his disaster in Fever 2003).
The soundtrack to the game is obviously a rap/hip-hop variety, with the special feature of having rapper Master P(ee) provide a song for the soundtrack that plays during the demo and is really freaking annoying and stupid. At the very least let's get more than one song to send us over the edge like EA did.
Finally, the sound effects of the game are done well, with the exception of one thing. You can audibly hear players talk trash and squeak their shoes on the court, and hear coaches belt out strategies and such. The problem is, being able to hear this so well means the crowd noise is dead. And it is. While the game is being played, the crowd sits on their hands and only cheers when a basket is scored; a far cry from the wild NBA Live crowd who really gets into the games. With ID 2003 it's like playing in a silent arena ? so quiet you can hear Kenny Smith blabbering about how good he was.
Despite the lack of online play, NBA Inside Drive 2003 is a polished game of basketball that has enough options to satisfy anyone looking for a deep game and doesn't need online play. The exhaustive set of sliders keeps the game within the grasps of the player, letting them customize the game to their skill level and taste. It may not be a radical improvement over 2002, but there's just enough to make the game seem fresh and polished ? something NFL Fever cannot claim. While the ?other guys? are pushing out their best hoops games for the Xbox, NBA Inside Drive definitely deserves a spot next to them; and when it goes online next year, it might just surpass them.