Review: NBA Inside Drive 2004

Game: NBA Inside Drive 2004
System: Microsoft X-Box
Genre: Sports/Basketball
Developer: High Voltage Software
Publisher: Microsoft
Date of Release: November 18, 2003

In recent years, it has been a dead heat between Electronic Arts’ NBA Live series and Sega Sports’ NBA 2K/ESPN NBA Basketball series for the title of the year’s best basketball game. Some fans are diehard EA supporters, while many claim that NBA Live lost its luster long ago and prefer Sega’s simulation-style game. There’s no right or wrong here, and the competition can only be a good thing.

But now, there’s a third party – Microsoft. Its Inside Drive series has been around since its 1999 debut on PC, and has appeared on X-Box each of the past two years. Each time, it has been overlooked, perhaps rightfully so. This year, Microsoft and developer High Voltage have stepped up their collective game. They have improved Inside Drive’s gameplay and added Shaquille O’Neal to the box cover. Most importantly, Inside Drive utilizes X-Box Live and the new XSN Sports technology that allows players to form their own leagues through online play. But is this enough to take on the big boys?

Story
Obviously, this being a sports game, there’s not a whole lot of story to be told. Instead, the “story mode” of Inside Drive is its Franchise Mode. Unfortunately, there simply isn’t a big story to tell. It’s pretty bare-bones by today’s standards, as you get 25 years to control your favorite team and (hopefully) lead them to a championship. Along the way, you can make trades, sign or release players, or add custom players to your roster. These maneuvers, however, must conform to the salary cap, or else you’ll have to rework any potential deal. In addition to all of this, the computer isn’t exactly a pushover when it comes to trades. You won’t receive a proposal from the computer where you’re getting more than you’re giving up, and the computer knows when you’re trying to simply dump salary. Most of the time, you won’t be able to trade for future draft picks, which can be frusturating if you’re trying to clear room for a free agent or a create-a-player (more on this later). Overall, the Franchise Mode is very much a by-the-numbers proposition that may keep you busy for a season, maybe more, but with 82 games being the only option, it might be a chore for casual gamers.

Creating your own player is one area that NBA Inside Drive 2004 definitely gets right, even if many gamers won’t see it right away. Basically, the create-a-player mode in Inside Drive avoids the usual problem of a created superstar with a 99 in everything by limiting the points you can give to your players. Points are disributed in four areas – shooting, offense, defense, and physical attributes. Each attribute has a degree of importance about it, which affects the number of points it takes to increase it. For example, three-point shooting requires 10 attribute points to increase your rating one point, while short-range shooting only requires two. What does this mean? Simply, if you want a superstar, you’re going to have to earn it. In-game experience is the only way to add attribute points to your create-a-player, and the only way to get experience is for your created player, who’s likely to be horrible at first, to take the starting role on the team of your choice. This means that your team will suffer as a whole until you find a role for your player. In this way, it’s like coaching a team who has just traded for a new player, and it’s up to you to figure out how to best use him. In time, your player will gain his necessary attributes, but it’ll take a while.

Story Rating: 6/10

Graphics
The graphics in Inside Drive are mostly top-notch, with a few exceptions. The arenas are very well-done, with not a nuance missing. You can even see championship banners for the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden! Overall, the arenas are bright and eye-catching. Fan animation is pretty standard here, with nice touches as fans waving balloons and streamers as an away team player attempts a free throw standing out as particularly good. The camera angles are numerous and effective, especially the default “Drive” camera angle, which provides a great mixture of a half-court view as well as a view of the one-on-one matchup between you and your defender.


The arenas look great, and so do the dribble moves

There are a few areas where the graphics are lacking, though. First, some of the net physics appear to be a little off. While it’s just the net and it’s not of much consequence, this is the kind of thing you’ll notice during the frequent post-play replays. A second gripe is the player models themselves. High Voltage made sure the superstars look like superstars, but some of the journeymen types look nothing like their real-life counterparts. The limitations of the player appearances are most evident in create-a-player mode, where there are only five facial models to choose from. Furthermore, watching most players shoot free throws in Inside Drive is like watching a fourth-grader playing in a CYO league. Often, players appear to be shooting with both hands from the charity stripe, which any NBA fan knows is not how it’s really done.

Graphics Rating: 7/10

Sound
There’s nothing particularly good or bad about the sound here, which is bad or good depending on how you view things. The menu music is downright laughable, consisting mostly of unknown hip-hop artists rapping about the game, the X-Box, and X-Box Live. Not much of substance there. The announcing is handled by Kevin Calabro and former NBA stars Marquez Johnson and Kenny Smith. These guys try really hard to sound hip, but it just doesn’t work. But if you like moves described with phrases like “The Levitation Shuffle!” mixed in with play-by-play calls like “Puts up a Jimmy!”, NBA Inside Drive has the commentary track you’ve been looking for. The commentators aren’t all bad, though, as there are a number of player-specific comments about the ability of the player. Unfortunately, a lot of them repeat themselves. Odds are good that you’ll hear about Antonio McDyess’ injury problems two or three times per Knick game, even though you won’t hear the same exact sentence said more than once. Also, there’s a good flow between player names and pre-recorded phrases, which is often a problem in sports games.


The Answer puts up a “Jimmy”

The sound effects are, for the most part, spot-on. Floor squeaks, talk among players (“Whose man is that?), and crowd noise is all well-done. Certainly nothing to complain about in sound, but you get the impression the commentary could have been done MUCH better with a more basic approach.

Sound Rating: 6.5/10

Controls
Control is one area where Inside Drive excels. The passing in Inside Drive is the best out there right now. Passes are quick and crisp, and moving the ball around is made even easier with icon passing. Still, the A button will get the ball to where you want it to go more often that not. In short, if you can spot the open man, you can get it to him with no hassle.


Perhaps Baron should have looked to pass here

Inside Drive has jumped on the “right-analog-stick-dribble” bandwagon, which is a lot easier than pressing B to fake out your defender. The analog moves are well-done, and your analog stick movements are simulated quite well by the move your player performs. For example, pulling back on the right analog stick will cause your player to do a stutter-step, while moving the stick to your opposite side results in a cross-over. Not quite EA-level yet, but it’s a welcome addition that will only improve in future editions.

Free throw shooting is done with a simple, yet complex system that does a really good job of simulating what a real free throw might be like. It’s been compared to a golf swing in older circle-meter type games, and for good reason. The free throw is started with a press of the X button. The meter moves across the screen and passes a “power” circle. If you press X while the ball is in the circle, your power will be perfect; off to the side a little bit, and there’s a chance of your shot being missed. There’s a third press of the X button for the “accuracy” circle, which operates much the same way. While this sounds easy, it’s more complicated than that. Each player’s meter moves at a different speed than any other player, with the speed being based on the free throw rating of the player. This forces the shooter to think a lot about the shot, which inhibits instinct, which might result in a miss, especially in a close game. Add the option for an opponent to cause your controller to vibrate as you take your shot (press X repeatedly), and there’s a lot of room for error. This free throw method isn’t perfect, but it does a great job of putting you in a spot where you might think too much and miss because of it.

Play-calling in Inside Drive is done by the D-Pad, which functions well. Each direction calls for a different kind of play, including the option to call a defensive play when you still have the ball. This allows you to get the formation right ahead of time, so when you drop back on defense, you’re all set. There are a ton of plays to choose from, and each direction is customizable in terms of which play is called when the button is pressed, giving a great deal of versatility.

Control Rating: 8/10

Replayability
Inside Drive’s replay value can be summed up by two words: X-Box Live.

Let’s be honest here – the Franchise Mode is good, but nothing to write home about. Playoffs are fun, but won’t last more than a few days. Where Inside Drive’s replay value really shines is online. Two modes here – single game and XSN Sports. In single game, you have the option to create your own game, with all options fully customizable, or join an already-created game. X-Box Live keeps track of your online records, including rankings of all players, and this helps you see where you stand in relation to other gamers. The competition online is pretty good, and it sure beats the heck out of playing the computer over and over again.

If you’re a hardcore sports gamer, you couldn’t ask for more than XSN Sports. XSN Sports allows you to join an Inside Drive league, where stats are kept and a playoff series determines a league champion. This is perhaps the most interactive mode of play ever created in a sports game, and Inside Drive is the only basketball game to provide this feature. Of course, all online play is enhanced by the X-Box Communicator, which allows for non-stop trash talk between you and your opponent, which only serves to heighten the intensity of your game.

If you don’t have X-Box Live, the game will definitely lose some of its appeal, though the Franchise Mode will keep your attention, if only for a little while. However, the lack of all-time teams and throwback jerseys will hasten your departure from regular play.

Replayability Rating: 7.25/10 (6/10 without X-Box Live, 8.5 with X-Box Live)

Balance
Rookie mode is a good introduction to Inside Drive. Fouls are minimal, defense is pretty lax, and you’ll make a very high percentage of your shots, provided you choose the right ones. It’s easy for your guards to penetrate the defense and win the one-on-one battles, and there’s ALWAYS an open man right under the basket waiting to throw down the dunk.

Veteran is the next step, and the road becomes a little tougher. You’ll likely be whistled for the more-than-occasional reach-in foul, as well as often being called on shooting fouls. This is where you’ll really be able to appreciate the free throw system in Inside Drive. In addition to the increased foul calls, the threes are less likely to drop and it’s harder to get an open perimeter shot. The inside moves will be increasingly be met by defenders who draw charges. It’s a nice move up from the relatively friendly world of Rookie mode.


In All-Star mode, Christie would be called for a charge here

The most difficult mode in Inside Drive is All-Star, and you’d need to be an all-star just to get through a game on this level. Basically, every shot block you try and every steal you attempt will be whistled as a foul. You won’t be able to get inside at all, your threes will come up bricks every time, and you’ll play defense in constant fear of being called on a foul. ESPECIALLY if you’re playing short quarters and you get a called a bunch of times in the final two minutes. This is NOT how you want to experience Inside Drive, as it’s just too frusturating to really enjoy.

Balance Rating: 5.5/10

Originality
Aside from the X-Box Live additions (which aren’t entirely original in themselves, as they’re the same as in every first-party XSN Sports game), there isn’t a whole lot of originality here. You’ve seen everything in the Franchise Mode in other games, and you’ve seen the right analog stick control in NBA Live. In a genre where originality isn’t exactly abundant, NBA Inside Drive merely holds serve rather than innovates.

One of the only unique areas of Inside Drive is substitutions. The computer composes a number of different lineups for you based on the situation. For example, there’s a quick lineup, a big lineup, a three-point lineup, and there are even more options to choose from. When you choose one of these, though, odds are good that at least one of your players will be playing out of position, which may or may not be okay with you. Auto-subs are well-done, and rarely will all five of your players be substituted out at one time, meaning you’ll be able to field a competitive lineup at all times without the computer subs messing you up too much.

Originiality Rating: 5/10

Addictiveness
While not as addictive as crack, Inside Drive will definitely pass the time. The addition of X-Box Live and XSN Sports takes a game that will hold your attention for a month or so and transforms it into a game that can be played from now until June, and maybe even beyond that. As long as you’ve got a hankering for some hoops action, you’ll be able to find a playing partner via Live. Again, if you don’t have Live, it’s obviously not as addictive. However, aiming to land in the Inside Drive record book is always a challenge, and the records are pro-rated for time, so a six-minute quarter should get you into position to set some marks.

Addictiveness Rating: 6.5/10

Appeal Factor
Inside Drive is a more than solid game, but it’s overshadowed by the big names of ESPN and NBA Live. And that’s a shame – Inside Drive has a lot to offer. That it’s not a big-name title hurts the appeal of the game, but X-Box owners are well aware of how X-Box Live enhances the game. Still, there’s more to this game than X-Box Live. The play-calling and passing in Inside Drive should pique the interests of sim fans, and the quirky commentary is simply so absurd that it needs to be heard. It might not appeal to the casual gamer as much as the other basketball games out there, but Inside Drive is definitely worthy of consideration by sports gamers, as well as an X-Box owner looking to take his or her game online.

Appeal Factor: 7/10

Miscellaneous
Pro: The loading times on Inside Drive are relatively painless. The pre-game loading is virtually non-existent, which is a huge plus. The only thing that tends to take a while is simming a season, but you can stop it anytime, and you can also adjust your lineup in the case of an injury and/or trade proposal.

Con: The game’s presentation needs some work, and this is something that should be addressed in Inside Drive 2005. Little things, like a graphic of the player’s name when he’s introduced and glowing backboards at the end of the quarter, are missing. And while it doesn’t sound like a huge concession, these are the kinds of things that make the experience of gaming more enjoyable.

Con: With all of the hype regarding the interactivity with X-Box Live, Microsoft is really missing the ball in one significant area. There has been only one roster update posted to Live, which was done on November 10. This fixed a horribly out-of-date default roster which listed Dikembe Mutombo as a net and had not included the Antoine Walker trade. However, there has not been an update since November 10, meaning that trades like Jalen Rose to Toronto have yet to be updated by Microsoft. This is one area that needs to be addressed soon, since it could provide gamers a reason to keep playing throughout the season if consistently maintained.

Miscellaneous Rating: 6/10

Final Scores
Story: 6/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 6.5/10
Controls: 8/10
Replayability: 7.25/10
Balance: 5.5/10
Originality: 5/10
Addictiveness: 6.5/10
Appeal Factor: 7/10
Miscellaneous: 6/10

Final Score: 64.75/100 = 6.475/10
With Reviewer’s Tilt: 6.5/10

Short Attention Span Summary
Look beyond the fact that this is not NBA Live, and look beyond the fact that this is not ESPN NBA Basketball. NBA Inside Drive 2004 is a very impressive basketball title that has a better passing system and camera angle than any other game out there, not to mention the XSN Sports features found only in Inside Drive. Unfortunately, a weak commentary track and spotty Franchise Mode keep this one from being great. Definitely worth a rental if you’re a big b-ball or sports fan, or if you’re a big X-Box Live player.