New hoop games deserve a shot


Dunking with authority and shooting the lights out from three-point territory usually require serious height and ball-handling skills.

But you don't have to be 6-foot-11 to keep your shots from being blocked with the latest crop of NBA-inspired video games: EA Sports' NBA Live 2002, Sega Sports' NBA 2K2 and Microsoft's NBA Inside Drive 2002.

These $50, NBA-sanctioned titles allow you to pass, post up and take it to the hoop no matter what your real height, speed and physical shape because you'll probably be playing crouched in front of your television set. At their best, they're as exhilarating as a Michael Jordan comeback.

NBA Inside Drive 2002 edges the pack, thanks to its awe-inspiring graphics and solid game play for casual players. But none is perfect - especially if you're a fanatic video gamer who zeroes in on one particular style of play or strategy. So, depending on which console you own, it's a good idea to rent them beforehand at your local video outlet and decide which to buy based on the features you like.

The fluid moves of the players, the varied movement of the fans and a variety of camera angles make Inside Drive a prime example of why games on the Microsoft Xbox just look better than games played on the Xbox's rivals.

Getting the controls down to the point where you can play well takes about an hour, but mastering them well enough to beat the game's artificial intelligence takes a while longer - and possibly even longer to beat a good human opponent.

On defense, you'll want to keep your left trigger pressed down much of the time to spread your arms and keep your opponent from getting to the basket. Dekes, moves that allow you to fake out defenders, can be created with combination button and thumbstick work to offer up interesting offensive moves.

Pay attention to your fatigue and shooting meters, which appear right below each of your players when they possess the ball. The meters are great indicators of when a player should probably pass rather than shoot.

Inside Drive is not a slam-dunk winner over the other games, though. The game has too many blocked shots and stripped balls and not enough forceful dunks.

More important, a couple of play modes are missing. You get exhibition mode (or "play now"), an 82-game season and playoff modes, but no practice or dynasty options - criminal omissions in a sports game.

Sega Sports NBA 2K2 (now available for the Sony Play- Station2 and Sega Dreamcast; an Xbox version is due next month) has the sweetest simulation play of the three; it's just not as pretty as Inside Drive. Its graphics are more than serviceable, and even if players' movements on the court aren't quite as fluid as in Inside Drive, it's up to the standards of a video console game in the new millennium.

An upgrade to NBA 2K1, Sega Sports offers new uniforms, faces and logos. Players move faster and more smoothly than they did in last season's edition. And the artificial intelligence has improved for more challenging play.

You get the same exhibition, season and playoff options as in the other games along with practice, fantasy team and tournament play. You also can create a player from scratch and put him on your roster.

Sega 2K2 offers solid options for game play and little touches that will enchant true basketball fans. My favorite: Michael Jordan plays as a Washington Wizard.

Or, you can leave the NBA arenas behind and fire up the Street Court option, with 2-on-2 to 5-on-5 play on nine playgrounds from New York to Venice Beach, Calif. This is much more arcade-style than the regular games, but an interesting diversion.

Sega Sports also has made play-calling simpler - and more effective on the fly - than the other games. I found myself more likely to engage in sophisticated defensive moves in 2K2, instead of merely switching control to the defensive player nearest the ball, then slapping at it in an attempt to force a turnover.

EA Sports NBA Live 2002 (for the Xbox, PlayStation and PlayStation2) is the latest version of this long-running, popular franchise. The graphics are smooth and well executed, although the players look less like the real guys here than they do in Inside Drive.

As a basketball simulation, Live does a number of things right. You have the option of building a franchise, going one-on-one with another player, or practicing, all of which help you to do more than just get out on the floor and fumble about until you figure out the basics.

The play-calling options, which you set up in offensive and defensive strategy screens, are the most elaborate of the three games - which made them confusing to me. A variety of plays can be linked to the controller's buttons and triggers, making them easier to execute than Inside Drive, which makes changes through a coaching menu. Serious video-game ball players may find this the way to go, however.

Sound effects, from the thwak of the basketball hitting the floor to the voices of the announcers to the roar of the crowd, were a touch better in Live than in the other two games. Dunks had more authority and drew greater response from the audience as well.

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