Rounding out the list of major new features added to the offensive side of the ball is the ability to take control of a player without the ball. By pressing the right thumbstick down and then selecting another button to choose one of the four off-ball players, you're able to move about the court to try and get open. Once you've moved to a good spot, you're able to call for a pass or an alley-oop at the basket. EA has also integrated freestyle control into moving without the ball, so you're able to make sharp cuts, spin off of defenders, slide step, and use other moves to get free from defenders for an open shot.
Traps are a great way to try and force a turnover.
On the defensive side of the ball, you'll notice a new trapping feature has been included. If you double team the man with the ball, you'll see the two defenders position the ballhandler into a trap. The ballhandler can either pass or shoot out of the trap, but if he doesn't get rid of the ball in time, he'll usually get stripped by the defense. The trap gives the inside-outside game an added dimension of realism, as you're able to use a guard to harass a post player who has just received the entry pass and can prevent him from attempting a good shot.
At the default settings, NBA Live 2004 is noticeably slower paced than last year's game. You need to execute a lot better and more carefully out of the half-court set to be successful--particularly the higher up you ratchet the difficulty. The freestyle moves are still very useful, but they're no longer a free path to a dunk. If the defender has a good position in front of the ballhandler, the two players will collide, and the offensive player will be thwarted on his drive. The slower pace makes defense feel like less of a futile chore and more rewarding if you can get stops. If you don't like the default game settings, EA has given plenty of different slider bar options to adjust game speed, fatigue (turned off by default, even in "simulation" mode), block, steal, and foul frequency, collision radius, and more.
The franchise mode in NBA Live 2004 is adequate to the task. You've got options to sign, trade, and release players. You can set the length of the season and the format of the playoffs, and you can draft new rookies into the league. You're even able to import draft classes from EA's upcoming college basketball game, but you can always just have a class generated for you. You're also able to use earned dynasty points to buy extra coaching and training sessions for your team. You can even purchase a new team plane or locker room. All of these items for purchase can enhance your players' performances on the court. The mechanics of managing your team remains largely the same as last year's version. Basically, players are each assigned a point value that represents the value of their contracts. You need to stay under a collective point cap to sign and trade additional players and free agents.
Franchise mode still feels somewhat thin in this year's version.
While the development team has added some extra cutscenes to illustrate major team milestones or transactions, there could have been a lot more improvement in franchise mode, which still feels somewhat thin. The rookie draft, for example, is one of the most exciting and interesting aspects of the real-life NBA. However, in NBA Live 2004, you're given very little information about any of the rookies that you would need to make an informed decision on whom to draft. Aside from position, size, and some vague ratings for players as either first- or second-round caliber, you're given no specific clues about any player's abilities, like shooting, defending, speed, and/or other relevant skills.
NBA Live 2004 has a handful of other shortcomings, most of which involve the passing game. If you try to throw an outlet pass after a defensive rebound, you'll often find that the receiving player will stop, turn around, and jump to receive the ball instead of trying to take the pass in stride. This can be frustrating, as it basically stops many fast breaks from occurring. Another strange thing is that much of the passing you do in the half-court offense can look awkward. This happens because the ballhandler will always turn his body toward a defender to protect the dribble, which, in itself, is OK. The problem is that it can be hard to force your man to face up the basket. As a result, you'll see many awkward-looking post-entry passes where your player jumps in the air, spins, and throws an overhead pass.
Another problem lies with the animations. While we certainly appreciated the added flavor of the 10-man motion capturing and the variety it brings to the half-court set, some of the other basic individual animations weren't quite as good as they could have been. Players dribbling or driving to the basket still suffer from a bit of ice-skating syndrome. Also, if you try to string together a lot of special moves, the animations can sometimes snap awkwardly from one to the next. This is especially noticeable in the post when you try to spin to the basket and use the power dribble button while there's a crowd around you.
Jump passing happens a little too often.
Despite these miscues, NBA Live 2004 delivers an excellent basketball experience. Hardcore players will appreciate the added control brought by the new features, like off-the-ball control and the jump stop. The separation of the dunk and shoot buttons is an especially great move that, we think, will be copied by many other games in time. Those who found last year's version to be too much of a track meet will appreciate the toned-down pace of Live 2004. They'll also appreciate the tweaks made to the defensive side of the ball, which add a lot more depth to the game. While it will mostly appeal to those who want a game with an arcade slant, NBA Live 2004 makes a worthy addition to any basketball fan's collection.