In basic features, all these games are the same: You can play ball (with all the teams, in all the stadiums), simulate seasons, manage, and so on. Inside Drive 2004 is the weakest, while ESPN 2K4 is the favorite among purists — its goal is verisimilitude, and it also allows online play in teams, which is a real asset, but only if you can master the more difficult controls. But EA’s NBA Live 2004 is the game that, in the right hands, is the most fun to play. It’s easy for anyone to get started and sink some baskets, while also having enough complexity so one can excel as a master if that is the flow state they seek.
The one problem is, now that there is a Yao, it’s hard to stop playing him. Almost all our matches wound up being Rockets vs. Rockets, or one-on-one practices of Yao vs. Yao. A brief flash of lunacy led us to try to create extra Yaos for every position, so as to have five Yaos on five Yaos, which didn’t work at all. More successful was an experimental Ultra-Yao, fashioned from his existing profile but with swifter legs, uncanny dexterity and surgical three-point accuracy, which made the dude unstoppable. Thanks to the accessorizing capabilities of NBA Live 2004, you can have your Ultra-Yao, like ours, hit the hardwood wearing a striped headband, a green fingerstrap, matching taupe sleeve and kneepad, and a tattoo of an old English capital “J” on his left thigh. Put your juiced-up Rockets against the Lakers, and the computer Shaq is impotent against Ultra-Yao’s onslaught. Perhaps this intimates the future of the real Yao, as he spreads his 7-foot-4-and-a-half-inch wings into a second pro season and beyond.
We also recommend: XIII(UbiSoft, PS2, PC, GameCube, $50), a super-stylish action story created to look like you’re playing a graphic novel, to remarkable effect; True Crime, Streets of L.A.(Activision, PS2, Xbox, GameCube, $50), a Vice City set in our very own burg, where, as we know, it’s sometimes hard to be a good cop; Top Spin(Microsoft, Xbox, $50), really great tennis, and the only sports game of the year that makes you want to play the real game yourself; and Karaoke Music Mixer(Microsoft, Xbox, $40), a hoot, especially “rave mode,” where you can create an audio-visual show with slides of rainbows, a tulip and a tiger.