ESPN NBA BASKETBALL for PlayStation 2 and Xbox, $80. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
GRAPHICS Nearly perfect, from Iverson's cornrows to Shaq's tattoos.
ADDICTIVENESS The 24/7 feature is called that for a reason.
ANTI-SOCIAL FACTOR One-on-one is much more fun with someone else involved.
PROXIMITY TO THE REAL THING It looks like television. That's a compliment.
New Raptors coach kevin o'neill is a throwback to old-school basketball. He preaches hard work and punishing practices and promises to put the boot to superstars who get lazy and favour flash over sweat. Chances are O'Neill wouldn't be impressed with the games played in ESPN NBA Basketball. He might not even recognize them.
At their most basic, video games let you improve on reality. Whether it's having the freedom to become an unrepentant thug and live out your vigilante fantasies in Grand Theft Auto, hit a baseball like a juiced-up Barry Bonds or, until last week, pretend you're a Quebec terrorist bent on causing mayhem in the Toronto subway system, games let you knock your boring day-to-day routine up to the next level.
The ultra-violent fantasies offered in games like Syphon Filter (the game that offered the Quebec terrorist scenario and was withdrawn with great fanfare last week) grab the headlines for obvious reasons.
No less controversial are the changes to the real world that sports games suggest. The message being promoted by games like ESPN NBA Basketball is that baseball, hockey and basketball are boring and need a tune-up. A few hours with this game and it's hard not to agree.
You can, of course, play a straight-ahead basketball game or season. Massive amounts of time and resources have been dedicated to duplicating life on the basketball court, down to the tattoos on the players' arms, the squeaks and scuffs on the parquet floor and the superstars' signature moves.
So realistic is the gameplay here, from the action on the court to ESPN's blanket branding strategy, where the network, its anchors and its music are as prominent as the players themselves, you could easily forget you're playing a game and assume you're simply watching one on television.
If that's what you're after, this is the time-waster for you. Things get much more interesting, however, when reality is sidestepped, or slightly circumvented. Take, for example, this game's fascinating 24/7 option.
The freedom to create your own player to insert into a game has typically been the chance to build a freak with gangly arms and an afro the size of a small hedge. No one really took it seriously.
ESPN's 24/7 is closer to The Sims than to anything else. The player you create begins as a basketball fan with no skills. You start in a gym and begin to learn how to play the game, practising jump shots, dunks and passing. The 24/7 name makes perfect sense here - slack off and stop practising for a few days and your skills will drop off. You'll need to work day and night to actually become a pro. Kevin O'Neill would approve.
As anyone who's blown a block of time on a game like The Sims would attest, this kind of personality building is ridiculously fun, perhaps even more entertaining than the game itself. It's also tailor made for the online world, where these games really take off. Plug your Xbox or PS2 into your Ethernet connection and take your newly created player into arenas and onto street courts around the world.
Suddenly, the real world doesn't seem nearly as exciting.