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Game reviews are always tough. Not because we find it difficult to pronounce judgment one way or the other, but because it is almost impossible to properly play through a modern game in the short window of opportunity that exists while a game is still hot. This is primarily because there are approximately three billion games being produced every year, most of them by obscure French companies intent on exploring the comedic possibilities inherent in hiring cheap translation services.

But we fear nothing, least of all the accusation of being untimely. Let others be the first on the market, the fastest; we, on the other hand, stake claim to being massively thorough. We have played this game, yea, we have played a lot of this game, which is why this review of NBA Live 2001 appears almost in time for the ritual anointing of the Los Angeles Lakers that is otherwise known as the 2002 NBA season. If the purple-and-gold clad Minneapolis expats didn’t blow up for the Zen Master last year, there’s no way they’re going to fall apart now, not even if Paul Allen adds another pyschopathic malcontent to the seething mass of lithium deuterium that is the Portland Trail Blazers. Six championships in a row is the only way the Lakers can overshadow the fantastic achievements of the Zen Master’s Bulls teams, and don’t be thinking that thought hasn’t crossed Kobe “Keyshawn” Bryant’s mind.

NBA Live 2001 is not only the latest version of EA Sports’ venerable basketball franchise, it is possibly the only way you will ever see Allen Iverson voluntarily passing up a shot. We know it is a clich?, but the graphics are truly fantastic. While the players’ faces are only vaguely recognizable, and demonstrate about the same range of expression as Keanu Reeves, their movements are fluidly athletic, even graceful, much like their real-world counterparts. Crossovers, stuttersteps, 360 jams and the awkward, double-foot stomping hopscotch dunk are all in there.

Unlike many sports games, though, the AI-controlled players are smart enough, at least on the two more advanced levels, to force you to play a team game. Unlike past NBA Lives, you can’t simply drive into the lane and jam over and over again. In fact, this formerly successful tactic will likely see you quickly fouling out with six charging calls. An open shot is much easier to hit than one with a defender in your face, as it should be, although this doesn’t necessarily hold true for Steve Smith of the Blazers, who is apparently possessed of supernatural powers from behind the three point line. He regularly dropped 30 or more points on us in one hard-fought series until we were forced to send Kevin Garnet out to double him, at which point Rasheed Wallace went postal on the low post and … we don’t want to talk about it. Suffice it to say that the Timberpuppies went home in six with their tails between their legs.

So the graphics are very good. The gameplay action is great, with a few minor flaws, but nothing that seriously detracts from sucking casual bystanders into the game to the point that even the most disinterested viewer will be inspired to shout such things as: “Chauncy Billup’s open on the wing. … don’t – don’t – didn’t you see Chauncy open on the wing?” To which, of course, the correct response is to say, “Yes, darling, I did indeed see that Mr. Billups was open on the wing, but what you don’t understand is that Mr. Billups is more likely to hit the guy sitting in the fifth row behind the basket than the bottom of the freaking net!” Pssst … here’s a hint if you’re playing with the Timberwolves. Give the ball to KG.

Unfortunately, NBA Live lacks that certain something that would help it approach true legendary status. Two certain somethings. There’s no franchise mode, which means that one season and out is all you’ve got. No team building, no skinny rookies with fake names and rabid hops, and, in the end, a lack of the endless, just-one-more-season appeal that makes the mere mention of John Madden’s NFL game drive otherwise videogame-friendly women to physical violence. (Seriously, what may well have been The Vixen’s quote of the year was a hilarious, if unladylike, response to Pat Summerall’s endlessly repetitive use of the phrase: “Right up the middle, can’t find a hole.” “Just find the d— hole already, will you!”)

The other thing missing is a fantasy draft, which precludes the possibility of stacking a team with a collection of talent against which the other teams don’t have a chance. Well, unless you’re playing with the Lakers, that is. The classic all-star teams dating back to the ’50s are cool. The one-on-one streetball stuff is fun. But the lack of fantasy and franchise options really does detract from the ability of the game to hold your attention for more than, maybe, three months solid. But it is a very well-produced game that is a lot of fun for the serious basketball fan as well as the more casual video gamer. We give NBA LIVE 2001 a solid 8 out of 10.

MISTAKE OF THE WEEK: Just wanted to let you know that GnuPG is available for Win32 at ftp://ftp.gnupg.org/gcrypt/binary/gnupg-w32-1.0.6.zip and also http://www.gnupg.org/download.html.

THUS SPAKE VOX: Yep, our bad. We abase ourselves. GnuPG does not, in fact, require LINUX, and we thank Andrew, Pierre and Michael, each of whom took the time to correct us. GnuPG for Windows is a reasonable alternative for those concerned with potential backdoors in PGP 7.0.3. Another reader wrote in to recommend an alternative web mail encryption site at https://ssl.mailvault.com. Unlike Hushmail, this program does not require any ActiveX or OCX programs, which are potential security risks.

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