Have you ever wished you knew more about the way the NBA salary cap and luxury tax work? Well, 400 Software Studios presents, for your edification, Total Pro Basketball 2003 (TPB2003). This General Manager simulator places you squarely in the hot seat of a pro basketball franchise. As such, you will be responsible for just about every personnel and financial decision within the organization.
There are no license agreements with any pro basketball leagues involved in TPB2003. You'll be building a fictional team using fictional players, but there is a certain freedom that this affords. I find that games that contain actual players are always open to more criticism from the general gaming public. There are always complaints about the future career progression of Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan not being realistic enough: "KG should be MVP-caliber until 2013 at least!"
It should be said right from the start that this is not a flashy, twitch game. This is a management simulator, and unless you greatly enjoy digging through numbers, numbers and more numbers, you should look elsewhere for your basketball fix. TPB2003 contains the ability to 'play' individual games, but this consists of a text listing of every event taking place without any visual point of reference. While there are some coaching options available, this aspect of the game is not all that intriguing.
The real appeal of TPB2003 lies in its ability to provide you with all of the significant challenges of running a pro basketball franchise from behind the scenes. First and foremost, of course, you'll have to navigate the treacherous waters of the salary cap and luxury tax restrictions while still trying to field a talented team. Beyond that, you can set seat prices for your arena, develop individual training regimens for each player on your squad and even peruse rumors from around the league to help you find a potential trade.
It's not easy to build a consistent, winning franchise under these conditions. In most cases, your star players will either become too expensive, or worse, they'll become non-productive while they still have several years left on their hefty contracts. TPB2003 accurately recreates the tough decisions that real GMs and coaches have to make every day. Can your team survive with one or two high-priced stars surrounded by ten mediocre role-players? At what point do you decide to rebuild with youth? Is it the coach’s fault? Do you need a different coaching philosophy for your current talent?
TPB2003 contains a very fine level of detail. You can peruse any number of attributes for every player in the league. Everything from physical skills to the intangible attitudes of each player are quantified. Prior to the real-time draft every year, you'll be given a chance to scout all of the amateur players available, but as a nice addition, you'll actually be able to keep track of key college players, no matter what class, throughout their amateur careers. Other tools that are included for evaluating young talent are developmental and summer leagues where you can keep an eye out for the occasional diamond in the rough.
Interface is everything in a large-scale simulation and TPB2003 provides pretty good access. It’s not entirely intuitive, but it is sufficient and somewhat streamlined. In basketball speak, it’s not as good as KG, but it’s not as poor as Bill Curley. I’d say it’s more of a Steve Kerr. It has a few limitations, but it’s utilitarian and sufficient for its role.
A few of those limitations include the contract screen and signing periods. They are a bit confusing and mistakes are easily made if you’re not paying attention. For instance, if you don’t pick up the options on your newly drafted rookies, and you proceed to the next off-season step, you’ll lose those rookies to the general free agency pool. A warning message before you proceed to the next step would be nice in that case. The contract screen in general is a little confusing at first. It takes time to get used to it.
The free agency list could use a few more sorting options. The list can be sorted by any of the many columns of stats and rankings provided, but it would be nice to sort players by position. The free agent screens also lack the player’s age and experience. These are key pieces of information since, when hunting for free agents, they generally are two factors that are foremost in a GM’s mind. As it stands, you have to enter each player 'card’ to find out his age and number of years in the league. These are minor points that can be easily overcome in the go-at-your-own-pace world of TPB2003, and they do not detract from the overall experience.
Multiplayer is available as well. Name a commissioner and gather a bunch of friends. From there you can vie, over the internet, for supremacy in your cooperative league. However, unless you have a good number of friends, I think the single player game remains the most compelling aspect of the title.
Total Pro Basketball 2003 is not for the casual basketball gaming fan. Be warned, this is a management simulation, so you unless you like messing about with a salary cap and court strategies, you probably won’t enjoy this game. On the other hand, if you like detailed sim games, and you’re a sports fan, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better, pure sports management simulation. Just beware of those back-loaded, long-term contracts!