There’s a dilemma that developers of sports games have to face whenever they’re creating their title: how much of a balance do you want to strike between arcade and simulation style play? Simulation style games are particularly good for recreating the realism of the game, but it doesn’t always appeal to casual players of the sport. Arcade style play can be extremely easy to pick up and master to a degree, but there isn’t necessarily a lot of depth to the title. While most titles embody both styles to a certain level, the success of that game depends on how tightly you control these two disparate styles. EA’s NBA Live franchise has slowly been integrating arcade style elements into its gameplay over the past few years with some success, appealing to both the hardcore and the casual baller alike. Does their latest version succeed as well? Step onto the court, because we’re tipping off with NBA Live 06.
Like most sports franchises, NBA Live comes stocked with a number of new features. The largest change to the on-court play is Freestyle Superstar Control, which is Live 06’s attempt to capture the game changing moves that the real life players exhibit over the course of a match. Akin to the league, not every single player has the ability to perform these steps; while they’re good enough to be NBA players, not every single player on the bench is a phenom. Superstar Control breaks down among the gifted ballers in one of six categories: Power, Highflyer, Playmaker, Scorer, Shooter and Stopper. These players have their own unique moves available to them that distinguish them from the others, and when triggered get their own special animations to highlight these moves.
This means that if you’re a playmaker, you’ll see behind the back passes or other agile moves with the rock. Scorers will be able to slash their way to the lane without losing the ball or will draw fouls as they put up the shot. Highfliers will take off and perform incredible dunks, and so on. Gamers will be able to reconfigure some of these selections at will within reason, so taking someone like Jason Kidd and changing his stat from a Scorer to a Playmaker isn’t a stretch, but you can’t take Steve Nash and turn him into a Power player that bangs in the paint. Each face button triggers a different animation, so you’ll have a couple of moves to pick from whenever you trigger the Superstar Control.
Remember that balance that I spoke about earlier? Well, while the Superstar control manages to infuse the game with a sense of realism that many of the previous titles haven’t exhibited up to this point, it radically unbalances the play on every single difficulty level, making the title swing from a simulation to an arcade-style game. For the most part, triggering these abilities are almost overwhelmingly successful. If you time it just right, you can steal the ball every single time with this feature. Similarly, you can dunk your way over two or more defenders with ease (although if there is a foul, they’re more often than not called on the opposing team.) This isn’t believable – in fact, it literally means that a team with a strong set of stars on their squad will dominate a weaker team even more than they will in real life because the less skilled team won’t be able to counter these moves. This is especially true since you're not limited in the use of the abilities, further stretching the credulity of the situation. Even Jordan got tired of being the highlight reel every now and then…
Apart from this discrepancy, Live 06 features many of the moves from last year, including the pro hop, dishing off a pass in mid air and tip slams. In fact, many of the Freestyle Superstar Controls probably use most of these steps to shore up that system. New to the game this year is a focus on setting up plays for your team to run, particularly to control the flow of the ball and where your opponents can go on the court. Combined with controls that let you set up your inbounding moves, such as calling for screens or pushing off a defender to get open, and Live 06 provides a better way of controlling your team on the floor.
Most of the other modes from Live 05 are here, including the option to pick and choose the length of your season or playoffs, practice your shots or dunks, or enter into the NBA All-Star weekend. The All-Star weekend has received a few tweaks, such as an augmented slam dunk competition. Now, along with some new dunks and moves, pulling off a jam is much easier to do than last year’s title. Gathering the ball up can be much easier than the somewhat arcane number of button presses you need to trigger to get a player to pull off a move. What’s more, some of the animations attached are somewhat smoother to delineate between your setup, your move and your follow through.
The Dynasty mode has also received a couple of adjustments this year to reflect the inclusion of the Freestyle Superstar mechanic. In previous years, the managing of a team often came down to having a strong draft class and a decent spring training session. This year, you're essentially in control of the fate of your athletes based on your coaching decisions. At the start of the Dynasty mode, you hire an assistant coach, a trainer and a scout to strengthen your squad. Each one of these positions are rated on what they bring to their job, and many of them have specialties. For instance, an assistant coach may be highly rated in offense to strengthen your team's shooting. Some scouts are better scouting defenders than overall players, and some trainers are good for boosting the resistance of players to injuries.
No longer will you have to keep your fingers crossed to have your training camp go well; you can actually improve your stats throughout the year by having your assistant coach work with a player, bringing them along by working on their fundamentals with individualized workouts. This can be the difference between having an average player and developing a superstar, and over multiple seasons you'll be able to detect a noticeable difference in your athlete statwise and playwise. Similarly, you'll need to send out your scouts to inform you on the upcoming prospects, finding out what their abilities and disadvantages are so you have a better idea of what to work on when the draft comes around. You're not necessarily drafting for need now, you're actually drafting for longevity and talent, which is much more complex and realistic.
However, while the inclusion of the coaches adds another dynamic to the development of your team, it doesn't go far enough in increasing the depth of the mode itself. First of all, when you're trying to augment your players with your assistant coach, you can't really direct them to work on anything specific. Instead, you're only allowed to work on their offense, defense or athleticism. What sucks about this is that you're not necessarily telling your coach, "Hey, he's a great free throw shooter – now he needs work with his three point shot." You're essentially leaving it up to chance, which makes it one step removed from the previous system, only now its season round. This same weakness pops up with the other hires for your organization, making it more of a gimmick than a major change. Apart from that, many of the problems from last year still remain. One of the largest, and perhaps most annoying of them all is the fact that the PDA for this mode practically goes off every single day, with a lot of crap that you just don't care about. Do I care that three other teams are having a good training camp? No, not unless I'm going up against them in the upcoming week.
Last year, I stated that Live 05 had some of the sharpest visuals to date in the franchise. There isn't a significant change between last year's title and this year's, which isn't entirely a bad thing, considering the graphical quality of that game. This is somewhat bolstered by the superstar control animations, which really shows off the characters and these moves in their best light. The one downside is that the slick animation of the Superstar moves contrasts radically with the other problems of the game, making these blemishes really stand out. For instance, you'll notice how much players slide and skate their way along the court, how often animation frames are quickly clipped based on what you've made the player do, and how jerky other moves can be. The Xbox version is easily the graphical winner here, taking advantage of the system's capabilities to render the players and the court cleanly. The PS2 and Gamecube are noticeably lacking in visual clarity, and it was even harder to detect just when you should time the release of your shot because the textures were so visibly muddy.
Once again, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson hold down the dialogue for the dunk contest, and he seems to have fresher material this time around to match his enthusiasm or disappointment in certain attempts. Taking Mike Fratello's place alongside Marv Albert is Steve Kerr now that Fratello has resumed coaching duty, and Kerr manages to hold his own in the commentary booth. All of this is in addition to the EA Trax soundtrack with the requisite hip-hop selections that you expect with a basketball title.
While NBA Live 06 makes a couple of steps forward with the Freestyle Superstar Controls, it manages to make a couple steps backward at the same time. The fact that these abilities literally take over and unbalance the game, as well as show up the flaws that the game had from last year makes the title an adequate upgrade for the hardcore fan at best, a mild improvement at worst.