Sports fans in America know that when a slight chill starts to fill the air, it’s time for one of two leagues to begin: hockey and basketball. While the NHL may be completely frozen out this year, the season of hoops is gearing up for its opening tip-offs around the country. But why pay massive ticket prices and stand in long concession stand lines when you can have the NBA at home? EA Sports has delivered their latest update to their NBA Live franchise, which delivers their most accurate simulation of a season to date. Check the laces on your high tops, because we’re about to slam dunk NBA Live 2005.
The most noticeable addition to this year’s NBA Live is the inclusion of the All-Star Weekend, a feature that adds four new gameplay modes to the basketball experience. Aside from the laidback All-Star game where the players have much more fun hanging out that focusing on the score, there’s the Rookie vs. Sophomore match, where the second year stars take on the best newcomers to the league. However, the true highlights of the All-Star feature are the Three Point Shootout mode and the Slam Dunk Contest. The Three Point Shootout takes up to 8 shooting specialists and puts them in competition with each other to see how many buckets from downtown you can sink in sixty seconds. 25 balls are spread across 5 ball racks, with most balls being worth one point each. Every fifth ball on the rack (the "money ball") is worth two points, so it's possible to make 10 points and redeem a horrible shooting performance by sinking all of the special balls.
Rivaling the tension of the long range shooting demonstrations is the high powered excitement of the slam dunk competition. There are essentially three separate phases to the dunk that players will control: the gather, the slam and the modification to the slam itself. To initiate a slam, players hit one of the four face buttons on the controller to determine how they'll take off from the ground. This includes a 360 spin and choosing between a one foot or two foot hop. From there, players determine the type of slam they'll attempt by pressing and holding another one of the face buttons. We're talking about tomahawk jams, windmills and double clutch slams.
You have to time your slam just right though; hold the button for too long and you'll pull out of the slam, but if you don't hold it long enough, you'll brick your attempt off the rim. Finally, you'll be able to add additional modifications to any of these vanilla moves, including bouncing the ball between your legs, cartwheeling towards the hoop or throwing the ball off the time clock before driving it through the hoop with the use of analog sticks or shoulder buttons. These aren't the only factors controlling a dunk (where you take off on the court, the amount of speed you start the dunk with), but it does provide literally hundreds if not thousands of possible slams. You'll definitely want to make each one unique, because the legendary judges, who include Dr. J and Clyde the Glide Drexler, are merciless scoring wise on players who repeat dunks.
Along with the inclusion of the All-Star Weekend, NBA 2005 features a totally revamped Dynasty mode that covers the ups and downs of a team for 25 years. Gone are the numerous cinematics that marked key moments from last year's game. In their place is a system that implements many more of the successful "franchise" features from other EA Sports titles. The main thrust of the title revolves around the use of your PDA and your seasonal calendar, which is much brighter and color coded between deadlines, games and other significant dates. Akin to MVP Baseball 2004, players will be able to pick and choose between playing and simulating games, with the option to jump in and rescue (or extend a lead) for your team at any point during a quarter of play. Aside from playing or simulating games, you still have other duties as the general manager of your squad. If your squad needs to trade or sign free agents, you'll have to make sure that you propose your terms to a player and his agent with enough time so they don't feel rushed to sign on the dotted line. What’s more, you’d better make the contract worth their while to review also. Otherwise, you might annoy them, paying out the nose for the key player you need or losing the deal entirely.
GMs will also have to concentrate on scouting new recruits for the upcoming draft each year. Similar to NCAA 2005, players will be able to send scouts to different regions to check out different prospects. Recruiting them is literally based on how well you pitch aspects of your organization, such as the offensive or defensive sides of your team. What’s interesting about the recruiting portion of the game is that you’ll be able to invite potential players to your training camp, allowing them to play a one-on-one game with a current team member so you can get a sense of their skills. This really comes in handy when draft day or trades come along. But you’re not simply limited to North America; you’ll be able to scout players from Europe, Asia and Africa as well, truly making this an international game.
Before, during and after the season you’ll receive regular updates on the status of your team via your PDA. This covers just about everything from the ranking of your team within the NBA to injury reports to trade rumors. You’ll also receive regular comments from your team owner, who’ll leave messages on just about everything from the overall outlook of the organization to concern about the training regiment of your players. In fact, as you progress through the season, you’ll receive dynasty points which can be used to buy additional trainers for your squad or equipment from the NBA store, such as throwback jerseys, headbands and shoes.
Dynasty mode isn’t the only adjustment that’s been made to NBA 2005; there’ve been a number of tweaks made to improve upon the gameplay. For instance, the game itself is somewhat faster, now that the court is fully being utilized. While the 10 player motion capturing for the game added a level of realism, the entire court is now being used to set up full court presses, traps and zone coverage. While you’re not going to be pulling off fast breaks on every possession, you will be able to spread the ball around the court to make better scoring opportunities for your team. Speaking of scoring, the pro hop (or power dribble) feature that gave so many ballers extraordinary abilities last year has been significantly toned down for this year’s installment. Instead of stopping quickly and automatically forcing your opponent off their assignment, leaving you open to make a quick basket, you’ll draw an offensive foul or lose the ball.
Actually, turnovers within the game are much more plentiful if you pick the wrong player to fake out the defense with. No longer can centers dribble the ball as well as power forwards or point guards. In fact, if Shaq or Yao tries to bust a fancier move than their usual skill set, you’d better expect a quick turnover as the ball bounces off their knees or flies into the hands of a defender. Better get them used to banging in the paint and passing to players who’ve got better hands than they do. Aside from these twists, they’ve been able to add a new element, Freestyle Air, to the game to give players additional offensive versatility. For instance, players will now have the option to drive the lane with the intention of dunking before switching to a quick lay up or fadeaway if the defense starts to block you. Once the ball is up in the air, players no longer have to wait for the ball to fall away from the backboard, as they can now tip in, tip slam or manually rebound failed shots.
While there are some marked improvements from last year’s game, there are some issues that stand out with many aspects of NBA 2005. First of all, let’s talk about the fast break, or virtual lack thereof. Instead of fully passing the ball to a teammate in stride towards the basket, each character pauses for a second or two when a pass comes towards them. This effectively destroys the momentum of the fast break and either a) allows the defense to catch up to your open players, or b) turns the play into a sputtering offensive move. More often than not, you’ll find the former to be true, as the defensive AI for the computer seems to have such a tight “rubber band-like” AI that you’ll often find two defenders pouncing on any one of your teammates. It’s especially absurd when you realize that most of your players will also pause before popping up to take a shot or go for a dunk, increasing the possibility of fouling or losing the ball.
There are also a few issues with the dynasty mode that hinder the greatness of the game itself. First of all, it’s annoying to continually have your PDA go off for messages that don’t really affect your franchise. Do I care if a player on another team has been injured? Not particularly, considering I’m not running their team and I’m probably not going to be able to trade for that baller, even if I put up my entire budget. What’s more, the dynasty points that you acquire really don’t help unless you scrimp and save for some coach for the entire season; unfortunately, while you’re waiting to acquire all of these, you’ll constantly be nagged by your owner about the lack of spent points. Speaking of, the NBA store where you’ll buy equipment is easily influenced by EA’s competition from ESPN Sports, but it’s not fully implemented as well. For instance, only a trophy room gets decked out with the won accolades you receive during a season. The GM’s desk and other room options can’t be customized, and the bought jerseys and shoes don’t go anywhere outside of the store, so it’s really hard to figure out what you’ve spent your points on and what you haven’t. Since these items don’t really affect the stats or the game itself, it’s more of a cosmetic change, which won’t interest some gamers in the slightest. Finally, there’s very little control that you can have over the overall direction of the team. It’s practically impossible to make a change from a defensive powerhouse to an offensively focused squad, which doesn’t really reflect the strengths of the players you’ll acquire over the span of 25 years.
Finally, the Slam Dunk Competition, which is one of the coolest additions, is also one of the largest double edged swords for the game because it’s incredibly difficult to play, much less master. It’s not uncommon to find yourself attempting a dunk at least three times before you successfully take off the ground. Part of it is that the timing for the buttons has to be so specific that there’s almost no room for error. However, since the only visual cue that you have is based upon the players themselves, it will take hours of practice to fully become used to the controls, at which point you may become either disenchanted with the entire feature, or you’ll be so masterful that you’ll destroy your competition all the time, leaving you with absolutely no challenge whatsoever.
Visually, NBA Live 2005 is the sharpest basketball title EA’s released yet. Character models are particularly sharp, with much more attention paid to tattoos, player defining gear and player faces. Character animations also seem to have been improved somewhat: Player celebrations on defensive plays or particularly impressive offensive plays are pretty decent, conveying a sense of realism for the people on the courts. However, the robotic, stuttering moves between passes and fast breaks counters any ground the player animations gain, and seems to kill part of the frame rate at times in the process. Even worse, the camera often can’t track steals or loose balls in the backcourt, forcing you to finish off some offensive plays without a clear look at the basket. This practically eliminates the possibility of cleanly making a shot, forcing you to slam or lay the ball up. I don’t think I need to intimate how hard this is if you steal the ball in the lane as a defensive player before going to the bucket. Finally, while I touched on the difficulty of the Slam Dunk competition previously, the animation during attempts when you don’t make a dunk seem clunky and disjointed.
Although the music is comprised of largely forgettable tracks, the sound effects are pretty decent and feel appropriate, such as the roar of the crowd and the squeaks of the sneakers. However, the commentary from Marv Albert, Mike “The Czar” Fratello, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson is phenomenal. There really isn’t a better game play by play team than Albert and Fratello, although Kenny Smith truly keeps players real. Smith points out every single flaw you make while praising your successes exuberantly. The comments they give are also varied enough to keep you paying attention to what’s being said during the game along with the action.
Outside of the problematic issues that hinder the Slam Dunk contest, dynasty mode and hiccups with gameplay, NBA Live 2005 still manages to deliver a decent basketball experience for fans of all kinds. The addition of the All-Star Weekend is something that was too long in coming, and manages to convey enough changes to warrant an upgrade for longtime fans of the series.