There was a time when a sports game could compensate for its poor performance by loading up in the visuals department. Actually it seemed to be EA Sports’ key to success for the majority of the late 90s. With the Dreamcast SEGA Sports came along and showed the world that there was more to sports games than just flashy graphics and high production values. Realistic action wasn’t just a possibility, it was a reality with the SEGA 2K line of sports products. This caused EA to go back to the drawing board, forcing it to rebuild its Triple Play
franchise from the ground up while tinkering with its other franchise. One of the properties has managed to avoid the overhaul though, the NBA Live
line of games. While the graphics still measure up quite nicely, EA has done very little to cater to true fans of the sports, offering up a pretty by-the-numbers basketball title that does little to challenge ESPN’s crown.
If you’ve played NBA Live 2004
then you’ve played NBA Live 2005
, save for one feature, the All-Star weekend. This feature allows you to participate in all of the amenities that go along with the All-Star game including the Rookies Vs. Sophomores Game, the three-point contest and the slam dunk contest. Of these the dunking contest is the most fleshed out addition. EA has taken the most exciting event of the All-Star weekend and turned it into a mini-game of some sorts. All of the actions are mapped to the face buttons and the shoulder buttons offer up slight modifiers like in the EA Sports Big line of games. It can be pretty fun but timing is the key to success here. One slight miscue and you’ll mess up he whole dunk, leading to poor scores. A successful dunk can be rewarding but it’s doubtful that many will have the patience to practice.
The Franchise Mode has changed a bit, taking some influences from the Madden 2005
interface. EA has cleaned things up and added a PDA device which serves as the Mecca of information. The schedule is a bit easier to read and all of the features have been refined a bit. The GM side shares many similarities with EA’s football franchises in which you’ll have to scout and manage your talent. You can now workout with your prospects before the draft to get a feel for them. I liked this feature but it’s difficult to see exactly what you’re getting in to. Then again the real NBA draft is kind of a crapshoot anyway so I guess it doesn’t really matter.
It’s hard to typify just what kind of game EA was trying to go for with this effort. At times the game can be very defense heavy; blocks come rather easily and steals are plentiful. Then on the other end of the spectrum EA loaded up the offensive end of the scale with hop steps and a dedicated lay up/dunk button. Here’s how a typical play breaks down; ball hander explodes past defender, defender creeps up behind ball handler as he goes for the easy lay-up, defender swipes ball away from behind, ball handler gets his own rebound and cashes in the easy bucket. In addition to the absurd amount of blocks are the inane amount of steals, far too many to be called realistic.On the other hand, Live has a strikingly realistic interior game. Freestyle makes a return here and it’s as a beautiful as ever. I still prefer ESPN’s IsoMotion over Freestyle because it better depicts the two-man game, but EA’s effort does a better job of handling multiple defenders. Instead of breaking down one man you’re able to break down an entire defense en route to the basket. The controls are amazingly intuitive and fluid, leading to a seamless experience from the floor to the hoop. The main addendum to Freestyle is the “freestyle air” function which mimics ESPN’s feature. It allows you to change your shot in mid-air in hopes of deterring defenders. It works decently but the need to double tap makes it too much of a hassle at-times. In regards to ESPN, Live focuses more in the interior game and the action down in the paint. To further accentuate this, EA offers up separate buttons for jump shots and interior shots. Too often in ESPN you’ll be close to the hoop only to have the shooter pull up for a full fledged jumpshot. In Live this never happens because you have full control over the action. Simply press the X button and you’ll perform a lay-up or a full blown dunk.
Live’s referees also do a much better job of policing the action on the court. On most drives to the basket there will be contact and in most circumstances the ref will blow the whistle. More often than not the game will favor the shooter but that’s the way it generally is in real life. All of the fouls and free throws slow down the game’s pace to a crawl but it’s more realistic in regards to the actual sport. Speaking of free throws, I like Live’s system much more than ESPN’s. While ESPN requires you to use the shoulder buttons to bring two arches together, Live sticks to the traditional two-click system. In a nice move, the indicators move along the backboard, negating the need for a separate free throw interface.
I like the game’s look but there’s one aspect that really bothers me. Have you ever seen those commercials where the director places a 3D rendered character into a real-life backdrop? Well that’s what NBA Live’s look reminds me of. All of the players are really well rendered, but it’s to the point where they actually stick out from the rest of the game’s look. Great graphics start from the ground level and emanate all around; they don’t just start and end with one facet of the product. Players actually have a surrealistic halo around them that draws your eyes to their outlines, further separating them from the rest of the action. It’s a very strange look that I never could quite get out of my system.
Presentation has really improved by leaps and bounds as of late, just look at ESPN Football 2K5
if you want an example. EA used to be the king of presentation but it’s really faltered as of late, especially in the Live franchise. Most of the graphics are really unappealing and the stats are too cluttered to make out. I like how you’ll see little updates throughout the course of the action but stats like “Lakers are on a 28-24 run” really aren’t all that interesting. Another aspect where the presentation falters is in the replay department. Most of the time the game will cut to action well after the play has happened. This leads to replays where you’ll catch the tail end of a play, only to see the player come down to the court after a dunk. The overall presentation isn’t bad but it’s not quite up to par with ESPN 2K5’s.
Live tries its best to recreate the NBA on TNT experience. Marv Alberts and Mike Fratello call the on-court action while Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson commentate on the Slam Dunk contest. Smith and Johnson are excellent as there’s rarely any dead air during the action, Alberts and Fratello, however, are the complete opposite. They’re a boring duo who have very little of interest to add to the mix. There’s plenty of dead air between the two, especially when the ball is in transition or little is happening on the court. You don’t get many anecdotes and the only time they really speak up is when something of interest is happening. Player names were recorded awkwardly with pacing straight out of a Van Damme movie. Statements like “A basket? By… KOBE!” are far too common for my tastes.
EA went the typically Hip-Hop/Rap route for the soundtrack. It’s good and all, if you’re from the old-school and you believe that the only people who play basketball are black. Today’s game has become globalized with a number of the top draft picks coming from overseas. EA should have realized that the NBA audience has expanded and capitalized upon it by providing gamers with some variety in the soundtrack. I mean, racing games like Project Gotham 2
feature genres like Alternative, Punk and Hip Hop. It’s not like you only hear Hip-Hop at basketball arenas either, I’ve heard rock and punk songs at Staples every once in awhile. I can’t fault EA for it but it’s something that it should definitely build upon for next year.
This year you can take your copy of Live online but your performance will vary. We played a few games and stability was a debilitating issue in most of our games. There wasn’t one game where we didn’t experience choppy or stunted action. With Microsoft’s choice to make the Xbox broadband-only this shouldn’t have been an issue but it resides nonetheless. We didn’t have any problems with the online aspect of Madden 2005
so the problem must reside in Live’s code as opposed to the EA online applet.
How do you decide between NBA Live 2005
and ESPN NBA 2K5
? To find the answer look no further than the athletes that adorn the covers. Live’s game is purely offensive with little regard for defense or fundamentals anything else. And like Carmello, its severely overpriced and offers very little in return. Now look at NBA 2K5. Like Ben Wallace it has a great all-around game and the mark of a champion. This is definitely one instance where the price tag doesn’t describe the contents within. Live is worth a rental but not much else.