Ever since 2K Sports and Visual Concepts released NBA 2K for the Dreamcast, EA has been fighting a losing battle for supremacy in the battle to be the best basketball game on the market. For years, the 2K series has continued to attract an audience of gamers who demanded that their games not only looked like they were worth the price of admission, but played that way as well. Over the last few years, EA Sports has been taking strides to bring the Live series back from obsolescence to a position where it has really begun to compete with 2K in its feature set, and not just in the brilliance of its graphical presentation.
NBA Live 06 for the Xbox has been pretty well received this year – the Freestyle Superstar System, the Dunk Contests, the depth of the Franchise Mode, and smooth online play contributing to a game that both casual fans of the sport and hardcore fanatics alike can sink their teeth into. The potential for the Xbox 360 version to soundly deliver on the promise of its cousin was enormous. Sadly, as with the rest of the EA Sports lineup, NBA Live 06 is a pretty spectacular let-down not only as a launch title, but as an indicator of the series’ direction for the future. The most glaring omission is in the area of gameplay modes, with Live sporting a quick game feature, a single-season mode, and single online games. That’s it. No franchise mode, no online leagues, no dunk contests, and none of the fun little extra gameplay modes that have come to be the standard in sports games today. Really, the only new part of the game is the ability to practice your jumpers in an empty hanger before going to the main menu and when the game is loading. While fun in itself, it doesn’t even begin to excuse the fact that EA is charging $59.99 for what is in practical terms, half of a game.
When you actually get into a game, it becomes pretty clear that EA took this roughshod, half-assed approach with their gameplay as well. While the game is technically proficient at conveying to the player a basketball experience that appears not unlike the game shown on television, the controls are lifted straight from the 05 version of the game. Veterans of the series will feel right at home with the controls, but anybody that’s played this year’s version on another platform will feel how grave an omission the freestyle superstar controls are. As it plays today, 06 for the 360 requires a lot more patience than is normal for a game of this type. The freestyle control stick doesn’t have the punch it had in earlier versions of the game, so getting a line to the basket on anything but a fast break necessitates a crafty use of the passing game to create separation. You can quickly access plays with the d-pad, which is helpful against stubborn human opponents, and is necessary against the computer on the harder difficulties.
Trying to play the post game is an exercise in patience, because the default sliders will have the refs calling fouls all over the place. Normally this would be a boon to your scoring potential, but EA has inexplicably implemented a new free-throw system that seems as much a matter of chance as anything else. Instead of the cross-system that they’d had for years, you now have to pull down on the right stick and quickly push it up with the appropriate rhythm. The only problem is, there is no feedback to tell you how close to accurate you were – beyond the fact that you just shot a brick with your best free-throw shooter. With a lot of patience, you can work your way up to about a 50% chance to make a free-throw, but even then it seems as much a matter of chance as anything.
On the defensive side of the ball, you don’t really get a lot of new tricks to work with either. As with the offense, you can call up defenses and double-teams using the d-pad. On their own, your teammates aren’t much help blocking lanes to the basket, so you’d better get used to being able to read plays yourself. Rebounds seem like they are as much a matter of chance as a roll of the dice, so even if you’re controlling your point-guard when somebody puts up a shot, have him run in and take a crack at it – he may have as good a shot to pull down the ball as your center. It’s not advised to take control of a big man in the paint anyway, because it’s inevitable that you’re going to get yourself into foul trouble. In fact, it would be wise to turn down the foul sliders considerably, because otherwise the pace of the game slows down to a crawl, especially in the last few minutes.
The online play seems like a cursory addition to the game, only giving you the option of playing single inconsequential exhibition matches against friends or strangers. The games are not lag-free, and seem to suffer from more framerate issues than the single player does. This is most noticeable when you go to take a jump shot; sometimes what appears to you to be a sure-basket will sometimes miss rather jarringly. It’s a matter of chance how laggy the game you end up in really is, but the difference feels much more pronounced in Live than in other games.
Now, to give credit to where credit is due, NBA Live 06 for the Xbox 360 sports a presentation that is fairly spectacular with the right hardware. The player models are extremely refined and sharp, the courtside graphics are nuanced and well textured, and the players all seem to glean with a perpetual coat of realistic looking sweat. You lose quite a bit of detail between the close-ups and the gameplay, but the game still manages to look really terrific in motion. The animation is mostly motion-captured, so while it looks extremely life-like and refined at times, you can see some pretty jarring transitions between different animations if you’re attentive enough. The stadium backdrops are pretty spectacular, especially when the game transitions from the loading screen into the middle of the arena with the crowd roaring. 5.1 surround sound systems will be put to work with Live 06 – and the ambience created is something that’s really fun to experience.
This is all assuming you’re playing on a HDTV with 5.1 sound system, of course. Playing on a regular tube television after experiencing the game in HD is extremely jarring – the first time this phenomenon has been noted in a 360 game. While it’s understood that games are supposed to look a lot better in HD, it doesn’t normally come at the expense of players with less expensive hardware. The fonts in Live 06 were clearly made with only HD in mind – so the main menu and in-game text is all but unreadable on most CRT televisions. The in-game camera also seems geared towards those with bigger sets, as it never really zooms in to follow the action, leading to some rather embarrassing mistimed shots. The announcers will actually make fun of you if you go for a dunk too early due to lack of depth perception, which only adds insult to injury.
In the end, NBA Live 06 feels more like an elaborate tech demo for HD televisions than it does a complete gameplay experience. Lacking all the gameplay modes and tweaks that one would expect from a yearly release, this version of the game is incomplete. The best advice we can give is to download the demo for free off of Xbox Live to impress upon others all the cool visual stuff the Xbox 360 is capable of, but when everybody else goes home, you’re far better off firing up the Xbox version of the game, as it represents what a full game should really include. Or better yet, take a look at the 2K series. While it may not have that EA Sports shine, at least you’ll get the full gamut of gameplay modes. And maybe, just maybe, if enough people vote against Live 06 and the other EA Sports titles with their wallets, they’ll actually do us the favor of finishing the games before they release them next year.