Now that developers are getting a better handle on how to work with the PSP, the games are starting to look and play better and better. Most of the system's early sports games were lacking features, had long load times, poor gameplay, or a combination of the three. While Madden 06 for the PSP has shown that there is plenty of room for improvement, one of EA's other games, NBA Live 06 shows the right way to bring sports games to the handheld. Crisp visuals, tons of features, and solid gameplay make Live 06 a no-brainer for anyone wanting to play some ball on the go, even if you're not a hardcore hoops fan.
NBA Live 06 doesn't have the franchise mode that you'll find on the PS2, but it does have a season mode that's deep enough to satisfy most everyone. You can play a full 82 games, or if you're looking for something a little shorter, you can chop the season down, shorten the length of quarters, and even make playoff series the best of one. You can trade players, pick up free agents, and release players, but the in-depth options found on the PS2, like using scouts and hiring trainers didn't make it over. It's not a huge loss at all though; there's plenty here.
In addition to a season mode, the NBA's All-Star weekend is included in all its glory. You can of course play the East vs. West All-Star game, and you can even take part in the three point shootout or slam dunk contest. Heck, if you're really into things, and I mean really into them, you can play the rookie game. The three-point shootout is a pleasant diversion, but there's not much too it, unlike the dunk contest. In the dunk contest you can pull off a large number of dunks, with one caveat – the game doesn't tell you how the heck to do anything. Yeah, there are some tiny instructions on screen, but unless you've played the PS2 version, which has a full tutorial, you're likely to struggle to figure things out. Should you learn the controls, there's an amazing amount of depth to be found here, and you can spend a lot of time perfecting your dunks.
On the court, the action is fast, and the series' tendency of being more arcade-like than sim, fits the PSP nicely. Even if you're only playing three minute quarters, the action's fast-paced enough that you'll still get in plenty of scoring. Shooting percentages are inordinately high, but really, nobody wants to shoot 40% from the field in videogame basketball, regardless of how much they gripe about the unrealistic shooting percentages. There are plenty of dunks, alley-oops, and lay-ups, as defense is largely an afterthought as your main goal will be to keep the defender in front of you, pounding the steal button in hopes of knocking the ball loose.
A few sacrifices were made in regards to Live 06's control scheme, but they work just fine. Since there's no second analog stick, ball fakes have been moved to the square button, and since there are less shoulder buttons, you can't alley-oop quite as easily. Actually, a bigger problem with having less shoulder buttons is you can't pass directly to players. You've got to aim where you want to pass, and then hit the X button. It works okay, but if you've gotten use to the precision passing on the PS2, you'll have to adjust. In addition, there are no longer separate buttons for jump shots and lay-ups/dunks, but this is a rather insignificant change for the most part
Freestyle superstar controls are an all new feature this year, on the PS2 as well as the PSP. The league's better players all have a designation, such as scorer, playmaker, high-flyer, sharpshooter and more. This means they've got a whole bunch of moves up their sleeves that other, less talented players don't have. When you see the superstar icon pop up, you can hold down the left shoulder button and press any of the face buttons to pull of a special move. High-flyers will throw down huge dunks, sharpshooters will pull up and shoot rainbow three-pointers, and playmaker will dish off no-look or behind-the-back passes. These moves give the game an even greater arcade feel than it already had, but they do a nice job of differentiating the superstars from the average players. Perhaps toning it down a little for next year is in order, but it's a nice addition.
An online component is included, but it's disappointing. It's a chore to log-in, and you'll have to agree to let EA market your email address, or pony up a couple of bucks to play. I had trouble getting a good connection with my opponents, and apparently I wasn't the only one having problems. You can play a wireless game via ad-hoc as long as your friend has a copy of the game, and that works just fine.
NBA Live 06 is a very nice looking game, and very little was sacrificed in the transition from the PS2 to the PSP. Even the bizarre oversized heads on the players made it into both versions! The player models are large, and for the most part, look like their real-life counterparts, right down to their tattoos (though they are mostly blurs here). The framerate isn't particularly fast, but other than some occasional instances of slowdown, it's acceptable. The arenas look very nice, and even have little details, like large TV's to replay the action during the dunk contest. Speaking of replays – Madden couldn't seem to swing them, but NBA Live not only has highlight cams right after a play, but you can pause the game and check out the action at your leisure. If anything, the game shows too many replays, and you can't change their frequency in the All-Star game for some reason, but at least they are there. There are some occasional oddities, like players sitting around an invisible coach during timeouts, but all in all, the presentation is solid.
The game's default camera isn't bad, but you can tell it's mostly there to show off the player detail. The best view of the action is from the baseline, and you can even choose camera height and zoom level if you require further adjustments. None of these features are revolutionary in the console world, but they're cutting edge for a handheld.
EA was able to cram an impressive amount of audio in the PSP version of Live. Marv Albert and Steve Kerr call the action, and while they aren't as verbose as they are on the PS2, their commentary is poignant and generally doesn't lag too far behind. The in-depth analysis that they give at the beginning of the game is great, but don't expect that kind of talk the whole game – it doesn't happen. There's an annoying pause whenever they say the team name, and there's occasionally some stuttering as data is streamed off the disc, but it doesn't ruin the commentary. The EA Trax are, as always, hit or miss, but there are some pretty good songs included.
I was disappointed with Madden 06, and that was before I played the very impressive NBA Live for the PSP. The load times are short, all of its big-brothers major features are included, there's instant replay, and the gameplay is surprisingly tight. Simply put: it's nearly everything you could ask for in a portable NBA game. Sure, there's room for improvement, but that doesn't mean that NBA Live 06 isn't a darn fine game.