Several years ago, the NBA Live franchise was clearly laboring while the competition – the yearly offering from 2K Sports – routinely was the better option for b-ball fans. However, EA has made solid strides in the sports simulators since this new generation began and after hitting a low point back around 2005 and 2006, things have been looking up. Take NBA Live 10 for instance: while last year’s entry was a definite improvement, we get another step in the right direction from EA Canada. We’re still falling a little shy of that all-encompassing authenticity and ease of involvement that we require from stellar sports titles these days, but this latest installment still has a lot going for it. Perhaps the best part of the production is the simple fact that the player can’t get away with much (cheap tricks for easy buckets have almost disappeared), and while the AI may seem a little frustrating on the surface, it only means you need to hunker down and practice. It’s a good, realistic dichotomy.
The graphics usually aren’t the highlight in these games but as is the case with the gameplay, EA is moving in the correct direction, especially when it comes to player animations. These are almost constantly fluid and the only time we see significant faltering is during replays, when the action tends to slow to a disappointing crawl (“damn, I moved faster than that during my awesome dunk”). The character detail is another plus, as is the arena design and appeal; it’s always lively and appears to be full of actual people, rather than cardboard cutouts waving handkerchiefs all at the exact same rate. The only problem I had is that each player’s sweat still gives him this glassy or plastic-y look, which detracted from the realistic depiction. Even so, everyone moves smoothly and almost effortlessly on the court, and you’ll really appreciate those impressive animations during some of the crowd-pleasing maneuvers. It’s colorful and vibrant, with only a few minor drawbacks.
The sound doesn’t fare quite as well, although it gets a boost from the inclusion of ESPN radio. Last night, I was actually listening to the Vikings/Packers Monday Night Football game while maneuvering around the NBA Live 10 menus…how cool is that? This is only the start of the live interaction (see the DNA description below), and the addition of fitting grunts of effort, squeaks of sneakers (thankfully downplayed a little this time, so it’s not assaulting our ears) and the crowd’s impact is very much appreciated. Unfortunately, the commentary suffers due to repetition and inaccuracy. I heard the same two or three comments from Marv Albert and Steve Kerr about ten times in the first quarter alone, and many times, the statement didn’t even relate to the on-court action. It just wasn’t as on-point or as engaging as the commentary in NHL 10 , where the commentary was a major highlight and kept us coming back for more. But the soundtrack works, the effects are great, and in the end, that’s worthy of recognition.
I’m not a fan of overcomplicating the controls in sports simulators, just for the sake of becoming more realistic. I understand the need for that realism but many of the additions and features I’ve seen over the past year only caused the control to become frustrating and overly difficult. Thankfully, EA really understood people like me when setting out to make NBA Live 10 : they finally eradicated this ridiculous focus on the right analog stick to dictate just about every important movement in the game, and if you want to shoot, just press Square. Yes, you can tilt the left analog to choose the side of the hoop on which to attempt a layup, and the right analog controls special moves, but the basic gameplay is both accessible and effective. The triggers will let you set plays and even call for a specific player to come to the ball, which does indeed take some getting used to, but it’s not needlessly challenging. For the most part, you can be competitive within the first hour of playing, and that’s a definite bonus.
Changes between last year’s entry and this year’s center on the deemphasizing of post play, the closing down of lanes usually left open to special jukes, and the increased precision and accuracy of passing. Thing is – and we all have to admit this – we’re always looking for some kind of exploit; some little eccentricity that can be used to score points in bunches. Last year, you could take big men, back into the post, and dominate. You could also take quick guards, pull off a crazy spin move, and drive to the basket for an easy layup or dunk. Most all of that has been eliminated in this year’s Live effort, so don’t bother looking for unfair advantages. What you will have to do is examine the defense, look for openings and mismatches, prepare your strategy accordingly and in general, treat this experience like a real basketball game. This is the biggest benefit of this production and at no point did I feel helpless or strangely superior; I knew I had to practice, but I also knew that victory didn’t rely on poorly implemented controls and gameplay that left big gaping holes in the game’s continuity.
To enhance the authenticity even further is that DNA feature that debuted last year and is back again for all the hardcore fans. Basically, when linking up to the EA Sports server, you can download all the latest DNA information for every player in the league, as it relates to the real NBA season. In other words, if your team loses a game they shouldn’t have in real life, you can jump into NBA Live 10 , replay that match in a virtual world, and try to rectify the matter. If a player performed exceedingly well the past week, that will be reflected in his in-game persona. You can’t really say anything bad about this feature; it’s there for a purpose, and it serves that purpose faithfully. There’s also the addition of Adidas Live Run, which lets up to 10 players join up in a standard 5-on-5 match and although it doesn’t include all the intricacy of a Season or Dynasty mode, it’s still fun. Then there’s that meaty Dynasty mode, which lets you have nearly full control of your team from the start of the pre-season to the very end of the playoffs.
However, it’s not all peaches and cream. The players still do weird things on the court; i.e., stepping out of bounds, holding their backs way too often when jogging back on defense, and missing easy shots. We still have this issue where one particular shot seems impossible and this year, it’s the one where the player jumps into the defenseman when close to the hoop and then tosses up a tough shot. Yeah, it’s tough, but certain stars in the league have made a career out of making those fall. Furthermore, they may have shut things down a little too much, as the stars like LeBron and Kobe don’t feel quite enough like stars. They’re certainly better than the players around them, but it’s almost like there are two sets of players: the “good” ones, and then everyone else. In other words, the “star quality” seems a little lacking, which hampers the overall feel; I never felt like I could – theoretically – drop 50 with Kobe. No, it’s not realistic to have him drop 50 all the time, but it almost never felt possible…
On top of which, some of those fluid animations could get in the way. For instance, after executing a particularly spectacular dunk, the player will break into a seemingly unstoppable celebratory animation as he gets back on defense. Yeah, it happens in the NBA – and I hate it – but I couldn’t seem to stop it. Even when I switched to that player to make him stop, it took a few moments for him to adopt a normal defensive stance and many times, the dude he was supposed to be guarding was long gone. Lastly, it just seemed way too hard to pull down an offensive rebound; the numbers at the end of the game always showed very, very low numbers in that area, even when I went out of my way to grab them (and had the size to do it). But this is where my complaints end. For the most part, NBA Live 10 feels good, looks good, and perhaps most importantly, is entertaining. There’s also something here for everyone; you don’t have to be a hardcore fan to enjoy the game.
I mean, there’s just a tremendous amount of satisfaction that comes with the perfectly executed offensive play, or when successfully defending a tough player. I felt pretty good about myself when I was able to finally keep Steve Nash in front of me and pressure him into a turnover. Then, I noticed a major mismatch underneath the hoop, and the clean feed from Hamilton to Wallace resulted in an easy layup. I got the angle with LeBron after a quick cross over, drove towards the paint, spun towards the baseline, and elevated over a defender to finish with huge authority. Doesn’t get much better than that. And all it took was a little while getting accustomed to both the relatively simple controls and the fact that the defense wasn’t going to back down. I still think it was too easy to lose the ball during the execution of special moves and the foul shot mechanic didn’t work extremely well (good luck getting it in with the poor shooters), but I entered each match with a smile and set determination. Close games can be very tense!
I don’t know how 2K stacks up this year, but EA has definitely provided us with a basketball simulator that delivers on most levels and only falls short in minor areas that won’t significantly affect your enjoyment. Give it a shot…pun intended.