It’s been another interesting year as far as previews and anticipation are concerned. The feeling might not have been as positive as it was last year but it still seems a lot of people have been looking forward to the game. That brings me to the question, was all the anticipation justified? Let’s take a look.
First Impressions – More than “just a patch”
One of the phrases I’ve seen tossed around in the lead up to the release is that NBA Live 06 is simply a glorified update. While I’ll delve into all aspects of the game more deeply later in the review, I’ll offer a concise response to that assertion right now: no, it’s not.
While you won’t get any argument from me that the lack of the Mid Level Exception and other salary cap quirks in Dynasty Mode is somewhat of a letdown for us realism junkies, the improvements that have been made to the gameplay could not have been achieved through any official patch nor any slider tweaks last year. For those who remember or want to go back and read my NBA Live 2005 review, you’ll know that my first impressions weren’t so good. It was only after tweaking the sliders a little that I saw more potential in the game and eventually came to really enjoy it.
I’m not going to lie. I know we’re going to need to tweak the sliders this year. But the main quibbles I have with the game are mostly frequency issues. Sliders should be really effective this year because the gameplay is so much better “out of the box” compared to NBA Live 2005.
Issues remain in Dynasty Mode, but improvements and additions have been made. As I’ll get to a bit later on, the new assistant coaches/scouts/training staff offer more realism than the Dynasty Extras of 2004 and 2005 while the training is based on a much more true to life model. There’s still room for improvement but improvement has been made.
But enough with the introductions. Let’s take a closer look at this year’s instalment.
One of the criticisms of the NBA Live series is that the graphics have been “cartoonish” and lacking in realism. While I’ve never bought into that, there’s no denying that it’s an area in which the rival 2K series certainly shines.
I must confess, to me graphics aren’t the most important element. I’ve felt that from NBA Live 2000 onwards, NBA Live has always done a good job of presenting highly detailed stadiums, players that resemble their real life counterparts and so on. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been playing the series from the start and have more of an appreciation for the advances in graphics in the last decade, but I’m more or less satisfied with the year to year improvements with the graphics.
NBA Live 06 is no exception. Across the board the graphics are a step up from last year, with the cyberfaces once again the most noteable upgrade over the previous version. Whether or not you notice the detail of the faces during gameplay depends on your camera settings, but a closer look will reveal the faces are easily recognisable.
The most significant improvement is probably the lighting, which no longer features the glow effect that got very mixed reviews last year. Although it didn’t bother me personally I have to admit this is a whole lot nicer. The improvements to the faces and especially the lighting are most obvious in the Dunk Contest and Three Point Shootout but are clearly evident in regular gameplay too.
I noted some improvement in the 3D crowd in some of the preview screens that were released a few months back, an improvement that’s still present in the finished version. I wouldn’t call it a huge improvement but with the player’s focus on the action on the court it needn’t be the most stunning aspect of the game.
Overall, no complaints about anything in the graphics department. Those who place much more emphasis on graphics might find some gripes here and there but in my opinion it’s just fine. And the future looks bright in this area with the next generation consoles right around the corner.
Last year I thought the sound was greatly improved with the removal of the crashing effect on dunks and the addition of more realistic rim sounds. The sound effects seem to be a little better again this year, so all’s well there.
I don’t usually have much to say about the game’s soundtrack because it doesn’t usually affect me either way given my eclectic taste in music but I have to say I like this year’s tracks. The NBA Live mix of Fort Minor’s “Remember the Name” works well as a basketball anthem, though folks who don’t care for hip hop probably won’t be keen on it or any of the other offerings. I’m probably not alone in my dislike for “Bucky Done” by M.I.A. which is my least favourite since the wailing song in NBA Live 2002. Mind you, at least it doesn’t try to rhyme “care” with “thurr”.
With Mike Fratello’s return to the sidelines, Steve Kerr’s now alongside Marv Albert in the booth. Putting aside all bias I have in favour of the former Bull and his series clinching jumper in the 1997 NBA Finals, I think that Kerr’s done a fine job as the Czar’s replacement. The commentary track does suffer the common problem of sports and pro-wrestling video games in that it’s not always dead-on – sometimes comments suited for later in the game are pulled out in the first few minutes – and repetition will eventually become an issue. But when you’ve recorded a finite number of lines that’s always going to happen.
Something I’ve noticed in NBA Live 06’s commentary is that the speech sounds a little more natural. Both Marv and Steve will sometimes pause or “er” and “um” for thought mid-sentence, particularly in their longer observations of individual players. Kerr’s comments at the opening of the game are excellent though they’ll become dated and repetitive as you progress through Dynasty Mode.
Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith are back for the All-Star Weekend events and once again deliver amazingly realistic analysis of the action, though like Marv and Steve their lines aren’t immune from repetition and the Jet in particular will laud a dunk one moment and then trash it the next. There’s a few new lines this year, my personal favourite being Smith’s “That’s a video game dunk!”, lifted straight from the 2005 contest.
As it has been for several years now, NBA Live 06’s sound from the effects to the commentary are very solid with most of the problems being common issues of the genre such as repetition and late-game comments being pulled up early in the contest.
Skating: some people feel that the issue is as bad as last year, others say that it’s worse. My personal opinion is that while it is still present in the game it’s not quite as obvious as it was last year. To say that you can move across the court in one dribble is a gross exaggeration, but skating still does exist.
There’s certainly some nice animations in the game this year though. Freestyle Superstars has introduced some nicely captured moves, particularly the up-and-under and switching-hands layups. There are also some new subtle animations, such as players stumbling over one another when attempting to go “over the back” to snare a rebound (though no foul is called), taking a long step when backing down an opponent, interceptions and deflections and some of the new fouling animations. The players’ interaction with each other seems much more life-like as a result. Net animations are still a bit suspect.
Unfortunately we aren’t able to interrupt dunk and layup animations to dish off in mid-air, though we can still change our mind when going up for a jumpshot or dish off after going into a crossover/pro-hop animation. The moves themselves all look nice, particularly some of the new adjusted/contested shot animations though adjusted shots will have a tendency to end up behind the backboard.
Alley-oops look really great this year as we now have a variety of lob passes that can be thrown. While you’ll still find yourself throwing a lob to the wrong person from time to time, when you are in the right situation to put the ball on a wire you’ll find that the passer will throw overhead lobs to a trailing teammate, toss it sideways or throw a simple alley-oop pass depending on the situation. This makes alley-oops on the fast break much, much better. The kind of dunk your teammate will throw down also varies with the situation and the lob thrown to them.
The bottom line? Even with the skating, NBA Live 06 looks good in freeze frame and in motion.
As I mentioned earlier NBA Live 06 does play very well out of the box, better than NBA Live 2005 in my opinion, but I still feel that some slider tweaks will be needed to turn up the realism. I first tried NBA Live 06 out on Starter difficulty as even though I’m a seasoned NBA Live player, I’ve found that advancements in Freestyle Control and the 10-Man Freestyle concept have required a bit of an adjustment. Such was the case with NBA Live 06 but it didn’t take too long. So I cranked it up to All-Star.
The difference was easily noticeable. A lot of interceptions, tougher defense and CPU players hitting shots at an alarming rate. At first I was a little disheartened at the number of turnovers, the high scores and CPU players hitting shot after shot, but as I learned how to effectively play defense in this game as well as taking care of the ball I found it wasn’t so bad. That said, I now know that I’ll still have to make some slider tweaks to truly enjoy this game as a basketball sim since the default settings do lean more towards “fun video game” than “realistic simulation”. But it’s already obvious to me that with the right adjustments the game should suit my desire for realism just fine. I’m still getting there though.
Freestyle Superstars…where to begin? It’s hardly just a marketing gimmick yet it doesn’t necessarily dominate the game. Players with the Freestyle Superstars abilities are very tough but with the right strategies needn’t be unstoppable forces. The CPU doesn’t abuse the moves and you’ll quickly find that on the harder difficulty levels you won’t be able to abuse them either. The risk/reward factor mentioned in the previews is certainly apparent. There are a few of the “Scorer” moves that are practically unstoppable though, which is a bit disappointing. But it’s nowhere near as bad as I had feared which I was quite relieved to discover. The main things I would change next year would be to tone it down just a tad and add the ability to mix and match Superstar moves for multi-talented players. Other than that, Freestyle Superstars works quite well in its first incarnation.
It’s now possible to better elude defenders as well as make jumpshots, which is a welcome change. However, the downside of this change is that the CPU can also do so rather easily. It takes quite some effort to prevent a CPU player from slicing into the lane and scoring though it’s not impossible. Rebounding is a mixed bag. Offensive rebounds are a little too commonplace but not to the extent of NBA Live 2001 and NBA Live 2002. You have to time your jump a lot better since more shots bounce on the rim a couple of times rather than falling straight into your hands. Blocks are fine, even with the default sliders. Steals and interceptions are a tad too numerous by default but as a frequency issue can be toned down with the sliders. It does force you to really take care of the ball though.
The most obvious improvement to the gameplay is in the fast break logic. You’ll find that your CPU controlled teammates will keep running to the hoop rather than stopping at the three point line or standing around doing nothing. For those keeping track, that’s an improvement on every other game in the series. Players are much smarter when it comes to running the floor and cutting to the hoop. The “catch-up” problem has basically been eliminated. It is possible to catch the CPU and the CPU to catch you, but if you’re trying to outrun Allen Iverson with Greg Ostertag, forget about it.
Strategy is key to defeating your opponents as you’ll now find the CPU running plays, setting screens and so on in an effort to outsmart you. This generally results in more assists (a problem in NBA Live 2005) and a realistic game. That said, players still hit too many open jumpshots and in particular, contested jumpshots and adjusted layups. However, because these are frequency issues they can be controlled (to a certain extent) by the sliders. It also seems that the new free throw shooting method will be a feature of the next-gen version, which actually doesn’t upset me all that much. I’m a huge fan of the T-Meter and will be sorry to see it go.
Player celebrations after big baskets really add to the emotion of the game and remind me a lot of the earlier games in the series. Forcing a replay after a Freestyle move is also a nice idea and one I prefer to the automatic replays, which I’ve usually turned off every year they’ve been in the game. The ability to manually commit an intentional foul by repeatedly pressing the steal button is also useful, though I still miss the handcheck button.
The best way I could sum up NBA Live 06’s gameplay is that it feels like a combination of NBA Live 2005, NBA Live 2004 and NBA Live 2000, with a couple of improvements on top of that. It’s not perfect and I’ll need to play with the sliders a bit more before I’m completely satisfied, but I have a feeling I’m really going to enjoy this game. My advice to EA would be to avoid making huge overhauls at this point, instead opting for tweaks and fixes.
The removal of Dynasty Extras and addition of the Coaching Staff shouldn’t be underestimated. For a start, it eliminates the rather unrealistic notion that achieving individual goals during a game earns you currency to train and scout players. The budget for your staff is a dollar amount – specifically contracts with an annual salary – which is obviously a much more true to life model.
The way in which you can put your staff to work is also much more realistic. For a start, you can hire staff with specialties that suit your team. If you’re trying to develop a couple of young big men, you’d be wise to sign an assistant coach that can help you in that area. If you’re looking to find the next Dirk Nowitzki, a scout with plenty of experience in finding talent in Europe is the way to go.
Unlike NBA Live 2004 and NBA Live 2005, training is an on-going process so you needn’t assign time to any one player to see improvement throughout the year. However you are also able to assign time to players meaning your assistant coach will spend much more time with that player increasing the chances of improvement. Having a good trainer onboard is essential too, as they are important in getting injured players back on the court as quickly as possible.
Player Evolution is also a pretty cool concept. Aside from the increase and decline in ratings players can also be in or out of shape, shedding fat and adding muscle or getting lazy, fatter and losing their muscle tone. We’re presented with a snapshot of players year to year as they change in physical appearance as well as a report of their ratings development/decline. We’re also able to check on their progress throughout the season.
Player development itself is fairly well done. The addition of Work Ethic and Learning attributes provide additional factors in developing players and ensuring players stay in shape. Players still in their teens or early twenties also have the potential to gain an inch or two in height. Ratings development isn’t necessarily a quick process but I consider that to be a good thing. You can’t make a player 99 Overall simply through constant training sessions. It takes a player with potential and a good work ethic and a good coaching staff to turn a raw player into a Superstar.
Roster management is similar to last year, with free agent negotiations and trade offers being sent through the PDA. While the problem of highly rated players remaining free agents still exists, it seems that players are picked up more often and negotiating with free agents is a little more varied. You can’t always get the player you want simply by giving them what they’re asking for; already I’ve had some players decline offers that matched their asking price because of a better offer from another team.
One aspect of Dynasty Mode I’m actually disappointed in is the stats/simulation engine. In some ways, it works a little better but there are some really, really incorrect statistics. A few examples include: Dwyane Wade scoring around 15 ppg; Kobe Bryant scoring just 12 points per game in his second year (after averaging around 29 in the first season); players such as Richard Jefferson and Quentin Richardson grabbing double digits in rebounds; Steve Nash averaging around 7.5 assists per game while leading Phoenix in scoring with as much as 26 ppg (while Amare scores around 18). A lot of work needs to be done there. On the other hand, simulated team performance isn’t too bad at all.
While the stats engine does bring this year’s Dynasty Mode down a bit, on the whole it’s still good and I expect I’ll have a lot of fun with it as always. Seeing as though I’d be happy with tweaks to the gameplay in the future, I hope Dynasty Mode is the area of focus in NBA Live 07.
All-Star Weekend is back and is a welcome side game as well as being a part of the regular season in Dynasty Mode. Not a whole lot has been done with All-Star Weekend this year and in my opinion, that’s just fine. There’s nothing much that can be done with the Three Point Shootout anyway; it’s already implemented with the correct overtime format. Aside from adding more shooting styles, there’s not much you can do to enhance the Shootout any further.
There’s a couple of new gathers in the Dunk Contest which add a bit more variety but for the most part it’s the same as last year. And once again, that’s fine by me. A side game shouldn’t be the focus in the development of NBA Live and for those who wish to play it, the Dunk Contest can be a lot of fun. If there’s to be any work done with this down the road, I’d make it a little more realistic and also factor in the dunking/ratings so that certain players can’t perform some of the harder dunks at all and must have perfect timing to complete the more difficult dunks that they are capable of performing. Further customisation of the rules wouldn’t hurt either.
Not much to say about the All-Star and Rookie/Sophomore games since it’s the same 5 on 5 engine, but the addition of Freestyle Superstars does make it a bit more exciting. The All-Star Weekend modes aren’t the most important aspect of the game for most of us but if you’re like me you’ll get a bit of enjoyment out of them every now and again.
I was once again sorry to see that we are unable to have less than 12 players on the active roster. That was a fantastic and very realistic feature, one I hope will find its way back into the series. I’d also like to be able to trade single players for empty roster spaces, at least when working with the default rosters. You have no idea how much easier it would be when creating roster updates.
Create-a-Player is basically the same as last year though the facial features do look a bit better. I’m all for improvement in this area though the fact we can still select hairstyles and hair colour independently of one another is a relief.
And as far as Dynasty Mode is concerned, I’d love to see the Mid Level Exception, 10 Day Contracts and other such elements of the real NBA. Perhaps the casual NBA/basketball fan won’t miss them but they’d add so much more detail to roster management in Dynasty Mode.
Menus & Presentation
I really like the menus and presentation this year, even though I’m still hoping that one day the PC version will feature its own higher resolution menu with pop-up/drop-down menus. I like the change in colour scheme and the font reminds me greatly of the early games in the series as does the use of 2D portraits (which look better than last year’s). Thumbs up for the old school approach. The screen transitions in the menus are also good.
The only real complaints I have year-to-year about the menu is that the lower resolution means more scrolling and the PC version doesn’t fully utilise the mouse as well as it could. Still, I’ve adapted to the new console-orientated layout which is functional and for the most part attractive. It gets the job done.
Odds & Ends, Bugs & Omissions
I haven’t come across any major technical bugs yet. If your system satisfies the requirements of the PC version with supported video cards and up to date drivers, you shouldn’t have any problems.
It seems that there’s a problem with shots attempted after the buzzer counting and Dynasty Mode’s still got problems with the stats engine and highly rated players going unsigned because teams don’t have any cap space and there’s no MLE. There also appears to be a problem with IP to IP online games where players are called by the wrong names, but this problem doesn’t seem to exist when playing through EASO, at least in my experience.
Most puzzling is the lack of the Save Stats button as well as the ability to toggle stats and ratings in the Substitution screen. Given that a fix was released last year to rectify those issues, it’s odd that the same oversights would be made this year. Here’s hoping we get another fix this year.
It’s getting to the point where it’s almost not worth having the Legends in the game anymore. The 90s All-Stars roster is thinner than ever, with most of the greats now missing. While I like having the Legends in the game, pretty soon we’re not going to have any of the great players from the last 20 years left. I think it might be time to remove the feature or find a way of resolving the licensing issues that have made this featured so watered down.
NBA Live 06 presents us with an attractive game that can be very challenging and is capable of being quite realistic even if it means some slider adjustments. Freestyle Superstars works quite well in its first year in the game, achieving two goals in that it sets the stars, borderline stars and talented role players apart from the rest of the league while continuing the concept of total player control. It just needs toning down a little.
Dynasty Mode is a mixed bag this year with obvious improvements and steps towards realism in the ability to hire a staff. However, it still suffers from some of the same problems and definitely has room for improvement. I still feel it’s on a solid foundation and now that the gameplay is in a position to basically be tweaked and new animations added, Dynasty Mode should now be the focus.
To say that NBA Live 06 is perfect or that it doesn’t have issues wouldn’t be right, but what I will say is that it is a great game, an improvement upon last year. It’s more than just a patch or NBA Live 2005 in new packaging, but there’s still potential yet to be fulfilled.
While I feel some elements could have been better, I must once again nominate the latest instalment in the series as the best to date. It combines some of the best elements of previous years with some new features and the result is very pleasing. A few issues with Dynasty Mode as well as a few missing features keep it from being the “perfect” upgrade on NBA Live 2005 but the 2005/2006 season of virtual basketball should be a lot of fun.