To mark the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re taking a look back at every game in the series with retrospectives and other fun content! This also includes re-running some features from our 20th Anniversary celebrations, with a few revisions. Whether you’re a long-time basketball gamer who grew up with NBA Live and are keen on taking a trip down memory lane, or you’re new to the series and want to learn about its history, we hope that you enjoy celebrating the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live here at the NLSC! Today, it’s a retrospective of NBA Live 06.
After the success of NBA Live 2005, NBA Live 06 proved to be a pivotal moment in the series; one that NBA Live is still feeling the effects of today. Because of those long-term ramifications, it’s all too easy to forget that NBA Live 06 is a tale of two games: a last gen and PC release that was at least on par with its predecessor, and a new gen launch title that was a disappointment. It’s unfortunate that the latter often overshadows the former, but it’s understandable, given the lasting impact that it had. Nevertheless, I’ll be covering both versions of the game in this retrospective. Let’s look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly in a significant year for NBA Live.
Before I get to the game itself, let’s talk about the name. Breaking with the convention that had been established with NBA Live 2000, EA Sports cut the first two digits off the year as they’d done with the games set in the 90s. I remember being surprised, and hurriedly changing all references to NBA Live 2006 in our content to NBA Live 06. It’s kind of odd when you think about it, especially now that we’re up to NBA Live 19. NBA 2K’s naming convention works because 2K is standing in for the millennium, whereas NBA Live’s sounds like a numerical sequel. “Oh-six” also sounds a bit weird, but then we still don’t have a great name for the decade 2000-2009, so it is what it is.
Anyway, that’s just a side note. It was hardly the most awkward rebranding the series underwent – that would be NBA Elite, but we’ll get to that – and we soon adjusted to the new naming convention. Besides, a minor change to the name hardly mattered when the game itself was great (prior gen) or terrible (new gen). I’ll begin with the prior gen version, which was also the version ported to PC. As I mentioned, it was easily the superior version of the game, and a strong follow-up to NBA Live 2005. Once again, the default sliders were geared a little too much towards casual hoops gamers, but once we figured out some adjustments, we had our sim experience.
The big new gameplay mechanic in NBA Live 06 was Freestyle Superstars. For the uninitiated, Freestyle Superstars – commonly abbreviated as FSS – was an attempt to differentiate star players by giving them expanded movesets based on their style of play. For example, Shooters had more control over their attempts, and could manually trigger bank shots. Outsider Scorers had a variety of midrange moves, as well as a few fancy layups around the basket; Inside Scorers had a variety of post moves. The High Flyers had special dunks, Playmakers could make fancy passes, and Power players were beasts inside. Inside and Outside Stoppers were more adept at blocks and steals.
Freestyle Superstars moves were performed by holding a trigger, and pressing one of the face buttons. For certain movesets, different moves were performed according to the player’s position on the floor, or whether you held or tapped the button. Although they were somewhat of a stand-in for signature moves, players of the same Freestyle Superstar type all had the same animations. It was a step in the right direction though, and players with FSS movesets were more formidable on the virtual hardwood. In Dynasty mode, players could gain FSS abilities as their ratings improved and hit the required levels. Aging players could also lose their FSS movesets as they declined.
Not unlike Freestyle Control, the first iteration of Freestyle Superstars had a couple of problems. Multifaceted players could qualify for multiple movesets, but could only equip one offensive and one defensive moveset at a time. Movesets also couldn’t be switched on the fly, so you had to decide which was the most appropriate (or useful) before starting a game. On the bright side, great two-way players could have FSS abilities equipped at both ends of the floor. Many of the offensive moves were a tad overpowered though, and thus could be easily exploited. At the same time, it was nice to have some reliable go-to moves when you really needed to put points on the board.
I feel that Freestyle Superstars is somewhat underrated and underappreciated these days. It was an attempt to expand the controls and differentiate players, and for the time, it was indeed effective in achieving that goal. Even though it wasn’t a long-term solution, it was a stepping stone; part of the evolution of virtual basketball. It was also possible to disable all FSS movesets, which made NBA Live 06 play more like an enhanced version of NBA Live 2005. There have been quite a few controversial gameplay mechanics in basketball video games over the years, but most of them can’t be completely disabled. Freestyle Superstars allowed that level of customisation.
Although it was the most prominent new feature, Freestyle Superstars wasn’t the only enhancement over NBA Live 2005’s gameplay. Fast breaks were fixed in NBA Live 06, with players catching the ball in stride, running the floor properly, and cutting to the basket when they should. Blocks on the perimeter were toned down, AI was a bit smarter, and the gameplay was more balanced in general. NBA Live 06 does have some brutal comeback logic however, which is why it’s important to think twice before disabling FSS moves. Of course, when you start missing up-and-under layups with Outside Scorers, you know that the comeback logic is now in full effect!
Other mechanics from NBA Live 2005 such as Freestyle Air, as well as the backboard T-Meter introduced in NBA Live 2004, were also carried over. Overall, it made for a polished gameplay experience, and one that could be impressively realistic after a few slider tweaks. NBA Live 06 also looked better than its predecessor, thanks to new lighting and updated textures. There are a lot of familiar animations that are common to all players, though the new animations for FSS players spiced things up a bit. Steve Kerr replaced Mike Fratello alongside Marv Albert on commentary, as The Czar was now coaching the Memphis Grizzlies. The game’s presentation remained top notch.
Dynasty mode received some welcome updates in the form of team staff, which were effectively the replacement for Dynasty Extras. As the GM, you had to hire a scout, trainer, and assistant coach, all of whom had different ratings. Scouts could be sent out to scout players in the upcoming Draft, or provide a report on your next opponent. Assistant coachers worked with players in training to help them improve. Trainers were medical staff, looking after players when they got injured. The higher these staff members were rated, the better they were at their jobs and the better the results. Each team had a staff budget though, so you couldn’t always hire the best personnel.
I much preferred this approach to the Dynasty experience, as it felt more realistic than earning points and buying upgrades. We still couldn’t hire or fire head coaches, but simply having more control over other staff made the mode deeper. Unfortunately, the PDA remained as the central hub for trade and free agent negotiations, as well as a way for the owner to chastise you with petty criticism. It was about the only drawback in NBA Live 06’s Dynasty mode however, and my Dynasty game with the Bulls is still one of my all-time favourite experiences on the virtual hardwood. The All-Star Weekend also returned, with a couple of new dunks added to the Slam Dunk Contest.
To this day, NBA Live 06 PC is my favourite game in the series, and I’d argue that it’s one of the best NBA Live titles overall. It runs a close race with NBA Live 2000, NBA Live 2004, and NBA Live 2005, but what sets it apart for me is the improved gameplay, innovation of Freestyle Superstars, enhancements to Dynasty, and the overall depth and polish of the product. It does have an unfortunate bug where the Primacy ratings are recalculated in Dynasty when there’s a trade or injury, but on PC at least, we developed batch files to restore the original ratings when that happened. It’s a great game that unfortunately gets overlooked due to the next gen launch.
That brings us to the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06. EA Sports were looking to make a big splash with the game, but instead, they started the generation on the wrong foot. Before we get to that however, let’s look at some of the more positive aspects of NBA Live 06 on the Xbox 360. Visually, it was unmistakeably “Next Gen”. Players, jerseys, courts, and environments all look much better than the PlayStation 2 and Xbox version, and even a modded PC version. Sweat appears on the players, and their faces are far more lifelike. There’s no doubt that in terms of graphics, the Xbox 360 release was taking advantage of the superior hardware at its disposal.
We were also introduced to The Temple. Instead of loading into the traditional menu, NBA Live 06 placed us in a futuristic practice court that is constructed as the game loads. Cover player Dwyane Wade appears on the court, and before we see a single menu item, we’re able to start shooting around with him. We can even bring a second, third, and fourth player onto the court to shoot around or play 1v1, 2v2, or impromptu shooting games, thanks to floating scoreboards. It’s a very creative aesthetic, as is the idea of being able to keep shooting around in The Temple while we wait for a game to load. These concepts, the visuals, and presentation in general were all very cool.
Sadly, that’s where the good news ends. The gameplay in the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06 is inferior to the prior gen version in just about every way. Freestyle Superstars is nowhere to be found, meaning the next gen launch title was missing one of the big innovations that year. It’s also generally unbalanced; the CPU feels a few steps quicker, especially on the higher difficulty levels which border on unfair. The easier difficulty levels are too easy, though on all levels the CPU tends to favour itself when it comes to officiating. It’s hard to stop the CPU inside without fouling, which leads to AI players practically waltzing into the paint and scoring far too easily.
Oddly, although a lot of the animations from the prior gen version have been used, they look far more awkward and clunky on Xbox 360. There’s something odd about the trajectory of the ball on jumpshots, and the physicality doesn’t feel right. Even the rebounding looks strange. The right player usually gets the board, but it noticeably warps into their hands. The T-Meter is replaced by moving the right stick down then up, simulating a shooting motion, but it feels awkward. I can still go back and enjoy NBA Live 06 PC for what it is, but I can’t finish a single game on Xbox 360. I enjoy shooting around in The Temple, but the 5-on-5 gameplay is, quite frankly, terrible.
There are gameplay sliders which are probably worth messing around with, but even if you do enjoy playing the game, there isn’t much to keep you hooked. Dynasty mode is nowhere to be found, as there’s only a single Season mode; no standalone Playoffs mode, either. Legends are gone, as are retro jerseys and the All-Star Weekend. Roster management and Create-a-Player functions are present, but apart from that, the game is just too barebones. After years of innovations and providing a respectably deep and well-rounded product, NBA Live launched on a new generation with barely any content and inferior gameplay. Unfortunately, that’s become a trend for the series.
It’s a shame, because just as recent titles have featured some great concepts, the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06 does have some innovative ideas. Everything about The Temple is cool and creative. Whereas the prior gen version only allows instant replays to be manually triggered on FSS moves, the left stick button can be used to show replays on any shots on 360. Of course, there’s no Instant Replay mode in the pause menu on 360, another example of how it’s lacking in basic staples. The graphics are impressive for 2005 and were far superior to prior gen, but it didn’t really matter when gameplay was so poor, modes were lacking, and the “inferior” game felt fuller.
While I’m sure the tech in the prior gen version was starting to show its age, by trying to rebuild the game but for the library of animations, EA Sports ended up setting the series back even further anyway. If the PC version had been ported to Xbox 360 and given higher resolution textures, it probably would’ve been more successful, even if it had to forego the introduction of The Temple. It would’ve been a more stable release with a full complement of modes and features, and a solid game to launch with while working on new tech for NBA Live 07 and beyond. As it stands, it began a trend that has held the series back for over two generations’ worth of games.
The PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox versions of NBA Live 06 weren’t perfect. There was the Primacy bug, the PC version had a weird net animation on dunks (we later fixed it by swapping in NBA Live 07’s net files), and Freestyle Superstars had a few teething problems. It was still a very enjoyable game however, and one that was very modder-friendly. There’s a reason we continued updating it for years afterwards, and chose it as the game to update when it was announced that NBA Live 09 would be console-only. Similarly, there’s a reason that the Xbox 360 version is often pinpointed as the beginning of NBA Live’s downfall. One year, two very different versions of the game.
It’s unfortunate, not just because of the ramifications for the future of the series that we’re still feeling the effects of today, but because a really good game – what I would call the last great all-around game in the NBA Live series – is overshadowed by its disappointing next gen kin. NBA Live 06 on PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox was the end of NBA Live’s second and all-too-brief Golden Era, and a great game that can still be enjoyed today. The Xbox 360 version, on the other hand, was a disappointment and a rough start to a brand new generation. EA Sports would try to right the ship with the next release, but unfortunately, the seas would remain choppy for quite some time yet.