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NBA Live 08 Community Day: Gameplay Report

The bad news for fans last year was that no matter which version you chose to play, the game was plagued by issues that neither modding nor slider tweaks could completely resolve. To say that NBA Live 07 turned out to be a profound disappointment, even to the most hardcore NBA Live fans, would be an understatement.

The good news this year is that it was one of the first things that representatives of the NBA Live 08 production team acknowledged. Before introducing us to NBA Live 08, they spoke frankly of last year’s product bombing and stressed that this is why we had been brought in to the proceedings so early this year. Not only would we have a chance to play the game before its release, but we would have an opportunity to provide feedback so that this year, NBA Live will be on the right path.

To that end, we were honest and constructive in our feedback. Although we all came away impressed, we also noticed some issues of concern and these were raised with the producers who took meticulous notes of everything we said. This report is an honest account of my impressions and discoveries of this year’s game based on a few hours playing the game. The build we played is not close to the final product so there were a few glitches and the rosters had not yet been updated, though the rookies who participated in EA’s pre-Draft Camp were available.

Before I begin I’d like to clarify a couple of points. Because there are a couple of embargo dates on certain features, I will not be able to comment on them just yet. One of those features is this year’s Dynasty Mode, which will have its own seperate report. I’d also like to note that the PC/Playstation 2/Xbox/Wii/Playstation Portable versions were not on display and as such as I cannot provide hands-on impressions for them at this time. These impressions are strictly relating to the Xbox 360 (and I would assume Playstation 3, it wasn’t on display either) version of the game. As there were no Current Gen producers on-hand at the event, I provided executive producer Brent Nielsen with some questions about the Current Gen version which will be answered very soon.

With introductions out of the way, let’s take a look at what NBA Live 08 has to offer.

One word I’m inclined to throw around a lot this year is “smooth”. It’s been well-documented that the game will be running at 60 frames per second and as a result it looks very sleek. It’s not just the aesthetics though. The game also feels a lot smoother and this is particularly evident in the jumpshots. On the Next Gen version last year I found jumpshots quite awkward, often releasing them too late and being treated to the clutzy late release animation. Not so this year. Not only are the signature shots more apparent as players retain their shooting style even on a bad release, but the release points are much improved so shooting jumpers is a much more desirable option instead of constantly pounding the ball inside to keep up with the CPU as NBA Live 07 demanded. I guess the trade-off is that it will be less apparent when the release is bad, but that’s all part of the learning curve and I for one would rather see the signature jumpshots in action.

The difference in player movement is noticeable as well. Footplanting technology was intended to eliminate skating last year and while it succeeded, players were somewhat cumbersome as their momentum didn’t allow them to change directions (basically breaking out of animation) as quickly as in real life. That’s not really an issue this year, especially with Quick Strike Ballhandling which I’ll get to in a moment. Overall I like the way player locomotion felt: smooth with the ability to break animations and change direction in a realistic manner without any “waterbug” movements.

Before I get onto Freestyle’s replacement, I’d also like to touch on collisions. The collisions aren’t perfect but whereas it has been a matter of two cylinders bouncing off one another when it comes to players interacting, this year players collide and there’s further interaction as the offensive player protects the ball while his opponent assumes a defensive stance as he bumps and tries to place himself between his man and the basket. This is more noticeable when playing in the post. Once engaged in this interaction, either player can break the contact; there’s no getting stuck in the animation.

That brings us to the Quick Strike system. It’s one of those names that makes us fearful of another gimmick but fortunately that isn’t the case. As you’ve probably read already, the system has been taken from NBA Street. While NBA Live won’t feature the same AND1 mixtape moves, it will feature the same technology that allowed NBA Street players to string together a series of move and at any time break out in the middle of the animation for a pass or shot. The other cool feature is that by pressing the right analog faster and faster, you can make the ballhandler crossover from left to right much more quickly, much like rapidly tapping the Trick button in Street. It works much the same way as Freestyle Control but with the ability to interrupt the dribbling animation and without the jerkiness present in NBA Live 07.

I’d also like to mention the sweet fake spin that can be performed by holding the right analog up. It quickly became my favourite new dribbling move and while I’m sure I’ll get over it, I couldn’t help but use it as often as I could when I got my hands on the game. The good news is that it won’t be an exploit to get to the basket the way constant spinning has been in the past (in fact, Jeff Antwi made a point of mentioning that tactic and eliminating it as being one of their goals) but used properly, it can be effective and looks very cool.

Moving along to some of the other gameplay elements that have been revealed as of late: Hot Spots. This is another feature that many of us were apprehensive about as we envisioned players running to sweet spots and automatically drilling shot after shot. That’s likely to happen if a good shooter is constantly left open but assuming your attitude towards defense resembles Gregg Popovich’s more than it does Mike D’Antoni’s, you shouldn’t find yourself getting burned every trip down the floor.

Hot Spots represent the area on the floor a player is most effective from shooting the basketball. Real NBA data has been used to represent a player’s hot and not-so-hot spots on the floor so you won’t find Shaquille O’Neal deadly from 20 feet along the baseline. Even players who can stroke a 20 foot baseline jumper won’t be successful every time. Hot Spots act as a guide of where players are most effective from and where they should be to maximise their offensive skills. It still comes down to the player’s execution and pressure from the defense. A player will simply be more effective from his Hot Spots.

To help the user, an on-screen guide can be brought up at any time during a game or in Practice Mode. Red areas indicate a player’s most effective areas to shoot from, yellow indicates an area he’s still fairly consistent from and blue represents an area where his field goal percentages tend to be a bit lower. Players will miss shots from their Hot Spots and can hit from their colder spots as well. It’s not an NBA Jam-like “shoot from here and make it 99% of the time (and get nine points for it)” kind of deal.

On a similar note, Go To moves are not a new name for Freestyle Superstars moves. They’re basically an extension of signature shots and are restricted to the top 40 stars in the league. I don’t have a complete list at this time but a few of those players include Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson and Tony Parker. Go To moves are effective but they are meant to represent a player’s favourite moves and style, not act as an unstoppable shot attempt. That point was proven as Dirk Nowitzki’s fadeaway was demonstrated to us and it missed as the defense closed in on time. In Practice Mode you’ll see them go in more often (like most shots in Practice Mode) but when defense is thrown into the equation players won’t score with their Go To move with ease every time down the floor.

Go To moves are performed simply by using the shoot button. For example, Steve Nash’s off-balance runner is performed by running towards the basket and holding shoot. Allen Iverson actually has a couple of signature runners (suggesting future games will feature multiple moves for players with a diverse arsenal) in the lane that can be pulled off in a similar manner.

Own the Paint also features a simple but effective control scheme involving the shoot and dunk buttons. When posting up a defender, tapping shoot can be used to execute various up-and-under fakes followed by a shot or dunk, or a player can choose to simply turn and shoot or try to blow by the defense for a dunk or layup. While this has improved post play, we were all concerned about the ease of scoring inside. It is difficult to challenge a player once they’re in the air for a dunk or layup and while it’s good that there’s kind of a battle in the post with the defender trying to stay ahead of the player with the ball and the offensive player looking to outwit the defender, it’s a bit too powerful right now. This concern was raised with the producers during the Q&A.

The tempo of the game was also a bit quick but none of us played around with the sliders so it remains to be seen whether that’s simply a matter of knocking the slider down a bit. If that’s all it takes, then I for one can live with that. It’s the issues that cannot be resolved with sliders that are more of a worry so hopefully interior defense is addressed as production on the game continues.

While I’m on the subject of negatives, the build we played also featured too many offensive fouls that probably should have been non-calls, shooting fouls or blocking fouls. It was mentioned that the balance had been adjusted due to some testing with the build we were playing but it was noted as an issue that needs to be resolved. There were a few graphical glitches with players going through the backboards on dunks but compared to last year – both the build at the NBA Live 07 Community Day and the finished product – this was greatly improved as the backboard seems to have a physical presence in the virtual arena. There were some other glitches that you might expect in an earlier build with player indictators disappearing at times but these were all noted as they were discovered and pointed out.

Aside from posting up, shooting percentages wasn’t too bad though a few too many contested shots did find their way in as has often been the case. Once again it’s difficult to say whether some of these issues could be balanced out by adjusting the sliders since we didn’t get an opportunity to tweak them but it was another issue that was discussed after some hands-on time with the game.

Getting back to some of the improvements that have been made, the intelligence of CPU teammates seems much better and it’s a welcome change. Although the user can still run the team, calling plays and making things happen on the court, the CPU controlled teammates react to the situation as you would expect, taking advantage of defensive lapses and getting open rather than just standing around.

Jeff demonstrated a good example using the Spurs. With Duncan posting up, the defense collapsed on him and left Bruce Bowen with an open lane to the bucket. Recognising the situation, Bowen cut to the basket where Jeff fed him the ball for an uncontested layup. Defensive lapses by the CPU aren’t commonplace but when they occur, your teammates will now try to take advantage cutting to the basket and moving to their Hot Spots. The CPU won’t do all the work for you but they’ll help you out instead of forcing furious switching to try and get the job done.

I noticed an example of improved teammate AI on defense when I was playing with the Bulls against DJ Rhude who was controlling the Knicks. Defending Marbury on the perimeter with Chris Duhon, I gave up too much room allowing Rhude to pull up for a jumper. However, Ben Wallace was in the vicinity and rotated over to block the shot in a rather impressive sequence. Just as you’ll notice your teammates staying active at the offensive end, you’ll also see them rotating to help on defense. Mistakes will be made though, especially when less skilled players are involved.

I wasn’t completely opposed to the seperation of the dunk and layup buttons last year but going back to the system of a single contextual button was definitely for the best. It was an interesting experiment but having the players perform the most appropriate move given their location on the court and the situation they are facing is much preferable. I assume sliders will control frequency if dunks feel too numerous. And speaking of dunks, last year’s problem of players blowing fairly easy dunks at odd times seems to have been resolved.

Players also throw contextual passes. If the situation calls for a bounce pass to a player that’s posting up, that’s the pass that will be thrown rather than an awkward lob. Players will also throw contextual passes on the run to try and keep the ball out of reach of defenders, including a few passes on the hop and even a couple of nifty passes with a bit of flair, though these aren’t pulled out all the time. As a result, fast breaks feel quite fun and fluid, though not too numerous.

Rim physics are a step up this year. The arc on jumpshots has been resolved and the way the virtual ball interacts with the hoop is great. There’s a wider variety of ways the ball can come off the rim depending on the shot that was attempted and there’s some nice roll-in/rattle-home animations as well. A few too many rebounds still hit the floor though (this was noted by the producers before we could mention it) and there’s still a few too many offensive boards though the ratio is not as frustrating as in years past (it too was noted during the Q&A session). In my opinion you can notice the difference in players going up and reaching for the rebound rather than the ball warping to one of the players going for the board. To me, it felt much less pre-determined. For what it’s worth, the net looks better than early screenshots suggested as well.

There’s a new “defensive help” button that helps players D-up their man on the perimeter, though it’s not always effective in the post. It’s quite effective in playing tight defense on the ballhandler though it also has an autoswitch feature meaning that users who hold down the trigger will find themselves suddenly in control of another defender when a pass is made, which isn’t always desirable when the ball is fed into the post since you don’t always have time to react; not a good thing given interior defense already needs a bit of work. I’d personally prefer it if it didn’t autoswitch but it’s something we could probably get used to since we’re still able to maintain a defensive stance after using the defensive assist feature to get in a player’s face.

We were told that Fatigue has been redone this year and that it will play a larger factor in player performance. Tired players won’t be as effective and the CPU seems to sub fairly intelligently making use of secondary positions. We were also told that the CPU will recognise certain situations and leave star players in if the game is on the line, so you shouldn’t see Kobe Bryant coming out of the game if the Lakers need some baskets late in the fourth quarter even if he’s starting to get a bit tired. Most of the tournament games were very close coming down to the final seconds and the stars remained in, though I wouldn’t be surprised if bad decisions are made from time to time. It’s hard to fully appreciate substitution patterns without playing full length quarters but I didn’t notice any glaring errors myself.

Touching on some more aesthetic features for a moment, I like the idea of staging the shootaround in the team practice courts rather than the “temple” of NBA Live 06 and NBA Live 07. While those courts might have reinforced the “next generation” idea, the practice courts give the game much more of an NBA atmosphere. I like the default TV camera angle as well; the approach to a TV-style presentation rather than the baseline angle is certainly preferable. Unfortunately a glitch with the starting lineup introductions prevented us from seeing what they are like this year but I’m sure we’ll get a glimpse of them at some point. This year the loading screen features NBA Trivia which all human players can participate in if they wish. It’s not a big feature but for me it’s a nice throwback to some of the early games which featured trivia in between quarters.

Another extra that’s been added is a highlight reel after the game. Replays of noteworthy moments are replayed at the end of a game, looping continuously from different angles until you choose to proceed. It’s not quite the top ten plays of the week that fans have discussed in the past but it’s a cool feature nevertheless.

I expect a lot of people will remain quite cynical about NBA Live 08 until the game comes out and that’s to be expected. Last year’s game really shook the faith of even the most diehard NBA Live fans and the appearance of names like Hot Spots and Go To moves conjure up images of unstoppable moves and gimmicky premises. That doesn’t appear to be the case however. I won’t assert that NBA Live 08 will be a flawless game but it’s not just a roster update either. A lot of good work seems to have gone into it and hopefully our suggestions will be put to use to iron out some of the issues that were noticed on the day. My time with the game has me looking forward to NBA Live 08 with a fair amount of optimism.

Unfortunately some of the things I’m most excited about I can’t talk about yet, but as soon as the embargo date passes I’ll follow up with more reports. For the moment I still have to be discreet about them, but suffice to say I’m quite pleased with what I saw. For now, I’ll try to answer some questions as best I can in the Forum, the comment boards in our news posts and via email/PM. Please note that I won’t reveal anything I’m not allowed to talk about yet until I get the green light, even if you contact me privately.

I hope you enjoyed the report, there’s more to come in the near future. I’ll also post some information regarding the PC version as soon as it is passed along.