This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! In this feature, we dig into the archives, look back at the history of basketball gaming, and indulge in some nostalgia. Check in every Wednesday for retrospectives and other features on older versions of NBA Live, NBA 2K, and old school basketball video games in general. You’ll also find old NLSC editorials re-published with added commentary, and other flashback content. This week, I’m taking a look back at 10-Man Freestyle in NBA Live 2004.
Over the years, we gamers have become more and more familiar – and thus, more and more obsessed – with the technical aspects of video games. In particular, we concern ourselves with the engine that games run on, and lament it when we feel that a title is using outdated or unsuitable technology. There are times that we probably assume too much knowledge in this regard, but it’s not always our fault. Developers are always touting the benefits of the tech they use, especially as we find ourselves on the brink of a new generation (as is the case right now).
Of course, technological advancements aren’t limited to next gen launches. During the course of a generation, we’ll see engines and motion systems replaced and revamped, with mixed results. A recent example would be the motion system introduced in NBA 2K18, giving the game an obviously different feel to NBA 2K17. We’re going a bit further back with the topic of this week’s Wayback Wednesday however, as I’ll be talking about 10-Man Freestyle in NBA Live 2004. Let’s take a look back…way back…
As I’ve previously covered here in Wayback Wednesday, and in my 25th Anniversary of NBA Live retrospective, NBA Live 2003 introduced us to Freestyle Control. It’s not a stretch to say that it revolutionised dribbling mechanics, giving us more control than ever before when it came to executing specific moves. It also included the ability to choose which hand we used for a steal attempt, as well as adopt a defensive stance and raise a player’s arms to challenge a shot without jumping for a block. The fact that these concepts are still utilised in modern games is a testament to what good ideas they were, and how there was a time when NBA Live truly was an innovative title.
Naturally, there was room for improvement. On top of further expanding the controls, the rest of the game’s tech also needed to evolve. In particular, games from that era had very basic collisions and physics. Aside from contextually appropriate two-man animations, players tended to collide like tin cans, and steals occurred too easily upon bumping into each other. I know that we still have gripes about body steals in recent NBA 2K games, but back then, the primitive player physics made things even worse. It felt as though there were a force field around players, with little interactions beyond hard fouls, boxing out, backing down defenders, and other two-man animations.
Artificial intelligence was also an issue. One of the things that you’ll notice in older basketball games is the tendency for players to just stand around, and pass the ball back and forth somewhat aimlessly until taking a shot as the 24-second clock winds down. In other words, they’re not really playing with much of a purpose. Calling plays would help out with movement, but players didn’t really have a brain. Once again, I know that these are complaints we make about recent games as well, but if you do go back and dust off titles from the early 2000s and before, you can see just how far the AI in sim-oriented titles has come. NBA Live 2003 was no different in that regard.
That’s where 10-Man Freestyle comes in. Just as Freestyle Control revolutionised the dribbling mechanics, 10-Man Freestyle sought to enhance player movement, physics, and AI. It also included some further expansion to Freestyle Control, specifically the ability to switch control to an off-ball player and let the AI take care of ballhandling duties. This was achieved by pressing the right stick button, and then one of the face buttons to switch to another player. While controlling a player off-ball, you were able to set picks, call for passes, perform elusive moves, and command teammates to shoot or dunk. It’s functionality that we take for granted now, but it was innovative then.
There were some other additions to the controls such as the ability to adjust shots in midair (Freestyle Air) and manually perform pro hop and power dribble moves, with both being important improvements. However, 10-Man Freestyle is what brought it all together, enhancing the feel, physics, and movement of the game. This began with the new motion capture technique, which as the name suggests, involved capturing the movements of all ten players on the floor. This meant that players away from the ball would move around and battle each other for position. Gameplay was no longer just about the scenario taking place between the current ballhandler and their defender.
Post players tried to outmuscle each other to establish or deny position on the low block. Players would cut and try to break free of each other, keeping their eye on the ball. When players collided, they would bump each other and lose balance. It was possible to overpower or outfox defenders, as well as properly impede and shut down offensive players. Midair collisions looked a lot better, and less like two tin cans running into one another. True, there were no ragdoll physics and the animations were still somewhat canned, but it was a huge improvement on previous games. It made NBA Live 2004 the first NBA Live title to have anything resembling modern physics.
The AI still had its quirks and limitations, and you were still better off running the point yourself, but CPU teammates would look to make moves with and without the ball. Gameplay was a bit fast out of the box, but with the appropriate tweaks to the sliders – another new addition in NBA Live 2004 – it was possible to have a realistic and fun game of virtual basketball. The new tech laid the groundwork for some of the improvements in future games as far as player weight, physics, and collisions, off-ball and on-ball AI, procedural awareness, and so on. Along with the expanded controls, it heralded the beginning of what I feel was NBA Live’s brief second Golden Age.
With that being said, 10-Man Freestyle in NBA Live 2004 still had its problems. The new motion capture techniques may have enhanced player interactions, but some of the animations were clunky. Notably, NBA Live 2004 features the infamous hunched over dribbling animations that have made their way into a few NBA Live titles since. Player models and even faces weren’t quite as good as they had been in NBA Live 2003, marking the first time that the series had taken a noticeable step backwards in its visuals. Models and faces were greatly improved in NBA Live 2005, which also utilised 10-Man Freestyle, but the tech did initially result in a visual downgrade.
NBA Live 2005 was the last game to advertise 10-Man Freestyle as a feature, though the controls and other tech that it introduced were clearly present in other sixth gen NBA Live titles (and the subsequent PC ports). Mechanics such as Freestyle Air were also expanded to include the ability to manually attempt a rebound, tip-in, or putback dunk. As for NBA Live 2004, while we had our complaints about the visuals – the size of the players’ “clown shoe” feet was a common gripe – many of us really enjoyed the gameplay, and appreciated how the new tech gave it a much better feel than NBA Live 2003. There was still room for improvement, but it was also a major upgrade.
It just goes to show that features like 10-Man Freestyle are more than just marketing gimmicks. We’re understandably suspicious and cynical about the catchy trademarked names given to game engines and tech, but there are examples of them delivering on their promises. I would suggest that 10-Man Freestyle is definitely one such example. While its tech has been surpassed in the years since, it’s nevertheless a milestone as far as being an innovation that lived up to the hype and pushed basketball gaming forward. As a new generation looms, I hope that forthcoming tech is more like 10-Man Freestyle, and less like EA Sports IGNITE…but that’s a topic for another time.