Wayback Wednesday: Freestyle Air in NBA Live

Wayback Wednesday: Freestyle Air in NBA Live

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! From retrospectives of basketball games and their interesting features, to republished articles and looking at NBA history through the lens of the virtual hardwood, Wednesdays at the NLSC are for going back in time. This week, I’m taking a look back at Freestyle Air in NBA Live.

The entire history of basketball video games provides us with countless examples of developers striving for deeper controls. From the addition of sprint and steal buttons, to right stick dribbling and advanced shot types, the games have evolved to give us more and more control over the action. In the early to mid 2000s in particular though, we saw major additions and frequent changes as developers attempted to implement mechanics that were long-term solutions, or could pave the way for them. Dual analog gamepads becoming the standard peripheral also freed up buttons for new functions.

When NBA Live 2003 introduced us to right stick dribbling with Freestyle Control, it was indeed a revolution. The ability to perform specific moves on cue instead of just having to hope for the best with our press of a generic dribble moves button changed basketball gaming forever. However, while it was vital that we had more control over fundamentals such as dribbling, stealing, and stance, we also needed to direct the action when we left the virtual hardwood, and that’s where Freestyle Air comes in. Let’s take a look back…way back…

Freestyle Air was a key addition to gameplay in NBA Live 2005. NBA Live 2003 had introduced right stick dribbling with Freestyle Control. NBA Live 2004 had further refined Freestyle, while also separating shooting into separate buttons: one for dunks and layups, the other for jumpshots. The overhaul to animations, AI, and physics that came with 10-Man Freestyle meant that physicality in the paint could now force an adjusted shot. We could also hit the dunk/layup button again in midair to anticipate contact and manually adjust our attempt. As cover player Vince Carter demonstrated in the attract mode reel, tip dunks were performed with the turbo and rebound buttons.

Tip Attempt Using Freestyle Air (NBA Live 2005)

While the ability to adjust shots in midair was new – at least to the NBA Live series – the tip dunks were a variation of a familiar mechanic. Tip-ins and tip dunks were possible in many basketball games to that point, though we didn’t always have precise control over them. If a player happened to be in position to attempt a tip or putback, it often happened automatically when jumping for a rebound. The method in NBA Live 2004 offered slightly more control over that action, but it was also too easy to attempt a tip dunk when you just wanted to grab the board. Come NBA Live 2005, Freestyle Air provided us with full control over the glass, as well as better shot adjustments.

The approach of double tapping the dunk/layup button to adjust your shot in midair was retained, but new animations added moves that were both elusive and realistic. Meanwhile, tip dunks were now attempted by moving towards the basket with the left stick and pressing the dunk/layup button. Tip-ins were attempted using the shoot button, while the rebound/block button retained its traditional function of leaping to snare the board. They were straightforward changes that built upon existing control concepts, but they greatly improved our ability to make midair adjustments, and going to work on the offensive glass now produced results that didn’t feel nearly as random.

As you might expect, Freestyle Air was well-received. It was a significant addition to the controls in NBA Live 2005, without compromising the existing mechanics. No functionality had to be sacrificed in order to implement the new offensive rebounding controls, and the adjusted shot mechanic was identical, resulting in minimal (if any) frustration, and an acceptable learning curve. There probably were some gamers that preferred to simply move towards the rim and hit rebound to perform a tip dunk, and that approach had worked well in NBA Live 2004. It wasn’t much of an adjustment to press dunk/layup instead though, and I don’t recall vocal objections to Freestyle Air.

Adjusted Layup by LeBron James in NBA Live 2005

In addition to seamlessly fitting in with the established mechanics, Freestyle Air also proved to be built for the future. The addition of Freestyle Superstars in NBA Live 06 didn’t affect Freestyle Air, nor did it interfere with the new special moves. Even when NBA Live 07 made the ill-fated jump to three separate shoot buttons, the offensive rebounding controls introduced in NBA Live 2005 remained unaffected; at least on PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC. The Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 versions of NBA Live 08 and NBA Live 09 more or less phased out Freestyle Air. With NBA Live 10’s return to a single shoot button, tips-ins and putbacks were simplified as in earlier games.

On the flipside, several NBA 2K games demonstrated that a simple approach to the offensive glass can work just fine, provided the mechanics are sound and there are suitable animations. In recent games, the straightforward approach of grabbing boards with the block/rebound button, attempting a tip with the shoot button, and trying for a tip dunk with shoot and sprint together, is generally effective. It also has the benefit of contextual moves. For example, if you attempt a putback in a recent NBA 2K and it isn’t feasible once you corral the board, your player will try for a tip/layup instead. If you mistimed a tip dunk attempt with Freestyle Air, you’d miss the board completely.

Nevertheless, there was satisfaction in the risk/reward factor that came with having the precision of separate buttons for different moves. There was no guarantee that a tip or putback dunk attempt would be successful, and the defense could still swat them away or prevent them with a good boxout. However, you would either succeed or fail at the move you intended, rather than the game deciding that you’d attempt something else. Perhaps Freestyle Air wouldn’t work as well today and wouldn’t be necessary, but in its time, it was a great solution. It stands as yet another example of how NBA Live was continuing to innovate and improve in its second Golden Age.

Rebounding Battle in NBA Live 2005

I know I’ve covered this issue in previous articles and on the NLSC Podcast, but it does bear repeating. There’s a falsehood, mostly perpetuated by gamers who either didn’t play NBA Live during its heyday, abandoned it early on for NBA 2K, or just don’t like EA Sports, that NBA 2K came along in 1999 and immediately made NBA Live irrelevant. Up until the mid 2000s, there were some excellent NBA Live games that more than held their own against all competition. They did so because the series introduced right stick dribbling and continued to expand upon its controls, while also enhancing the franchise experience and adding modes such as the All-Star Weekend.

That constant improvement is what had made NBA Live the premier brand in the 90s, and of course the same dedication ultimately paid off for NBA 2K as well, especially when NBA Live did stumble during the jump to the seventh generation. To that point though, Freestyle Air is probably one of the last gameplay additions in NBA Live that gamers would almost unanimously agree was a great idea. Freestyle Superstars is a concept that drew mixed reactions, and is generally looked upon as a creative stepping stone towards signature moves, rather than an idea that worked out as well as planned. Multiple shoot buttons were also abandoned, and tech like Quick Strike didn’t last.

It’s also interesting to look back at how “Freestyle” was becoming NBA Live’s brand across the board, similar to NBA 2K’s “My” branding for its modes and features. Again, we began with Freestyle Control – a name that also came back into use during the eighth generation NBA Lives – and over the years had Freestyle Air, Freestyle Superstars, Total Freestyle Control, and Freestyle Passing with the right analog stick. Although some gamers may find this branding in NBA Live and NBA 2K to be a bit corny or gimmicky, I actually kind of enjoy it. It’s quite useful when referring to specific concepts, from Freestyle and Isomotion dribbling to the current Pro Stick.

Dwyane Wade in NBA Live 06

Just seeing the name “Freestyle Air” takes me back to a time when NBA Live was in a Golden Age, and our community was looking forward to playing and modding the new game every year. Although previous games had drawbacks and missteps here and there, we hadn’t yet been burned by gimmicky buzzwords and marketing spin. We didn’t just accept everything uncritically, but hearing that the controls were going to be expanded with a feature called Freestyle Air inspired intrigue. EA Sports had won back the trust of simheads with NBA Live 2004, and NBA Live 2005 rewarded that trust with further enhancements to modes, controls, and other gameplay elements.

Of course, I’m also reminded of some of the quirky moments that came with Freestyle Air’s added control on the offensive glass. I recall a game after signing Keon Clark in my Chicago Bulls Dynasty wherein he rapidly racked up offensive boards on a series of unsuccessful tip attempts. Because offensive interference wasn’t accounted for, it was possible to take the ball off the rim for a second, third, fourth, and sometimes even fifth chance at scoring, padding your rebounding stats all the while. In fact, while shooting around in practice mode, or The Temple in NBA Live 06 for Xbox 360, I’ll make a game out of seeing how many tips I can attempt before one goes in!

In an era where there’s so much talk about stick skills and the importance of skill gaps for competitive online play, we must recognise that basketball games have been trying to give us in-depth control over the action for over two decades. As I noted, the early 2000s saw some great innovations thanks to a new generation of tech, and dual analog controllers becoming ubiquitous. Not every idea from this era panned out, but some laid the foundation for even better solutions. Freestyle Air was a successful idea, at least in the short term. It was a step forward without taking a step back; an impressive feat when so many new mechanics make missteps, or are divisive when they debut.

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