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 NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360, and following up on my previous retrospective of the game.
When I covered NBA Live 06 as part of my retrospectives for the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, I noted that the PC/current gen release and the Xbox 360 version received very different responses. NBA Live 06 on PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox was generally well-regarded, whereas the Xbox 360 release is seen as the beginning of the series’ downfall. I would still agree with that assessment, but as I mentioned in Episode #363 of the NLSC Podcast, I’ve been having some second thoughts about the quality of the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06.
That’s not to say that I think it’s the best game in the series, or that it wasn’t a major misstep in many ways. However, after firing up the game as part of my research for an article, I ended up playing a full game and really enjoyed myself. Considering that I described NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360 as having vastly inferior gameplay to the PC version in my aforementioned retrospective, it prompted me to spend some more time with the game and see if my opinion of it changed. Obviously it still has many issues, but does the reputation of NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360 overshadow some of its good points? Let’s take a look back…way back…
Something that I did touch on in my retrospective, but arguably didn’t give enough credit to, is how good NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360 looks for a game that came out in 2005. It was a meritoriously significant jump from the previous generation. Newer games have naturally surpassed its graphics, but the arenas, jerseys, and especially some of the player faces are quite impressive, even today. The notion that “sweat equals Next Gen” has become something of a running gag, but in 2005, that was a huge innovation. The Temple is a very creative arena, and the ability to shoot around while a game was loading was a great idea, and one that’s frankly been underused.
What I’m getting at here, and what I neglected to emphasise in my retrospective, is that when NBA Live 06 for Xbox 360 was being previewed, there was legitimate hype for what we were seeing. Looking back, I don’t think that those of us who were focused on the PC version appreciated it enough, because it wasn’t something that we’d be getting to play; the more things change, the more they stay the same, right? The point is that graphically at least, the game was impressive, and it holds up respectably well years later. Again, many of the faces in particular are extremely accurate, and in some cases better than what we see today with actual face scanning.
Before I get into the areas where I find myself having second thoughts about the quality of NBA Live 06 on 360, I’ll cover some aspects where my earlier criticism still stands. Launching the game without the depth of the prior gen releases was a big mistake. Without Dynasty, All-Star Weekend, retro jerseys, and historical players, there was less content and modes to keep us hooked on the game. Leaving out a staple feature such as instant replay – by which I mean the extensive replay options in the pause menu – was baffling. There were some problems with player speed, and leaving out the new Freestyle Superstars mechanic from Current Gen was also a mistake.
And yet, after spending some more time with the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06, I must say that the gameplay is respectably solid. Yes, it does sometimes feel as though the players are too slow when you’re controlling them, while the CPU is seemingly a couple of steps quicker. However, player movement is generally fluid and responsive, especially compared to what happened the following year with NBA Live 07. The speed of the animations makes them look slightly more awkward than the PC/PS2 version, but looking back, I do feel I was too harsh on them in my retrospective. Not unlike more recent NBA Live games, when something looks good, it looks very good.
On top of that, there are moments on the sticks that feel extremely satisfying. I was surprised how effective jumpshots were, especially since that was the era of harsh luck on the dice roll, even with great shooters. Crossing up a defender and pulling up for a midrange jumpshot feels very smooth, and it’s a far more reliable strategy than I remembered. It doesn’t look at all bad, either! You can knock down threes if you pick your spots, and a marksman like Ray Allen can connect on some difficult looks. You do still have to pound the ball inside when you really need a bucket, but that’s neither completely unrealistic, nor was it significantly worse than it had been on prior gen.
NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360 benefitted from the same improvements to fast break logic as its Current Gen counterpart. For all the strong points of NBA Live 2005, one of the biggest drawbacks in gameplay was that fast breaks were sloppy. It was either too easy for the defense to catch up for contests and chasedown blocks, or the break fell apart because your CPU teammates didn’t run to the rim properly. Both versions of NBA Live 06 avoided those pitfalls, meaning when you get out on the break, you’re able to fire a crisp pass to a teammate who finishes with an emphatic dunk or crafty layup. Do some of the animations look primitive now? Yes, but they’re still satisfying.
The pace out of the box was somewhat frantic, but then the same could be said of the Current Gen version. I think it’s easy to forget that, because so many of us are used to playing NBA Live 06 PC with slider tweaks that fine-tuned the gameplay for a more realistic sim style. If you’re not bothered by some inflated scores and stats though, NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360 can be a blast to play. As I mentioned on the podcast, after letting an early lead slip in a game where I was playing with the Seattle SuperSonics against the Orlando Magic, I persevered and finally regained control late in the fourth quarter, holding on for a hard-fought comeback victory. It really was a lot of fun!
Now, there are a few factors to consider here. As I discussed in a Monday Tip-Off article, we can be kinder towards older games because they no longer carry the same expectations as when they were new. There’s also a difference in being able to enjoy revisiting a game to indulge in some nostalgia, and being able to make a title a regular part of your gaming rotation. At the same time, removing the expectations, hype, and hope that accompany games when they’re new can actually allow us to make a fairer appraisal of them. Once we’ve made peace with any frustrations and disappointment – essentially accepting a game for what it is or was – it’s easier to see its good points.
I would say that that’s what’s happened for me with NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360. I’m not saying that it’s actually one of the best games in the series. Even putting aside the lack of depth, there are issues with the gameplay, and others titles have provided a far superior experience on the virtual hardwood. However, I’ve gone from thinking that 06 on 360 wasn’t much fun to play on top of being bare-bones, to feeling that it’s actually a solid, enjoyable game that could’ve (and to be fair, should’ve) been a far better start to the generation. Unfortunately, there were too many issues and missteps with the lack of depth, and that greatly overshadows some of its better attributes.
In my previous retrospective, I commented that the game was too easy on Rookie and Starter, and too difficult on All-Star and Superstar. There’s definitely a noticeable difficulty spike between Starter and All-Star, but after I reacquainted myself with the gameplay – and avoided strategies that are more appropriate in newer, more advanced titles – it’s not as problematic as I previously thought. The lack of Freestyle Superstars moves increases the difficulty, as they were very useful in the prior gen version of NBA Live 06 when you desperately needed to score buckets in a hurry. However, you can rise to the challenge without it, and earn both hard-fought and blowout wins.
It’s fair to say that the difficulty on those higher levels feels rather artificial at times, especially without any slider tweaks. You’ll find that you miss easy layups, open jumpers, and even dunks, while CPU defenders stick to you like glue. Conversely, the AI is able to slip past your defenders fairly easily, effortlessly finishing at the rim and making tough shots with the defense draped all over them. Mind you, those criticisms could just as easily apply to NBA 2K21 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X as they do NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360. Indeed, revisiting the game is a reminder that for all the improvements to basketball games over the years, some issues persist to this day.
Despite moments of frustration, I’ve enjoyed going back and spending some more time with the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06. I can appreciate it for what it was, and I wouldn’t mind trying a few slider tweaks to see if its gameplay can be optimised as we accomplished on PC. As it is, out of the box it holds up better than I previously thought. I was even compelled to create and upload a couple of custom rosters! Of course, here I noticed a few other shortcomings. The face creation options aren’t too bad for 2005 – though players still look distinctly “created” – but there’s a lack of common hairstyles. This is another area where the prior gen version was deeper.
At the end of the day, a lack of depth is what earned the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06 its poor reputation. As I’ve noted, the gameplay is solid, and having given it more of a chance, it’s grown on me as far as a retro basketball gaming experience. In fact, looking back at the reviews from the time, there were some generally positive opinions about the gameplay, and the graphics were rightfully praised for improving upon its predecessors. It was the removal of modes and content that failed to impress critics and gamers alike. Without Dynasty, All-Star Weekend, Playoffs, or historical content, there’s not much to do except to play through the 2006 NBA season.
Ironically, there’s arguably some appeal in doing that these days as a streamlined retro gaming experience. It’s simply not enough depth for a basketball sim however, then or now, and certainly not for a launch title on a Next Gen console. NBA Live repeated this mistake with NBA Live 14 some eight years later. It had more modes than NBA Live 06 for Xbox 360, but they lacked the depth seen in other games in the series. It’s also much easier to revisit NBA Live 06 than NBA Live 14, as the gameplay holds up far better. To that end, we can see the importance of gameplay, but also the need for a title to be well-rounded with engaging modes and all of the expected staple features.
On that note, getting screenshots for this very article was more difficult than other games from that generation. I can hook up my Elgato just fine, but with no manual instant replay function, it’s virtually impossible to get the kind of shots that I wanted. Not porting Dynasty across from prior gen was a major blunder, but the lack of a well-established feature such as instant replay was inexcusable. Saving rosters is also clunky. There are multiple slots, but you can’t name the saves, and automatic saving means you have to be careful and think ahead before you start tinkering. It’s the little things like that, on top of the absences of major modes, which bring the game down.
With all that being said however, I do have to amend my stance on the game. I would still say that the PC version is better overall, having more depth, modes, and content, as well as some gameplay polish and innovations that were lacking on Xbox 360. At the same time, if the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 06 shared all of the features of the prior gen version, it would’ve been a strong start to the generation, and thus been received more positively. This makes it a huge “What If” for the series, as I believe it wouldn’t have fallen on such hard times if NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360 were deeper and had drawn more favourable reviews, encouraging EA to build on that foundation.
Still, NBA Live 06 for Xbox 360 is owed more credit than I previously gave it, which is why I felt compelled to follow up with this article. It just goes to show that even maligned games deserve a second look. Indeed, I may go back a third time to test out a few slider tweaks. Next Gen NBA Live 06 undoubtedly erred in a number of ways, and those problems were a setback that contributed to the downfall of a once very successful series. It is what it is, but it’s unfortunate that it overshadows aspects that were decent, even quite good. I’m glad that I’ve been able to appreciate those positive attributes after giving NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360 a second look, all these years later.