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 Procedural Awareness in NBA Live 07 for Xbox 360.
The Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 07 has the dubious reputation of being one of the worst games in the NBA Live series. My stance has slightly softened, if only because some of the eighth generation titles turned out to be considerably rough in their own right, not to mention disappointing given the advances in technology and expectations placed upon them. Nevertheless, while there’s a certain novelty in dusting it off, NBA Live 07 for Xbox 360 is not my first choice for retro basketball gaming. Unlike its immediate predecessor, it wasn’t a solid gameplay experience mired in controversy.
While the team at EA Canada did err in their attempts to rebuild the series with NBA Live 07, the game did feature a few meritorious technological improvements. Two of the most-hyped innovations during the preview season were foot-planting technology, and procedural awareness. The former didn’t pan out quite as well as hoped, as the improvements to foot-planting were offset by other animation issues. The latter wasn’t quite the game-changer we were hoping for either, but fortunately it didn’t have any adverse affects. What was it all about? Let’s take a look back…way back…
Simply put, procedural awareness was about giving players a brain. It’s difficult not to sound like marketing speak from a gameplay blog when I say that, but it’s the best way of describing the concept. The technology was intended to allow players to have awareness of what was going on around them, and make better decisions based on the current scenario rather than just standing around. It also meant keeping better track of the basketball, not only so they could react to the action as necessary, but also to be properly positioned and follow it with their eyes. All too often in games before NBA Live 07, players would stare off into the distance rather than actually watch the ball.
It’s something that basketball gamers had often noticed, especially during instant replays. However, it was very apparent during the NBA Live 07 tech demo at E3 2006. Ironically, although the PlayStation 3 version was used for the demonstration, it would ultimately be cancelled. In any event, the tech demo spotlighted the general lack of reaction and movement in the PS2 version of NBA Live 07, compared to the tech that was being worked on for the PS3 and Xbox 360 release. Next Gen T-Mac was clearly more responsive in his reactions, following the green crosshairs as it circled him, and watching the red crosshairs as it went flying past his shoulder.
Although the tech demo may look unimpressive now (and the quality of the video combined with bright lights doesn’t help), at the time it was a promising innovation. You can hear the audience laughing at the PS2 T-Mac barely paying attention to the crosshairs after seeing the responsiveness of his PS3 counterpart, not to mention the way he slides and snaps to 45 degree angles. In theory, the tech that EA were working on for NBA Live 07 was going to make the game look more realistic and feel much better on the sticks. As an aside, that video also seemingly reveals that the camera was originally going to pan in on Player One when they dunked in The Temple.
Of course, a tech demo and a work-in-progress glance at the game aren’t necessarily indicative of the final product. It’s fair to say that foot-planting was improved in NBA Live 07 on Xbox 360, but as I’ve noted, there was clunkiness to it. The smooth 360 degree movement was less apparent when players were dribbling, or transitioning into dunks, layups, and shooting animations. Mind you, the live demonstration using the work-in-progress build displayed some of that roughness, so that wasn’t altogether surprising. What about procedural awareness, though? It’s obviously harder to spot in-game compared to the isolated players in a tech demo, but was it at all noticeable?
Actually, yes! The tech demo perhaps oversells it, but you will notice players in NBA Live 07 on Xbox 360 looking around and watching the ball, following its trajectory on shots, and generally appearing more like they’re aware of their surroundings. It’s primitive, and the off-ball movement isn’t stellar – future titles would do a better job with freelance offense – but I would suggest that procedural awareness did succeed in giving players a brain, at least to some extent. There are moments where players are looking in the wrong direction, though that’s not necessarily unrealistic. It’s noticeably better than the procedural awareness on PS2, as well as NBA Live 06 on Xbox 360.
To that end, I’d have to disagree with the comments left on the tech demo video over on YouTube. Procedural awareness wasn’t a lie, and I don’t believe they dumbed down the PS2 version in the demo to make the new tech look better. I’m not saying that EA Sports and other developers/publishers are averse to such an approach, or similar tactics such as “bullshotting“. However, a simple comparison of the different versions of NBA Live 07 demonstrates that in the Xbox 360 release, players’ heads are on a swivel as they glance over at the ball when they’re on the weak side, and follow its movements. They’re a bit less robotic and more alive with the new tech.
Why the scepticism, then? Well, putting aside any bias against EA and NBA Live, the bottom line is that procedural awareness was a nice touch and a stepping stone, but it didn’t have a major impact on gameplay. More to the point, any positive impact it had paled in comparison to the issues with animations, physics, mechanics, and so on. Of course, the procedural awareness tech wasn’t responsible for these issues, but to that end, it felt less important and impressive; essentially, a gimmick. It was great that players were moving without the ball, but their head and eye movements were tough to appreciate outside of instant replay, and gameplay had too many other issues.
There were similar criticisms of Hot Spots in NBA Live 08, and even Player DNA in NBA Live 09. They had a more direct impact on gameplay than procedural awareness did, but their effectiveness was still hampered by other issues with controls and AI. Although the minutia and subtle effects go a long way in creating a great experience on the virtual hardwood, they’re also easily overshadowed by major flaws. When it’s difficult to make an explosive move in any direction, distinction in a player’s ability to finish left or right feels negligible. If locomotion and animations are rickety, you’re less likely to care that the players are tracking the ball with their head movements.
At the end of the day, there were too many other issues with NBA Live 07 to really appreciate procedural awareness. It’s unfortunate because it is nifty tech, and helped lay the foundation for players looking and feeling less robotic on the court. There’s a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to innovations in flawed games, to the point where good ideas can be downplayed. At the same time, it’s understandable that overwhelmingly negative impressions can distract us from positive aspects and concepts that have potential. When the overall product isn’t up to scratch, tech such as procedural awareness can easily be written off as gimmicky.
Nevertheless, the tech demo that showed off procedural awareness in NBA Live 07 stands out in my mind, as the side-by-side comparison is a memorable visual. It’s also a reminder that NBA Live 07 was originally planned for the PlayStation 3, and either cancelled due to development difficulties or poor reception to the other versions (or possibly a combination of both). For some people, the struggles of NBA Live over the years are an excuse to engage in ridicule; to point, laugh, and jeer. Personally, I feel there’s a lot of interesting history there, even amidst their shortcomings. Good ideas are worth salvaging from broken games, and the past illuminates the path forward.
Furthermore, these are the little touches that we take for granted in modern games. There was a time when players stood around unless you manually ran plays on every possession. They didn’t watch the ball – if indeed their eyes even moved – and too often stood around mindlessly. Procedural awareness was an attempt to change that. Good ideas don’t always pan out, especially in a game that has a lot of other issues, as was the case with NBA Live 07. They’re still worthy of recognition, and procedural awareness was such an idea. It was no lie, nor was it a useless gimmick. It was an admirable improvement; it just wasn’t enough to salvage such a flawed product.