EA’s NBA Live series hasn’t exactly been the go-to option for basketball fans for quite a few years. Having been largely overshadowed by the NBA 2K series, this year the developers were on a mission to reassert themselves as a dominant franchise once again. With reworked gameplay, ramped up presentation, and a desire to present fans of the sport and hoops culture alike a game that would redefine what the brand “NBA Live” meant, EA Canada put everything they had on the table in the hopes that Live would once again be king of the court. NBA Live 10 is a tremendous step in the right direction for the series, and for the first time in years, 2K’s got something to worry about.
For the past few years, NBA Live has been sorely lacking in the gameplay department. One of the franchise’s biggest innovations, Dynamic DNA, made its debut last year to great success. It returns again this year, slightly tweaked and improved, providing players and teams with true-to-life AI. Utilizing seven categories representing their abilities for things like posting up, spotting up, and off-ball movement to define a player’s tendencies, Live is able to create a player rating system that makes for a surprisingly accurate gameplay experience. Dynamic DNA’s presence is felt throughout the game, and is even worked into the new play-calling system. With just a tap of the top R-button, the game will instantly set a play designed specifically for your top scorer in motion. Live has plenty of other plays as well, which are accessed by hitting the top L-button. Each team has a series of specific plays you can use devoted to each player on the court. As soon as you select one, you’ll see your teammates start moving around trying to get in position. When they are, the pass button icon pops up over their heads, letting you know it’s all right to feed them the ball. It’s a nice touch, and for newcomers, it’s an excellent way to learn the ins and outs of running an NBA offense.
Even if you don’t want to take the time to learn plays that require you to move the ball around before taking a shot, learning how to run the pick and roll properly is vital for success. Thankfully, Live makes it really easy for players to run screen plays. By holding down the O-button, the game intelligently selects a teammate near you to run over and set a pick. They’ll stand in position as long as you continue to hold the button down, but as soon as you let it go, they’ll break off either towards the basket, or simply roll away from you depending on what the defense is doing. It’s an easy way to get a man open or streaking to the basket, and after running it a few times, it becomes clear how Stockton and Malone were able to make a career out of that one simple maneuver. Now that’s not to say the defense won’t adapt. They will, and they will do it quickly if you’re making use of it a lot. The same can be said of any play. Live 10’s adaptive intelligence is pretty remarkable, particularly on higher difficulty levels. You’ll find that lanes you were able to cut through with ease early in a game close up nearly immediately as the game progress, and computer players will become more aggressive in attacking passes if they sense you’re just going through the same motions over and over again.
Even when you’re not running a set play, you’ll notice that the players on the court not under your control finally move with a purpose. Unlike previous years where computer controlled pros lifelessly strolled around the court, this edition of Live has much improved player movement. There is hardly a moment during a real game when players aren’t jockeying for position, and the Live series has never done a beter job of replicating that sense of urgency in-game. EA Canada truly went the extra mile in providing real off-ball movement, including players popping up at the top of the key, setting screens for one another, and having big men back down their opponents beneath the hoop while calling for the ball. Providing that sense of realism goes a long way for a title that’s struggled to win over an audience as demanding as NBA fans are, and the way each game moves and feels in Live 10 is much more natural than anything they’ve done in the last five or so years.
To make things even more immersive, there are a slew of new features devoted to the ball handler. Bringing the ball up court has never been easier or more intuitive in a Live game. Ball-handling moves are mapped to the R-stick, and depending on a player’s ability, he can either string together a highlight reel-worthy combo on their way to the basket, or cross a defender up so bad he’ll slip, freeing the player for an open jump shot. Users will also have the ability to size up an opponent for a one-on-one opportunity. Simply pulling the R-trigger when you’re standing still with the ball, facing up an opponent, causes you to immediately size him up. What that means is the player you’re controlling drops down into a low, controlled dribble in an effort to draw your defender in so that you can blow past him with any number of offensive moves. Just what you’re able to accomplish with any given player is representative of his DNA. More versatile players like Kobe or LeBron gain an advantage as they have the ball skills of a point guard, but they’re matched up defensively against typically slower or smaller opponents that lack the agility to contain them, whereas trying to size someone up with Shaq isn’t likely to get you anything other than a turnover or an offensive foul.
Of all the offensive upgrades, perhaps the most innovative new mechanics are the Direct Pass/Freestyle Passing controls. While EAC has put a lot of research into the set plays that each team can run, improvisation is encouraged. In previous incarnations of the title, passing was either context sensitive or icon based. In Live 10, those options return, but you’re less likely to rely on them once you get the hang of Freestyle Passing. When holding down the L-trigger, passing is handled on the fly by flicking the R-stick in the direction of any player. While on paper it may sound like a modified version of icon passing, which in truth it is, Freestyle Passing is the most fluid passing system I’ve ever used in a basketball game. That’s due largely to the smoothness of the controls, and the way computer control easily transitions from player to player depending on who has the ball. Complimenting Freestyle is Direct Pass control, which enables you to take control of a player not currently handling the ball, and move him around the court until you find an opening by simply holding down the L-trigger and that particular player’s assigned button. As soon as you’re confident with his positioning, releasing the L-trigger causes the person previously handling the ball to pass to the person you just got open instantly. Just like the new dribbling controls, some players will thrive offensively thanks to these new options, while others will turn the ball over trying to get too cute. It’s difficult to get a handle on at first, but by your third or fourth game, you’ll find yourself wondering why it took so long for someone to put a control scheme like this into the game.
Once you’ve moved the ball around, and gotten into position to score, there are multiple ways for you to put some points on the board. Gone away are separate buttons for different types of shots. Every shot you take is made with the press of one button. Perimeter shots provide you with the least amount of variation, but are the prime example of EA’s devotion to ridding Live of as many canned animations as possible. Shooters will not release until you release the shoot button, and their positioning can change mid-air depending on whether or not you’re pressing the L-stick. You even have the option of trying to make your shot off the glass by continuing to hold the L-stick in any direction after you’ve let your shot go. There’s a slightly more branching path available should you choose to drive to the hole. Player posture has been mapped to the L-stick, and once you’re in the air for a lay up, adjusting your shot should a defender get in your way is as simple as flicking the stick in any direction. Dunks are handled by holding in the R-trigger as you shoot near the basket, but know that the defense’s upgraded ability to block any and all shots includes dunks. There are no instant buckets anymore, and it’s gameplay changes like this that prove just how serious EAC is about giving people a completely new and improved NBA Live.
Post play has received a change on both sides of the ball, but it’s still one of the weaker elements of Live 10. Instead of adding a button modifier to cause a player to enter into a backdown move set, Live uses an intuitive approach in which the game determines when you start posting up a defender. Most of the time it works properly, but you will have instances where the man you’re controlling inexplicably stands upright or turns into his defender. It happens more with players who aren’t as capable beneath the basket, but with the developers including a button modifier for perimeter dribbling, I have to wonder why they didn’t include one for post play. When you’re posting up someone, and it’s working properly, the moves at your disposal the devs smartly mapped to the R-stick feel spot on. With just a flick left, right, up, or down, you can access any number of moves depending on the skill set of the player you’re using. There’s quite a marked difference between working your man with a player like Garnett or Gasol versus someone like Samuel Dalembert. The more you play, the more you’ll notice the subtle nuances involved in controlling big men.
Defensively, post play is a struggle. Without the ability to manually plant a defender’s feet, your ability to defend depends on the computer’s intelligence a bit too much. Reliance on the computer seems to be the biggest problem with the defense as a whole in Live 10. There are a limited number of tools at your disposal when defending, and it’s strange considering just how much went into providing the offense with a laundry list of moves for their arsenal. Outside of trying to take a charge or swiping for a steal, there’s not much you can do as an individual defender. Calling for a double team or help is as simple as hitting a button, but most of the time you’ll be left to your own devices. I found myself struggling to generate turnovers without being able to get in the face of the man I was covering. Luckily, the rest of my computer-controlled defense was serviceable. The AI doesn’t play great, but they're smart enough to keep games close as long as you don’t blow it offensively. A large part of the AI’s strength comes in the form of what was previously a major liability: rebounding.
Rebounding is one of the most important fundamentals in basketball. Limiting second chances on defense, and keeping the ball alive on offense, can mean the difference between a win and a loss. For the first time in a number of years, the computer is no longer completely useless when it comes to cleaning the glass. With the amount of misses you’ll have on higher difficulties, the new rebounding AI is crucial, and much welcomed. Your AI players will box out, fight for the ball in the air, and try to tip the ball to either themselves or another teammate. Depending on their positioning, they might also tip it in or dunk it off the bounce. Should a ball escape the outstretched reach of those attempting to haul it in, players will scramble to recover it thanks to some new loose ball AI. Guys will dive to the floor, or jump awkwardly out of bounds in the hopes of saving the ball, but often their efforts will end up with the ball in the hands of the opposing team. It’s that same reckless abandon you’ll see during a real game, and seeing it in the game adds that much more to the virtual experience.
EA games have never been lacking in the presentation department, but this year’s NBA Live 10 takes it to a whole new level. As much as what’s happening on the court is extremely important to this game, there are a number of intangibles that Live incorporates to create one of the most accurate sports atmospheres in gaming to date. The first thing you’ll notice about the game is the reworked television presentation. EAC has created three different telecast situations for gameday: Season, Playoffs, and Finals. Whereas in past versions of the game the difference in crowd noise and visual overlays during the course of a full season were negligible at best, the developers of Live 10 made sure to differentiate what each and every arena feels like game to game. During the regular season, the broadcast presentation is typical of what you’d expect to see on your local sports network covering the game. Once you enter the playoffs, there are more elaborate player introductions, and home and away crowds react with much more passion then they did during the course of the previous 82 games. Should you progress to the NBA Finals, you’ll find the crowd reacts to each and every possession like their team’s season was on the line. Fans in attendance also have more personality than ever before. Reacting dynamically to particular players or plays, the crowd has never felt more alive in a sports video game. The first time you hear the boos when Vince Carter touches the ball when playing against the Raptors at the Air Canada Centre, or the “MVP!” chants for LeBron when he steps to the free-throw line, you’ll swear you were watching a real game.
Arenas themselves have unique personalities as well. Gone are the stock courts that appeared in previous incarnations of the title. Instead, the developers opted to travel around the league to each and every arena to capture the same lighting, music, and sound effects that make the in-person experience so memorable. The changes in lighting aren’t really noticeable unless you know what to look for, with the most obvious difference being the way the Staples Center has virtually no lighting on the crowd, focusing all the illumination on the court itself. Having all the unique sound cues of the real game only serves to add more depth to an already impressive package. Whether it’s the familiar “Wooo!” when Chris Paul scores, or the Steve Miller-esque sound played when Amare Stoudemire dunks in Phoenix, nearly every signature noise appears in Live 10. As for the play by play, Marv Albert and Steve Kerr lend their talents to the game’s commentary track, and while it's true the more you play of any sports game, the more you're likely to hear the same phrases over and over again, the duo has recorded plenty of interesting insights with enough variation that you won’t grow as tired of what they have to say nearly as quickly as you would with some other titles.
Players themselves have received a radical overhaul this year too. Rendered with the most detail and authenticity I’ve seen in a game to date, players in this year’s NBA Live look remarkable. Body types have been redefined to show a greater range of difference between the lankier forwards and those with a bit more meat on their bones. Even more interesting is the new FacePoser system. Adding more emotional depth to the game, the animation system allows for players to react to different game situations, like getting fouled or hitting a big shot, very much like they would in real life. Players will jaw with one another, pound their chests, or grimace in pain when fouled. These animations are highlighted during the new dynamic cut scene sequences. Replacing the derivative between-play scenes from last year that were triggered after nearly every basket or play, the new engine replicates a televised broadcast, calling for cut scenes only during more interesting moments during the flow of the game. It’s much less intrusive, and goes a long way towards providing a more natural feel.
There are a ton of new animations in this year’s game as well. Starting with the player introductions, where many of the big name players share their unique pre-game rituals, such as Dwight Howard’s imaginary post-up, you can see how much research went into providing in-game counterparts with the real player’s signature styles. Player physics are much improved on the court as well, and this year thankfully doesn’t rely on the same old canned animations that previous Lives have regurgitated ad nauseum. In fact, the only time I noticed repeated animations occurring was when a player was trying to stay in bounds on the baseline. It didn’t matter who the player was, if he came in contact with a defender at the edge of the court, the same animation of the ballhandler struggling to maintain possession while teetering on the boundary recurred. It’s odd that that this one particular instance caused the same thing to happen over and over again when so many other player interactions are completely different game to game. Also, despite EA’s best efforts to create realistic cloth movements with the uniforms, jerseys and shorts don’t quite look right in motion. There’s just something off about the way they move in response to player movement. Honestly though, there are hardly any other blemishes to the otherwise impressive system, and the moment you see a player driving to the hoop crash to the ground realistically, or see Steve Nash glide off a screen to maintain his coverage on defense, you’ll forgive these few nicks in the armor.
All of the factors above contribute to making all of the game modes Live 10 presents to gamers extremely fun to play no matter how you choose to spend your time playing. Offline, you’ll be able to enjoy the deep Dynasty mode, which rivals Madden as far as the options you have under your control, or FIBA World Championships, which replicates the global competition nearly perfectly. Returning to the online this year is the Dynamic Season, which utilizes EA’s Dynamic DNA to create an astoundingly up-to-date recreation of the actual NBA season. Statistics are updated according to the real life results, and you not only have a chance to try and reenact what truly happened, but you can also attempt to change the fate of your favorite team in the hopes of getting them to the post-season, while at the same time having your results tracked compared to the countless others playing online as well. If pick-up games are more your style, in addition to the usual ranked and unranked matches you can play alone or with up to nine other people, you can try your hand at a fantasy match, where you draft a line-up for a single game in the hopes that your all-star squad can take down another person’s. There’s another new game mode online called Adidas Live Run, but I wasn’t able to find a match to play. Live Run plays like a pick-up game at the YMCA. You can play with up to nine other people, each controlling one pro, in a game to 21. If you have a regular group of friends you want to play with, you can create a squad to compete in a season against other squads from around the globe. It’s very similar to what the NHL 10 series does with Be a Pro online, only it has a much more casual feel, despite the inherent competitive nature of the game.
It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed playing an NBA Live title as much as this one. EA Canada has taken huge steps to create one of the most impressive and enjoyable basketball titles in recent years, and if they’re able to continue and improve upon the core mechanics they’ve instituted this year, Live just might usurp NBA 2K’s throne in another year or two. It’s not quite there yet, though. Despite the vast improvements, it’s a bit rough around the edges, and the developers need to place the same attention to innovation they put on offense this year to defense next time to create a more well-rounded game. As it stands, NBA Live 10 is the best the franchise has been since, well, ever, and I hope that the series continues to evolve on its current path.