Monday, October 16, 2006

Belated NBA Live '07 Review

My last NBA Live review topped 3500 words, so I'll try my best to be more succinct with this one. And I understand if you don't care about this; feel free to skip it. I'll have a more accessible and fun update soon.

First off, it seems, more than ever, as if the Live haters have come out to play--critics and fans alike now argue that the 2K-whatever series is more realistic, that NBA '07's "The Life" feature is more entertaining and absorbing than any of Live '07's franchise options. And they may be right.

But here's what fans of those games don't get: Playing the NBA Live series is so second nature to me by now that asking me to switch is a lot like telling me I should try having sex with dudes. "Come on, man. Just try it. What do you have to lose? Try a dude. How would you know you liked chocolate if you never tried it?" That's not just a joke. Think about it. I've been playing Live since it debuted in 1995, and I was playing EA's Bulls Vs. Blazers games and stuff--Tom Chambers from the free throw line and whatnot--before that. So let's conservatively say that I started playing EA Sports basketball in '94 at the age of ten: I've been playing the game since before I was sexually attracted to women. That's how natural and deeply-rooted the controls of Live seem to me. Either I'd have to be really drunk or NBA 2K7 would have to be one smooth, James-Dean-looking video game to switch now.


Rocking Vernon Maxwell when the ladies still had cooties.

Since I've already said enough about myself, I could be brief and sum up the latest iteration of the franchise with the following review: It's pretty much the same but better in some ways and worse in others.

I know you though, gentle reader. You want that Jack Ramsay in-depth stuff.

GRAPHICS
The Playstation 2 graphics haven't improved at all. In fact, part of EA's presentation at the Electronics Expo this year was explaining how terrabull the PS2 graphics are compared to the upcoming PS3's look. For about five minutes, a developer outlined the wooden player likenesses and the lack of fluidity in players' movements. Thanks, guys. Good to see that you have pride for your project. The graphics aren't bad--I noticed some improvements in the arenas especially--but they're no longer the reason to buy this game.


Not only does T-Mac no longer look cro-magnon, he also got less sun for PS3.

MUSIC
I don't know. I don't even plug in the red and white cables usually.

That being said, I usually find one song that I like/laugh at and turn all the other ones off. For instance, in 2004, I listened to the Twista and Hot Karl songs continually ("I'll be hoopin' with the Knicks all night/'Cuz I be producin' with Houston and rollin' with Spree/And plus, thinkin' Antonio McDyess is so nice with the pee-ill"). In 2005, I put the Jazze Pha abortion on repeat. I haven't found a song of that caliber yet.

The smooth in-game commentary is by Marv Albert and Steve Kerr. Although Kerr seems to say the word "execution" in almost every one of his lines, this announcing seems less scripted than any other game I've ever played. There are less "a spec-tac-ular move" or "serving up the facial" money shots from Marv, but the details are right on. EA even mastered the Marv Albert faux-befuddled, "But...Steve--why would you mention that Gilbert Arenas played for Arizona? Is that...significant for some reason?"

PLAY CONTROL
These game companies always try to get you to think that the accuracy of their player movements are nonpareil, that it's as if we're watching live TV. These aren't cartoons we're dealing with, buddy. EA called up real players, (Boris Diaw and Pau Gasol this year, since Americans don't look like basketball players?) wrapped them in lycra suits, glued sensors on them, and fed their movements into a computer to map them exactly. Like this:


"Boris, we are electronically accounting for every inch of your body so that we can have unparallaled realism. Yes, we can lower the rim a bit."

But has anyone ever wondered how this gets us realism across the board? I guess motion-capturing, or "mo-capping" for the truly dorky, gets us perfect results in the case of those two players. But, thankfully, not everyone in the NBA is a 6'8" spidery Frenchman. It's probably hurting EA to use Diaw's movements to draw up, say, Iverson. Just a small point that this more of a publicity tactic than an actual game development tool.

Mo-capped or not, video game ballers still have the same problems. The lack of fast breaks is frustrating because video ballers pull up at the three-point line, not having been taught to run in lanes like every fourth grader who plays organized ball. EA has gotten better with rebound physics though. There are many more long rebounds than there used to be.

The gameplay innovations are a toss-up. While the guardplay is more realistic, with players hand-checking and riding each other up the court, handling with the far hand instead of spinning all over the place, the big men are harder to control than ever. Gone are the built-in post moves and Hakeem-esque pivots that made the game so fun two years ago. It's hard to even back another player down in the post.

More fouls are called, but that's probably negligible since you can adjust it in your options. While we're on the subject of options though, the menu design is really lacking. For example, it takes about four button strokes to see how many timeouts each team has. Shouldn't this just be on the pause screen the way it always has been? Are we regressing here?

And don't try to take a charge. Ever. It's not worth it. You won't get the call.

You're decidedly less valuable in NBA Live. But not in my heart. Daddy.

THE BIG CHANGES

The two most significant innovations, the reasons you've been told to buy the game, are (1) the new free throw shooting controls and (2) "superstar icons." Allow me to explain.

1. Rather than lining up arrows are timing placement of bars, the player now shoots free throws by pulling down on the right analog stick and pushing up on it when the player reaches the top of his stroke. This adds that sense of rhythm and muscle memory so important to free throw shooting, but I'm not good at it, so I'll give it a failing grade. LOLZ.

2. In the past, if someone was rated above 80 in a category, he got an icon for gameplay. Thus, my mastery of Jon "Bloodbath" Barry. Although he wasn't an effective all-around player, he had a three-point icon; so if you learned the timing of his stroke, you could bomb from the outside all day. Now, players still have these Superstar Icons (TM), but you can't have more than one at a time. Believe it or not, this penalizes really good players because you have to switch back and forth from their Superstar talents, depending on what you want to do. For instance, Kobe has about four Superstar Icons--high flyer, three-point shooter, passer, and outside shot or some shit. So if I steal a pass with him and am racing to the rack on a fast break, I have to switch icons a bunch of times until I get the one I need to throw down a nice dunk. Whereas if I were playing with Josh Smith, I would automatically have the high-flyer Superstar Icon at all times. See?

Also, those ratings make no sense. EA rates players in over eighty-five categories in the interest of having a more accurate reflection of a player's total contribution to his team. But should a player be expected to be good at everything? Is Steve Nash (who is given a generous 75 defense score) any worse of a player because he has a low "layup to dunk frequency," whatever that is? Perhaps it's better if EA just says, "Oh, Nash? He's probably about a 90." and rates him as such, the way they used to? On one hand, this leads to Shaq only being rated in the high-eighties, which is a long time coming, but it also creates problems wherein a specialist is rated lower than he should be because he doesn't have inside post moves, when he was never meant to in the first place.

Once again, the folks over at EA, the same geniuses who placed the Utah Jazz in the cream of the Western Conference crop last year, have no idea what they're doing as far as team rankings go. Put it this way: Your New York Knicks are a 92. Although as Jalen said, "I put us in NBA Live, and we weren't that bad."

PERSONAL NOTES
At the end of the day, sports simulations are all about the franchise modes, all about putting together pieces and feeling, just for a second, like more than a fan. I'm currently 21-1 with the Hornets, and here's my rotation, since I've been getting so many E-Mails about it and all.

C- Dwight Howard
PF- Pau Gasol
SF- Peja Stojakovic
SG- Jonathan Clay Redick
PG- Chris Paul

PG- Bobby Jackson
SF- Toni Kukoc
C- Darko Milicic
C- Mark "Mad Dog" Madsen
PF- Hilton Armstrong

Plus some dumb bums who never play. Yes, I'm putting all my shooting guard eggs in the JJ basket, despite the fact that he's not even a shooting guard in the first place. But I think I can make a title push with this team. Of course, I created Birdman (Blinn CC is in EA's database of schools, so they definitely expect people to do this.), but you can't use created players in franchise mode. Jon "Bloodbath" Barry has sadly retired.


Bloodbath is now contemplating a career in broadcasting. A career in broadcasting is to retired NBA players as law school is to people with which I went to high school.

Video game franchises also afford many opportunities not available in real life. When I traded Desmond Mason, I still had two games with him on a road trip before he was sent to Memphis, so I spent those two games actively trying to injure him before I handed him to my division rival. If only you could do that in real life. I traded Mason because he wasn't happy with his minutes, which your team chemistry ratings inform you. I doubt there would have been real consequences had I kept him though. It's not like he would have started wearing his iPod during warm-ups.

This is the best though. Trying my hand at the all-star difficulty, I ran the '80s All-Stars versus the Knicks. On a breakaway, I laid it in with Isaiah Thomas, only to hear Kerr say, "Isaiah must be furious. He needs to call a timeout," of course referring to present Coach Thomas' reaction concerning '80s Thomas. Isaiah even has the ability to piss himself off.

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