Is ’07 B-Ball Heaven?

Amongst the EA Sports franchises, the one that usually gets the most media attention is the Madden series of games, mainly because the series embodies everything that many sports gamers like (and hate) about the EA formula for sports games. However, it would be folly to assume that EA Sports would only seek to dominate the field of video game football – otherwise, other EA Sports franchises such as the NBA Live series wouldn’t be popular enough to receive yearly updates. EA Sports is at it again with NBA Live ‘07, and while NBA Live ‘06 was all about the graphics and making them look like they belong on a next-gen game machine, this time around the improvements will be all about the gameplay.

            Make no mistake about it – NBA Live ‘06 was a pretty-looking game, as our own review of it attests, and Live ‘07 will be no exception in the graphics department. Expect the same level of graphical detail in Live ‘07 – however, there will be some graphical improvements that have a direct bearing on the gameplay. One area where this will be the case is in player animations: animations for each player have been rebuilt from the ground up, with such realistic additions as player momentum factored in. Instead of having players able to stop immediately like in previous iterations of NBA Live, they have to come to a complete stop naturally, countering their own momentum. Players can’t immediately shift from one action to another either, this time around – in order to take a shot after running, for example, the players have to physically plant their feet and turn towards the basket, as opposed to just instantly taking a shot. What this means in practical terms is that the ratings for each player now play a bigger role, thanks to these updated animations – each player will be faster or slower when taking their appropriate actions depending on their rating, and it will be reflected in their animations.

            One other area of gameplay that’s getting some tweaks is control, and the biggest addition to the control scheme this time around is what EA is calling Total Freestyle Control. To put it in its simplest terms, Total Freestyle Control uses the right analog stick in conjunction with the left bumper to pull off each individual player’s special moves. These moves correspond with whatever roles a player is good at, with five roles a player can fill (and each player capable of fulfilling more than one role) –  playmaker, scorer, high flyer, shooter, and post. Each player is graded in the roles they can fulfill from 1 to 3, and the higher the level, the more moves they have available to them. Players can cycle through the roles of a particular player on the court with the right bumper, and then pull off whichever moves are available to that player in that role by using the aforementioned left bumper-right analog stick combo. These moves have commands not unlike fighting games: quarter-circle and half-circle motions, like Ryu’s fireballs in the Street Fighter series, are utilized on the right analog stick for the more crowd pleasing dunks, for example.

            The Dynasty mode familiar to veterans of the NBA Live series will be getting some updates as well, and the biggest change will be in the level of control players will have over their teams through a 25-year term. In Live ‘07, players will be able to control their franchise from the pre-season, to the regular season, playoffs and off-season, with even the NBA Draft included. Also new is the ability to hire an assistant head coach, whose role is to gauge team chemistry and make sure the team plays together well, as players’ individual needs will affect how the team plays overall.

            Perhaps the biggest change to the NBA Live series to come with Live ‘07 is the much-touted ESPN integration. This new feature will allow players to check out ESPN basketball news via a real time news ticker, articles, podcasts, ESPN Motion (streaming video) and audio updates. I know what you’re thinking – what’s the point of having such a system integrated into the game, when most players would rather fire up their computers or watch plain old TV to get their ESPN news? Turns out that these ESPN integration features will be integral to the Dynasty mode. In Dynasty mode, there will be a rumors area, which will help players determine which basketball players might be on the market soon; your assistant head coach can research these rumors to determine if the new players on the market will be a good fit for your team.

            With other minor gameplay tweaks and fixes, such as fixing the camera, NBA Live ‘07 is shaping up to be a solid follow-up to last year’s game. Let’s hope that upon its release, NBA Live ‘07 delivers enough new content and gameplay features to truly differentiate itself from its basketball game brethren, and deliver a true next-gen sports experience.

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