What is it about next-generation games will define them as truly "next generation"? If you ask the folks at EA Sports' upcoming basketball debut on the Xbox 360, NBA Live 06, the answer is threefold: look, feel, and gameplay. We had a chance to take Live 06 for the 360 for a spin, accompanied by the game's producer, to check out this trio of next-gen approaches to try to get a taste of what next-gen basketball will feel like. In just a few scant weeks the Xbox 360 will launch in North America.
First, and most obvious, will be the game's graphics engine, which, as you might expect, has received a significant upgrade from the game found on current systems. Player models, of course, are far more lifelike and authentic looking, but there are also many subtle graphical touches that perhaps aren't as obvious but are no less vital to the game's impressive visual display. Things like realistic physics-driven cloth animations that have jerseys bouncing and undulating as a player goes up for a jump shot; impressive special effects such as a bounce lighting technique we noticed that bathed the player models in some gorgeous multicolored tones; and collision detection that was based on players actually hitting, instead of merely coming "close enough" to set off a collision animation.
One glance at the authentic-looking NBA players in the game is all you need to get a feel for how much time has been put into modeling by the EA Canada art team (check out the way Steve Nash's hippie hairdo moves when he runs or, conversely, is "cinched up" when you put a sweatband on him). Another way to appreciate the team's efforts is to check out the create-a-player mode, which we saw for the first time today. Create-a-player seems to be pretty in-depth right out of the gate in Live 06. You'll be able to alter everything from skull size to mouth size and nearly all points in between, as well as the requisite body types, tattoos, and accessories aplenty. You'll be able to pile on accessories on top of accessories this year--wearing an elbow pad over an Allen Iverson arm sleeve, for example.
In terms of a next-generation "feel," perhaps the first thing to mention is the game's slower pace. Longtime Live players might be taken aback by the more measured tempo of the action on the court, though Live producers acknowledge that this was a conscious game design choice. They're deliberately going for a more simlike feel on the Xbox 360 game and, as such, some of the obvious nods to arcade play--such as the freestyle superstar controls in the Xbox and PS2 versions--are gone. Well, not necessarily gone--your team's star players will still be able to pull off some sick-looking passes or monster dunks--but the special moves are simply more integrated into the improved animations that compose the 360 version of Live.
A different gameplay feel will also be obvious in the game's drastically different presentation. Practically the entire game, from the create-a-player to the season mode, will hinge around the virtual court that is the centerpiece of the game. Here, you'll be able to play pickup games of hoop with a bevy of NBA stars, whether to practice your dunks while your next game is loading, or simply to get involved in some one-on-one, two-on-one, or even two-on-two hoops just for fun. A green LED on the center "X" button of your 360 controller will indicate who you are playing as in this mode, and the main menu scoreboard keeps track of your score in these impromptu games. Accessing other gameplay features such as the season mode are done from this revamped main menu screen as well. The emphasis on gameplay, and not necessarily navigating menu screens, really benefits the overall presentation.
Some different camera angle experiments are also in play here, including a default dynamic baseline camera that follows you as you work farther into your opponent's zone, and it will cut to a close-up when you take the ball to the corners for a long three-point attempt. If you don't like that angle, however, you'll still be able to play with a number of other viewpoints, and you'll even be able to adjust the height and zoom level of any camera in the game.
On the court, gameplay tweaks keep the game feeling fresh as well. You don't have to back out into the pause menu to make substitutions during stoppage of play, for example. Instead, by bringing up the menu with the directional pad on the Xbox controller, you can quickly make lineup changes as needed. You'll need to be quick, however, because unless you burn a time-out you'll have a short window of opportunity to make any strategic or lineup changes--a fact that becomes all the more important when you consider that fatigue will play a factor in the 360 version. As players tire, they won't be as quick and they'll even slump a bit on the court.
Other gameplay improvements include some better transition play--players will run down the court when waiting for passes in the transition--as well as a more effective midrange jumper. These improvements are designed to give players some incentive to play from somewhere other than directly under the hoop.
From what we've seen of the game so far, Live 06 for the 360 is attempting to steer the Live franchise toward a more simlike feel. More time with the game will be needed to see if this new course is a successful one, but it's hard to deny the game's next-generation look and feel. We expect to have more hands-on time with the game soon, so be sure and keep your eyes peeled for our continuing coverage.