It's interesting to hear the producers of EA Sports NBA Live series refer to last year's game as a "dunk-fest." Of course, they aren't completely dismissing NBA Live 06. While the freestyle superstar controls introduced in last year's game were an appealing control scheme designed to show what the league's elite are capable of, the producers realized the limitations of the feature. Or more specifically, they realized the lack of limitations players ran into when using freestyle superstar controls. For NBA Live 07, one of the first things the development team at EA Canada addressed was the freestyle controls. We got a chance to see the current-gen version of game for the first time during a recent trip to EA's offices in Vancouver to see how the company is refining the game's approach for next season.
While driving to the lane with Kobe or Lebron was more or less a guaranteed basket in NBA Live 06, one of the first things the development team wanted to add was traffic--particularly traffic in front of the basket to clog up the shooting lanes. After all, opposing teams don't make a habit of opening up the lanes for Kobe and King James to dunk at will, and neither will the virtual teams in NBA Live 07 anymore. Adding more collisions under the basket essentially means the computer-controlled opponents will be playing tougher defense than in previous entries in the series, but it also has some interesting consequences for the animation. Consider your standard dunk animation--this year, if you're flying toward the rim and an opposing player gets in your way, it won't necessarily end your chance for scoring. Instead, the development team has been working on ways to gracefully transform that dunk into a layup animation.
Beyond the traditional roles included in the game--including scorer, playmaker, high-flyer, and so on--NBA Live 07 is also introducing the concept of the X-Factor player. Each game will have an X-Factor player--a guy who isn't a full-time superstar but is able to rise to the occasion at the right moment. Think of Robert Horry in basically every crucial playoff game he's ever played in, and you'll have a good idea of what an X-Factor player can bring to your game. Bringing that player into the game at the right time and getting him on a hot streak will allow him to temporarily raise his game to superstar levels, and then you can ride his skills all the way to victory. The boost won't last forever, however, so you'll want to sub him in wisely and make sure he keeps his hot hand as long as possible.
Defensive animations have been improved this time around as well. The team is working on what they refer to as "scenarios" between players on the court, which are all the minute physical dramas that happen hundreds of times during a typical NBA game. Instead of a defending player stepping in front of a driving offensive player and impeding his momentum, that player will now attempt to lock up the other player and stick with him. It's a little reminiscent of the shutdown defense featured in last year's March Madness game, except that it happens automatically--a defender runs in front of the player with the ball and makes it tough for him to get around and continue his progress to the basket.
When it comes to the freestyle superstar controls themselves, a tiered system has been introduced to separate the standard superstar controls from the more-advanced controls. Specifically, the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of the game will feature three levels of superstar control: regular, star, and superstar; while next generation versions of NBA Live 07 will add one more level of control above that to create some truly spectacular moves. By mixing the right analog stick with the trigger button, you'll have a wealth of NBA-caliber jukes, shots, and blocks at your fingertips. Another important tweak to the system is that dunks and layups are now assigned to different buttons on the controller: X for layup and Y for dunks on the Xbox controller.
How players contribute in a game depends largely on their role, and in NBA Live 07 the idea of playing roles has been tweaked for the superstar players in the game. Specifically, NBA Live 07 will allow the game's elite to play more than one role on the court. Everyone knows Lebron James is more than a great scorer. He's also able to pull off amazing playmaking passes on a regular basis and has been known to dunk the ball once or twice. NBA Live 07 will take this into account as well, and the best player in the game will be allowed to play all the roles he is suited for in real life on the virtual court. By pressing the trigger button when in control of a player, you can cycle through his multiple player roles. You can take Lebron up for a big rebound, for example, and then switch to his playmaker icon, make a great pass down the court, then get the ball back to James once he's in the lane, switch to high-flyer and rock the arena with a rim-rocking dunk. It will take some quick fingers to make the most of the on-the-fly role-switching, but we suspect it will soon become an integral part of most folks' game.
Previous EA Sports titles have introduced the idea of momentum in games, but in NBA Live 07, this concept is referred to as "intensity." As teams play in this year's game, you'll be able to detect shifts in intensity, which will change depending on the specific situation. After all, how a team plays in a second quarter during a midseason blowout is dramatically different from how they play in the fourth quarter of the deciding game in a playoff series. As a result, rivalry games, games between division leaders, and playoff games will feel different from your standard Tuesday-night matchup in November. As intensity increases so too will crowd noise and the pace of the game, and as it reaches its peak, players will begin making big shots to ratchet the crowd up even further. At the highest levels of intensity, you'll feel it in your controller, when a heartbeat rumble kicks in to signify the most important shots in the game.
In dynasty mode, the most important addition is the idea of scheduling off-day events. Now, instead of simming directly to the next game on the calendar, you'll be responsible for making sure your team is prepared by scheduling events such as team practices, workouts, press events, or team events on days when no game is scheduled. Another new addition to the game is the assistant head coach. By default the head coach will handle most of the off-day stuff if you want him to. His most crucial role will be in researching various player rumors that crop up during the season and advising you on the best course of action. Say a rumor pops up that your star center is looking to get dealt to a team in a warmer climate--you'll want to send your assistant head coach to look into it. He'll report back on whether or not there's any truth to that rumor and then it will be up to you how you deal with it. Here's the catch, though--your assistant may be wrong and provide you with incorrect information. Over the course of the season, you'll get a feel for how often your assistant head coach is right or wrong, and you've always got the leeway to can him if he doesn't have his finger on the pulse.
The concept of team chemistry isn't new to dynasty modes, but NBA Live 07 has made some nice tweaks to the system to help give you a better idea of how your team gets along. Certain menus in the mode give you a complete look at your player's satisfaction across a number of different team-related subjects--market, roster stability, winning, playing time, team talent, bench order, and so on. You can also see how that player feels about every other player on his team and, when it comes to making a trade, how your team would feel about having an opposing player join their team. As you might expect, players who "like" one another will usually play better as a unit on the court, which is something you'll need to factor in when it comes time to pull the trigger on a trade.
From a presentation standpoint, we liked the new menu system in the game, with its clean lines and white background, and the new press box camera on the court, which has a slightly higher and angled vantage point to give a clear view of the entire court, especially the corners at the bottom of the screen. Marv Albert and Steve Kerr return this season in the commentating booth, and their voice work seems just as smooth and varied as in previous years.
It's important to note that while the developers of NBA Live 07 have made steps to ensure the game isn't a "dunk-fest," moving to a more sim-styled basketball approach doesn't mean the game won't be fast-paced and fun. Instead, the team is looking to balance the realism of the game with the freestyle controls that let players take control of the best in the basketball business. That balance will be the essential ingredient in NBA Live 07's success. We'll be bringing you more on the game in the coming months as we lead up to its release later this year.