It starts with five-on-five basketball. That's the back-to-basics mantra coming out of EA Canada, the development studio behind EA Sports' popular NBA Live franchise. While recent games in the series haven't lived up to expectations, especially since moving to the Xbox 360, the development team behind the series is willing to accept the criticism for its previous efforts. Better yet, based on what we've seen of NBA Live 08 at yesterday's EA Canada press event, it seems like its actually doing something about it.
It's perhaps not surprising that recent NBA Live games have been disappointing. By focusing more on control gimmicks, such as the freestyle superstar controls of NBA Live 06 or total freestyle controls of Live 07, the team seemed to move away from the fundamental problems that plagued the gameplay and dragged all the other features down. With Live 08, the team is looking to take the bull by the horns and get the basics right, before piling on the flashy features.
The easiest way to notice the difference between NBA Live 07 and the work-in-progress version of Live 08 is to compare them side by side, which is just what Live 08 producer Brian Ullrich did during his presentation of the game. First, there was Live 07, complete with sluggish players, bad ball physics, and shoddy shot making. When Ullrich fired up the television displaying NBA Live 08, the differences were immediately apparent. Here was a sped-up pace of play where players looked like they were connecting with the hardwood under their feet, not merely skating on it. Here was improved passing and shooting animations, as well as players making contact with one another all over the floor. Perhaps most impressively, here was an improved frame rate; Ullrich said the game is running at 60 frames per second.
The improved look of NBA Live 08 is based on a repeated refrain we've heard across all EA Sports games this season--an improved animation system that helps make virtual players look and move more like the real thing. From NBA Street Homecourt to Madden NFL 08 and NCAA Football 08--and now on to NBA Live 08--it's apparent that the improved branching animation and locomotion systems that found their start in EA's FIFA series are beginning to pay dividends across the board. Player moves now are more procedural, as opposed to being simple canned animations that must play out from beginning to end. As a result, not only do they look better--even in this admittedly early build of the game that featured numerous graphical bugs that should be ironed out by release--but they'll also offer you more options when it comes to creating plays on the court.
For example, when passing the ball, the game will be smarter about choosing the right type of pass animation to use depending on the situation. Rebounding will also be improved. Those familiar with NBA Live 07 will remember the strange paths the ball sometimes took after bouncing off the rim--sometimes warping into a player's hands. To make matters worse, the players in 07 were about as motivated as Allen Iverson in practice. It wasn't uncommon to see just one artificial intelligence player leave his feet to try to grab a loose ball. In Live 08, those kinds of problems should be a thing of the past because the development team is looking to make sure that not only are players hustling to the ball but, once they are there, they also look more natural when going up to make a play.
Did you know that signature shots were in NBA Live 07? If you said "no," you're probably not alone. While signature shots were a big selling point of Live 07's direct competitor--NBA 2K7--player-specific shots were actually in EA's hoops offering too. The problem was, thanks to a touchy shot system that used slightly different animations for early or late shots, you would only see a Kobe jackknife jumper if you hit the shot at precisely the correct moment. That should also be improved this season so that the NBA players in the game will play more like their real-life counterparts.
Last year, the team decided to split the dunk and layup controls into two separate buttons. That experiment didn't go too well, and the separate controls have been recombined in Live 08. However, much like the rebounding and passing system, the dunk/layup controls will be smarter about the context in which a player finds himself before deciding whether to initiate a particular animation. Situational contexts, such as the amount of traffic to the hoop, proximity to the basket, and player abilities, will all play into whether you lay the ball in or come to the rack hard.
The gameplay feature that just might have the biggest impact on the five-on-five action has to do with collisions. The developers have been working hard to include many new on- and off-ball collisions between players on the floor. These collisions can come in three flavors depending on the position of the players involved: ground-to-ground, ground-to-air, or air-to-air. Each of these will have different effects on a player's ability to hang on to a ball or make a tightly contested shot. If you're on defense, you'll have the extra ability to prevent your opponents from getting to the hoop. Conversely, thanks to plenty of off-ball contact, when on offense, you'll be able to make better use of such set plays as screens and picks, as well as boxouts, when looking to grab rebounds underneath the net. However, according to producers, more collision animations won't necessarily result in more fouls, which is simply a matter of gameplay balance.
Other cool features include more transition animations when players are moving up court after scoring a basket, more post-whistle animations played out in real time (as opposed to canned animations when a play is called dead), and a more active camera that zooms in or out dynamically. This camera-zoom feature adds a sense of drama and movement to the game that simply wasn't present in last year's game. There's also a new default camera angle similar to a television broadcast view, though you'll be able to choose from the multiple camera angles offered.
It's too early to say that with NBA Live 08 the series has returned to prominence. What we can say, based on what we've seen, is that the game is taking some steps in the right direction. Whether those steps will eventually lead to a dramatically improved hoops experience remains to be seen, but we're cautiously optimistic at this early stage. Look for more information on NBA Live 08 in the coming months as we lead up to its release later this year.