AMSTERDAM--NBA Live for the Xbox 360 simply looks like a next-generation game. That's the best way we can explain it. After spending some time with the hoops game at Microsoft's annual press event, we're impressed with the developer's commitment to really trying something new with the look and feel of the game. But is the change indicative of the entire game, or just its surface aspects? Let's take a hands-on look.
It's tough to start anywhere else in NBA Live for the 360 other than the main menu screen. That's because it doesn't look anything like the menu screen we're used to. For one thing, it's remarkably clean and modern-looking. For another, there's a basketball player standing there holding a ball and looking up at the hoop. If you move the thumbstick, the player moves. And if you press the shoot button, he goes up for a J. Wait a minute! We're in the main menu. We're not supposed to be playing in a shootaround. Should another player come by and grab a second controller, he or she can jump into this game-within-a-game with you, and the pair of you can enjoy a quick game of one-on-one, well before having made any game choices. Even better, should you go ahead and decide to play a traditional exhibition game or head to season mode, the one-on-one continues as the game is loading the mode. Interactive load screens... We suspect this might become a new standard in sports gaming in the years to come.
Once you're in the more traditional five-on-five game for the first time, you'll likely be struck by the quality of the player models, especially the skin textures, which look excellent across the board. Blemishes show up clearly, and tats are well in view as well. From the moment the ball tips off, it seems like every player is sweating profusely as well, in keeping with the next generation's sports gaming effect du jour. We weren't sure if it was a side effect of the TV we were playing on or the arena in which our game took place, but the lighting, as a whole, seemed a tad too dark for our tastes. Still, it didn't take from the overall quality look of the players, as subtle depth-of-field tricks--while not as ostentatious as those found in NBA 2K6--still add a sense of space to the game.
Other things we noticed about gameplay include the fact that the default camera angle we played at was strange, and a vertical view of the court seemed fairly far removed from the action on the court when playing on the far side. Also the tempo was set to a decidedly slower pace than what we are used to from the Live series. Whether this was due to game frame-rate problems or a deliberate choice by the designers is unclear. Nonetheless, the game felt set at a much more measured speed, one that didn't lend the kind of breakaway speed you expected when trying to get up-court quickly or when you had a fast break.
While the presentation elements certainly are slick, the game still feels a lot like old NBA Live games (particularly last year's game). The biggest reason for this is the lack of freestyle superstar controls that were a centerpiece of Live on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Like other options in the game, such as franchise mode and the skills challenge, freestyle superstar controls were stripped out, and the result is a game that plays a lot like older entries in the series. On the plus side, the game does feature a season mode and the ability to call plays using the directional pad when on the floor. Unlike the Madden series for the 360, which has done away with Madden and Michaels (for the time being at least), the commentary team of Marv Albert and Steve Kerr returns to the game, and it seems to be in full effect in Live.
From a presentational standpoint, NBA Live for the Xbox 360 may be one of the most drastically changed games in a long-running series that's making an appearance on the console. It seems that the cost of those changes, however, may result in a game that plays more like versions of old, rather than playing like something entirely new. We'll have more on NBA Live 06 for the Xbox 360 as we get closer to the game's release date.