NBA Elite 11 First Hands-On

Is EA's NBA series in for an NHL-like rebirth? We've got the first hands-on, a few answers, and more questions.

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[UPDATE: Check out the new video demo of NBA Elite with EA Sports' Connor Dougan below.]

Earlier in the year, Golden State Warriors star point guard Stephen Curry had a chance to visit EA Canada's Vancouver HQ to try out the company's new basketball game. According to developers, Curry--who'll readily admit he is a big video game guy--got his hands on the new controls that are the underpinning of the NBA Live series' transformation and rebirth as NBA Elite 11. Right away, Curry began making shots from all over the floor, despite not having had much time with the game. When asked about his in-game success by developers, Curry--who ended up third overall last year in scoring for the Warriors--simply replied, "Shooters shoot, man."

Yes, indeed, shooters shoot. And if the Curry anecdote, as well as our own hands-on time with NBA Elite 11's revamped control scheme last week at the 2010 Electronic Entertainment Expo, are anything to go by, then player skill is going to determine your success on the floor more so than any previous year in EA's long-running NBA series. Our time with Elite was relatively brief, but we can safely say the game's new controls are the most significant change to EA's hoops series--and perhaps to basketball games--in the past several years.

Beginning with a change at the top of the NBA Live development team, the Elite team has focused on turning around the NBA Live series in much the same way that EA Canada turned around its NHL series several years back. The blueprint, it seems, is to take many of the control ideas that revolutionized the NHL series and port them over to NBA Elite: The left stick controls player movement and the right stick controls the player's hands (and, by extension, the movement of the ball). The result becomes a control scheme that is intuitive… that is, once you wrap your head around it.

We got some hands-on time with Elite, featuring a one-on-one practice game featuring LeBron James and NBA Elite 11 cover star Kevin Durant. Controlling King James, we were able to pull off crossovers simply by moving the right stick left or right. The speed we moved the stick with determined the pace of the crossover. By pulling the right stick back at a diagonal either left or right, LeBron would execute crossovers under his leg left and right. Finally, by making upward half-circle movements with the right stick, we could do behind-the-back crosses left or right.

As in previous years, movement is controlled with the left stick, and you can mix in specialized moves, such as pro hops or Euro steps, by combining the triggers and the left stick when moving. When you couple those moves with the ability to manually change hands at any point, you have the makings for a very flexible offensive system; one where pre-canned unbreakable animations between players seem to be a thing of the past.

Around the back crossovers… with just a flick of the right stick.
Around the back crossovers… with just a flick of the right stick.

Fancy moves might get you closer to the hoop, but you'll still need to get close and get the ball in the basket. The new shooting mechanic takes a nod from NHL's skill stick approach. To shoot, you simply move the right stick forward and let go at the appropriate moment. When you decide to release, of course, depends your player's proximity to the basket, and as a result, you can clank a ball off the rim or put up an air ball if you don't get enough power in your shot--or overcook things with too much power. You can also dunk by running toward the net and pressing up with the right stick (and, yes, you'll be able to change hands in midair for some truly impressive improvisations under the net).

The E3 demo we played featured an onscreen heads-up display that showed our right and left stick movements; it also featured a shot meter that showed us the ideal release time for every shot we took--but that HUD element won't be part of the final game. Instead, you'll need to rely on the feel of the shot to get the power right. And, you'll need to keep in mind that you'll be able to miss right or left of the basket if you aren't straight with your right stick when shooting. But hey, don't worry: Shooters shoot, remember?

The new controls aren't reserved for players on offense, however. You'll be able to attempt a steal by pressing down on the right stick and move your player's right or left hand up or down by pressing left or right on the stick. Producers told us that tweaked animations and improved player AI will mean that a defender's hand will better track the ball, making it easier to break up a pass or block a shot (the latter of which you can execute by pressing up on the right stick).

Beyond the controls, it's the new animation and physics system that really shine on defense. Player contact feels great, especially if an offensive player is backing you down. It looks and feels like a real struggle for control--a struggle that either player can break out of at any time with a quick spin move or a steal attempt. Forget the player lock on defensive controls of years past, too; in NBA Elite 11, defense will be about quick reflexes, keeping your body in between your assigned player and the basket. On defense, you'll be able to pull off quick side-to-side steps to stop a player from making a move to the hoop, but there's an element of risk versus reward here. If you slide in the wrong direction, you might get your ankles broken trying to get back, giving your opponent an open lane to the basket.

So what do all of these new controls mean for NBA Elite 11? From what we've seen, the controls work great in one-on-one play. However, producers only showed us five-on-five play--we didn't get a chance to try it for ourselves. This was certainly intentional; it's easy to get a better handle of the controls in a controlled setting, and we suspect that full-team play simply hasn't been tuned yet to make the most of the new controls.

Mid-air crossovers will be easy and effective… provided your controlled player has the skill to pull them off.
Mid-air crossovers will be easy and effective… provided your controlled player has the skill to pull them off.

However, in a larger sense, we suspect that because the new controls put a premium on the skill of the players with the controllers in their hands--as well as the skillset of the NBA player they are controlling--the idea of controlling only the NBA's most…ahem…"elite" players (whose attributes make them best suited for pulling off the kinds of moves you'll want to execute in Elite) will become the new standard for this series. After all, why on earth would you want to put the ball in the hands of Luke Walton when you can put your stick skills to their best use with Kobe Bryant?

Will NBA superstars be overpowered in NBA Elite? Will passing--an already rare phenomenon in online hoops games--become a thing of the past? The jury is still out. Nonetheless, the changes in Elite look to be among the most important in the series' history, and we'll be closely following the game's progress in the coming months.

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