Each time the end of a generation of consoles is reached, you can look to the sports franchises to see how all the new features over the years have stacked up and complemented one another. It's a lot like following a star NBA player over the course of his career and seeing all the new wrinkles and tricks he adds to his repertoire over time. With this generation of consoles reaching its twilight, we can see how NBA Live has evolved over the years in its latest iteration, NBA Live 06. Unfortunately, the Live series in its current state is more akin to an aged veteran who's hung on too long (for instance, Patrick Ewing with the Supersonics in 2000), as opposed to a longtime superstar who's at the height of his game. In other words, the series in its current incarnation is beginning to show its age.
The biggest new feature added to NBA Live 06 in this go-around is freestyle superstar control. In a nutshell, star players who have the requisite physical talent will be able to unleash a variety of supermoves on the court as a way to distinguish them from your average NBA player. So while your typical journeyman point guard won't have access to superstar passing abilities, you will be able to whip wraparound passes and fancy dishes with all-star point men like Jason Kidd or Steve Nash. There are six different types of superstars in all, including scorers, high flyers, playmakers, power players, sharpshooters, and stoppers. A single player can simultaneously be a stopper and one of the first five, but he or she can't be two different types of superstars at once. If your chosen star has the requisite ability, you can change his default superstar designation, though. So a player like Kobe can be switched from scorer to high flyer if you like.
The way these superstar moves are implemented in the game is by toggling the left trigger button. Once you have that held down, then tapping or holding one of the four face buttons on the controller will unleash a different superstar animation. So if you're a power player like Shaq, you have the ability to throw down NBA-Street-like tomahawk slams, two-handed power jams, or 180 spin dunks...even with a defender right on you. Playmakers like Nash will dish behind their heads, between their legs, and around their backs. Scorers like Allen Iverson can knife their ways into traffic with graceful ball fakes and up-and-under layups, teardrops, or double-clutch floaters. The special animations for all these moves are as fun to watch as they are to execute.
The problem (or benefit, depending on your perspective) is that these superstar moves give the game even more of an arcade feel than it already had, bringing it ever closer to a five-on-five version of NBA Street. At the lower difficulty settings, unleashing your power dunks, scorer moves, or high-flyer slams is like pressing an "I win!" button. You can own the computer all day long like opposing point guards abuse the Shaqless Lakers, thus making the game rather uninteresting at default difficulty. You'll need to be a little more judicious with your use of superstar moves at higher difficulty levels (trying to dunk over the top of double teams is often futile), but they're still somewhat overpowered in a lot of cases.
On defense, for example, you can take any stopper you have, aggressively double-team the post man when the ball goes down low, and come up with a steal disturbingly often. It's also pretty clear that some superstar classes are better than others. As you play the game, you'll find there's really not much advantage to the playmaker or shooter classes other than being able to see the cool animations from their moves. If you've got Kyle Korver open from the arc, for example, it seems just as quick and effective to have him take a regular jumper as it is to unleash a superstar rainbow or a set shot. Dishing a superstar pass in traffic seems just as likely to get picked off as a regular pass, so are you really getting anything out of it? In the end, the superstar controls are a lot like seeing Jason Williams in his youthful Sacramento Kings days: flashy and fun to watch but maybe not as substantive as you'd hope.
Other than the superstar functionality, all the usual functionality remains in NBA Live's controls. You've got freestyle dribble moves mapped to the right analog stick, the separate dunk and shoot buttons, the pro hop, and the ability to control tip-ins or to tip dunks off of rebounds. All these features still give you great control over the action, just as they have over the years. Unfortunately, the graphics engine hasn't changed much either, aside from the additional superstar animations. Players still clip through one another often and skate over the floor, especially with turbo enabled, and there's little sense of momentum as you shift direction from side to side. Rebounded balls still get vacuumed to the hands of players, and players far underneath the basket will still shoot into the back of the glass for a turnover way too often. The Xbox offers the best visuals of the three by providing the most detail in character models. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 2 and GameCube lag behind noticeably in this regard. While still nice to look at most of the time, NBA Live's graphics engine is starting to show its age in this iteration.
The sound effects for the game remain largely unchanged from previous years. You'll hear the thunder of rim-rattling dunks, the swoosh of a softly shot jumper, and squeaking sneakers on the court, along with the usual crowd noise accompanying everything. One big change made for this year is the replacement of Mike Fratello in the announcers' booth by former sharpshooter Steve Kerr. With Fratello taking the coaching reins at Memphis this past year, Kerr fills in admirably, offering insightful commentary alongside the familiar play-by-play of marvelous Marv Albert. Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson reprise their bit roles as announcers for the game's largely unchanged All-Star weekend modes (which include the dunk contest, All-Star game, and three-point shootout), with Smith stealing the show with his often-hilarious commentary. As far as music goes, you'll be "treated" once again to a bunch of hip-hop tunes from EA Trax.
The developer also added some new wrinkles to NBA Live's dynasty mode in 06. You'll now need to hire an assistant coach and a scout to help develop your franchise. Each of these assistants is rated in three categories--offense, defense, and athletics--which are rough categorizations of the players' various attributes. During a season, you can task your assistant coach with holding individual workouts for players in the hopes of improving their ratings and possibly developing them into new superstars. You'll also need to send out your scout to evaluate the crop of prospective draft picks and to get more-accurate ratings on each player's attributes so you'll be prepared to draft once the season is over. Once your scout learns enough about each prospective rookie, you can task him with staying on to learn more, or you can send him off to see other prospects if your initial hunches aren't what you wanted. The scout can also give you tips on an upcoming opponent, but mostly this turns out to be a laundry list of useless stuff you already know. "Andre Miller leads the Nuggets in assists. Tim Duncan leads the Spurs in rebounding." Oh, you don't say? Thanks for the insight! Ultimately, your time with the scout is better spent scoping out draft picks.
Managing assistants effectively gives you other stuff to do during the season aside from making trades and tweaking your overall strategy as you sim through a season. It's a nice feature overall, but we would have liked to have seen a little more granularity in how the assistant coach can train up your existing players. For example, you can scout out shooting guards and then draft one with high ability and good potential in three-point shooting. But as you try to groom him into a superstar sharpshooter, you lack much control, aside from telling your assistant coach to "work on his offense." You're only given the choice of having your assistant work on offense, defense, or athleticism, so when the training reports come back, you may often find that his other skills (like passing or free-throw shooting) are improving as fast or faster than his deep-shooting ability.
Other than the new tweaks to dynasty mode, the usual features remain, including intervention (the ability to interrupt a game in progress so you can take manual control in any quarter) and having to manage the salary cap and your roster. You'll also be able to stay on top of news through your in-game PDA, which still beeps way too often for inconsequential news as you sim through a week or month's worth of games. One thing we did notice is that midgame intervention crashed the game for us a couple of times on the PS2 version of Live 06. As a result, you may want to save your dynasty early and often just to be safe.
NBA Live 06 can be played with up to four players offline on all platforms or with two players online over PS2 Online or Xbox Live. Again you'll be treated to the usual array of ladders, rankings, news, and more as you challenge other players across the country. This time around you'll be able to take on rivals in dunk contests and the three-point-shooting contest online. But as these modes weren't all that interesting to play offline to begin with, they're not made any more compelling by enabling them for online play. PS2 owners do get a bit of added value, as their version of the game includes NBA Live 95 as a small bonus--however, the real names of players from that era of the NBA are not included in this version of Live 95.
While NBA Live 06 does its best to put a new face on its game with the new superstar abilities and tweaks to its franchise mode, the series as a whole still feels stuck in neutral, like LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers. And both are still waiting to get to the next level... Thankfully, the core gameplay is solid enough that Live 06 is still recommendable to hardcore hoopsters looking to get a jump start on the upcoming NBA season. Those who appreciate the game's arcadelike feel will probably enjoy the superstar abilities a lot, as they are great fun to watch and they bring the game ever closer to an NBA Street look and feel. But for those who want more of a simulation-style game or for those who are looking for more of an evolution from recent iterations of NBA Live, you're probably not going to find what you're looking for in this year's game.