Saturday , Sep , 23 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Exclusive “NBA Live ’07” Review (Plus EA Vancouver Studio Tour)


Exclusive

It struck me recently that in the consumer climate of the western world today, we’re faced with more choices on a daily basis than ever before. At the risk of sounding like an old head, I can remember a time when ordering a cheese sandwich from my local fast food joint was a simple affair. The ingredients were, as would be expected, bread and cheese, your only options being to take it or leave it.

Putting in the same order at my favourite health code-violating eatery last week, however, resulted in a string of questions so long I thought I’d be given a grade at the end of it. By the time I’d selected the type of bread (from six choices), cheese (from five choices), butter (or margarine), garnish and condiments, I’d lost my appetite.

From this meandering discourse, you can probably infer that I don’t much appreciate the myriad technical flourishes found in the videogames that now line the shelves of what used to be my local comic book outlet. That is, not until last month.

You see, when the boss gave me word that HoopsVibe had been invited to an all-expenses-paid trip to the EA studios in Vancouver to preview NBA Live ’07, I was man enough to put my personal ethics regarding digital wizardry aside and give the new generation of games a fair chance. Packing my trusty Gameboy (a piece of equipment that’s been with me longer than most of my bodily hair) and a glossary of technical terms, I set off to take a walk on the wired side.

Having not played NBA Live since Tim Hardaway was on the cover and Shawn Kemp was on the wagon, I was, to say the least, astonished by my first glimpse of the game. Initially thinking I was watching a video montage, I realised on closer inspection that it was actually real-time gameplay on an XBOX 360, a device which, I’m ashamed to say, I thought was yet to be released. Still, I was gripped by the game and couldn’t wait to get my paws on the controller for some button-bashing fun.

Firstly, though, we were given a tour of EA’s Burnaby, Vancouver studio, a temple to gaming that would have your garden-variety technophile hyperventilating before they’d made it past the lobby. There was more than enough to keep the rest of us interested as well, with the view from the main drive being of a full-size football (“soccer” for the North Americans among you) pitch adorned with an oversized “EA Sports” logo, alongside a basketball and a beach volleyball court, all framed by the cloud-capped mountains beyond.

That wasn’t the extent of the on-site entertainment and relaxation facilities, though. Within the complex itself there can also be found an indoor basketball court, a fully-kitted gym, a games library, an EA store and a customised “EAt” cafeteria fitted with every piece of technology that could possibly improve the experience of getting your grub on. All of this, of course, is in addition to literally thousands of plasma screens and consoles liberally dotted about the studios, the more concentrated clusters of which were euphemistically termed “offices”. 

In short, it looked like the sort of place I’d imagine gamers hope to go to when they die. (By the way, if anyone at EA is reading this, please disregard any prior allusions to my technological ignorance and hook a brother up with a job at said studio. I’m actually very experienced in the internets.)

I lifted my jaw from the floor at the end of the tour just in time to drop it again at a brief demonstration of another of EA’s upcoming basketball releases, the gameplay for which looks to be the most fun you can have with your trousers on. (But you didn’t hear that from me.) Seriously, though, start saving your pocket money for that one now, kids. It’s the first time since Super Mario World dropped for the SNES that I’ve been sufficiently excited over a game to physically break out in dance (for the record, a goofy two-step I like to call the “Caucasian Sensation”.)

Finally, the time came to see if ’07 could live up to the sneak peek that had left me drooling on expensive equipment hours earlier. With Pacman being my game of choice, I decided initially to sit back and watch the inveterate joystick jockeys try it out rather than embarrass myself. 

While I may not have been able to fully appreciate the technical intricacy of what was going on, I know hoops like Hef knows hoes, and I can say from a basketball standpoint that the graphics are simply stunning. The sinuous motion of the muscles and hang of the uniform fabric make it clear why the designers opted to omit cheerleaders in ’07; similar attention to the detail of their bodies would likely have resulted in a 17+ age certificate for the game. What’s more, the players now move with a natural fluidity, no longer skating around the court, but rather planting their feet to change directions and shifting their weight as they squeeze past a screen or square up to shoot. 

The shots themselves benefit massively from extensive motion capture work, with every crooked elbow, short-armed release and truncated follow-through faithfully recreated. What this means is that such players as Shawn Marion and Tayshaun Prince no longer fire jumpers with a generic stroke, but instead with their own uglier-than-Sam-Cassell-in-drag shooting motions. Even players with more refined techniques (cover athlete Tracy McGrady or previous honouree Dwyane Wade, for instance) have their own unique “j”.

Another treat for the hardcore hoopheads is the customised free-throw routines, which, we were informed, covered “fifty to seventy-five” of the league’s biggest names. Among the more recognisable of these were Shaq’s forehead-wiping ritual (followed by the trademark looks-like-I’ve-just-been-violated stance on the stripe), Jason Kidd’s kiss and Rip Hamilton’s dribble to the side. Amusingly, one designer told us of how Steve Nash’s new ‘do presented them with something of a quandary as his former routine (in which he pushed his hair behind his ear) is now defunct.

Another feature new to ’07 is the improved procedural awareness, adding to the realism of many common game scenarios. Players no longer gaze intently at their defender as the ball sails past their face, and an attempt from distance will result in the big men turning to watch the shot and jostling for position in anticipation of the rebound. Furthermore, the A.I. has been rebuilt from scratch, something which is apparent particularly in the CPU defenders, who slide realistically to stick with their man, side-skipping to gain ground when beaten and breaking into a full sprint when sealed off completely.

Rather than spoil every surprise in the game, I’ll instead list some of the many notes I took during the various presentations in order to give you an idea of a few of the more interesting additions and improvements you can expect from this year’s edition of the Live franchise.

· A two-tier ranking system has been implemented, now making a distinction between “Stars” and “Superstars” and giving them skills, dunks and pass animations not available to lesser players.

·  New player definitions have been introduced, allowing, for example, someone like Josh Smith to be designated a “High-flyer” and dunk accordingly without being able to pass or shoot like a “Superstar” player.

·  There are now dedicated buttons for dunks and layups, giving you the option to loft up a teardrop or throw it down as necessary.

·  Players are now assessed a “Clutch Rating” between zero and one hundred.

·  An “Intensity” bar indicates the pressure of the situation, which varies based upon the time remaining, score and significance of the game. The crowd’s reaction is determined by the intensity at any particular moment.

·  The free-throw system has been vastly improved, also with the option to allow the computer to simulate the attempts. Additionally, tapping certain buttons will cause your opponent’s controller to shake as he lines up at the charity stripe.

Far and away my favourite feature, however, was that of ESPN integration on the XBOX 360. While this may not be a particularly exciting prospect for those of you with a subscription, it’s a godsend for those without access to the channel. As someone who spends the better part of the year in Europe, I’ve wasted countless hours watching low-quality snippets online or trying to hear the English commentary in the background of the illegal Chinese cable streams that once provided my only access to daily NBA video highlights. 

Now, with live, streaming radio broadcasts and excerpts from shows like Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn, I have crystal-clear video and world-class analysis at my fingertips, all without additional fees or the need to be educated in conversational Mandarin. 

There’s good news also for those of you who get high on PSP. The mini-games – particularly “2Ball” (thankfully not the god-awful dunk contest replacement that nearly killed All-Star Weekend) – more than make up for the device’s limitations, with the instant-fun, pick-up-and-play value of Street Fighter and other such RSI-inducing classics. The wireless capabilities make setting up two-player games a cinch, the head-to-head match-ups providing as much entertainment as the full version itself. 

Following one final spin on the next-generation version and an informative Q&A session with the brains behind the scenes, the tour was a wrap, and I was soon on my way back to NYC to resume my regular duties. Sitting in my apartment back in Harlem following the trip, however, I came to a stark realisation: This was the fancy sandwich I’d been avoiding all these years. It took a mighty impressive product to break me out of my bread-and-cheese mindset, and NBA Live ’07 is just that, a foot-long sub with flavours to suit every palate, be you a console fanatic, a basketball junkie or, like me, a relic of the past whose last gaming memory is of playing NBA JAM in your pyjamas. 

Whatever category you fall into, just know this: NBA Live ’07 was the title that brought me, the last of the dinosaurs, into the new millennium, and from this old-school purist there can come no higher praise.

CYE (CY.Ellis@HoopsVibe.com)