NBA Live 2005 (PS2) Review
By Tim Martin -- Reviews Editor
Understandably, basketball is the one sport that stands to lose the most in the video game translation from real life. Think about it: the game is based on spontaneity and unpredictability, two things difficult to program even in the most open-ended game engines. That is not to say those attributes aren't found in football or baseball, but play stops after a few seconds. And so, I have yet to play a basketball game that can capture the beauty of a fast break or the crispness of an ankle breaking backdoor cut. True, many of the sport's individual dribbling or acrobatic moves have made their way into video games, but the off-the-ball movement has not. Knowing those limitations, I have always reviewed basketball games with a grain-of-salt caveat in mind, gauging the quality of the game more on the intelligence of half court offenses or defenses, as opposed to the overall game flow.
NBA Live 2005 Screens(8)
For PS2 owners, the options are somewhat limited. You have ESPN Basketball 2k5 and EA Sports' NBA Live. In general, the Live series has placed most of its emphasis on high-end graphics and smooth gameplay; whereas, the competition, the ESPN Basketball series, focuses on the tactical strategies of basketball. Both have their clear strengths and limitations. ESPN, generally, is more favored by critics, but Live often defiantly wins in mass appeal and sales. Like other EA Sports titles, namely MVP Baseball, the Live series has experienced an upswing in quality the last two installments after a string of mediocre games in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The reason for the improvement probably lies with the competition supplied by ESPN, formerly known as Sega Sports; nonetheless, a better game has resulted.
While the Live series can easily be traced back to its inaugural 1995 version that was released on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, EA had been releasing a basketball game for some time under a variety of names, including the Bulls versus Blazers in 1993 and NBA Showdown the following year. Live '95 was truly innovative, in terms of the actual gameplay, as gamers for the first time dismissed the traditional sideline camera angle (think how the game normally looks on television) for an overhead and slightly titled one. The player models remained basic, but the ability to see the game vertically instead of horizontally awed me in 1994. Oddly, I remember talking with my friends 10 years ago wondering if a simple dunk contest could be incorporated, and until this year, that request had remained a wish (ESPN College Basketball had a dunk contest last year, but it was pretty lame). And so, among Live's most talked about game feature additions this year, is a dunk contest, which coupled with the Freestyle Air, offers for the first time a great slamming experience. But how is the rest of the game?
Presentation/Graphics : 93
You can tell EA Sports takes a lot of pride in their visuals, detailing every uniform line and Allen Iverson tattoo to perfection. The face mapping is quite excellent, but due to the low number of players, when compared to baseball or football, it should be expected to have such high quality. I noticed the running animation improved, as last year it looked like you were floating on water. This year, it looks far more natural. When compared to ESPN, the models have a more cartoonish look to them because of a brighter color pallet and smoother face and body shapes. The Nike, Adidas and Reebok shoes are a nice touch, especially since the sport has such a political history with sneaker companies (remember in 1992 when Michael Jordan received his gold medal in Barcelona with the American flag draped over the Reebok logo on his sweat suit jacket?).
Presentation/Audio : 85
For the most part, the audio is well-done, especially with the All-Star Weekend (dunk contest, 3-Point Shootout, and the All-Star, Rookie/Sophomore games). Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson provide some hilarious comments for the dunk contest. After one mediocre dunk, Johnson quips that the performance was bad, but that Smith's record for lowest dunk score still stands (Kenny "The Jet" Smith competed in the dunk contest in the early 1990s). Although the possible results are restricted -- either you make the dunk or you don't; either it's good or bad - you must enjoy the chemistry and accuracy of the duo's comments. They can be poignant, hilarious and emotionally uplifting. Conversely, the play-by-play duo of Mike Fratello and Marv Albert doesn't shine quite as bright, but given the circumstances, it was expected. In real life, Fratello and Albert are effective (and that's arguable) as commentators because of their sarcastic tones and subtle jabs at players and each other. That doesn't cross over to the game, as the two are reduced to video game automation.
Interface/Options : 94
NBA Live 2005 offers a solid selection of game modes. You have exhibition, dynasty, playoff, All-Star Weekend and practice. The slam dunk mode is the flashiest upgrade, but the most time was probably spent on revamping the Dynasty mode. A flashy PDA system, similar to the one seen in Madden, is now incorporated. The PDA certainly makes navigating among the many menu screens easier, but I was hoping for a radio call-in show like the one in Madden. With the new interface comes a barrage of information via the e-mail system. It's a simple way to get you information about player injuries and gripes, news from the league and comments from the owner. The comments can be tedious, and I wondered if EA would ever allow us to choose one of a group of standard reply message (to a complaining player: What are you going to do? Choke me? ... to the owner: It's either me or Kobe). The Dynasty mode also improves in other areas, although they are improvements seen across many EA Sports games, such as the ability to scout or workout prospects before the draft.
The dunk contest is awesome. There is a steep learning curve, especially for the really cool dunks. But the game mode is addicting and a great party game. Essentially, you perform dunks by pressing one button to get you in motion, another to jump in the air. After that, it's a combination of swirling the right analog stick and mashing the D-pad and the face buttons.
Gameplay : 78
The game feels differently when playing against a human and the computer. That statement sounds a little obvious, but it's odd how perceptions change when you are gunning against your buddy and the computer. Against another human, I don't mind the influx of blocked shots, the lack of a post-game and the flood of three-point shots. Against the CPU, those things bother me. Certainly, those things can all be adjusted with the AI sliders, but as more and more games add this as a feature, I can't help but have a feeling of guilt like I'm eating BALCO or something.
But let's look at the positives first. The game engine is lightning quick. You won't feel too many hitches when trying to burn past a defender or when grabbing a rebound. Even for new gamers, the time from "what button is it to shoot?" to competency is short. An alley-oop button, along with separate buttons for layup/dunk and jump shots help when gliding down the lane. The control scheme is conducive to such fluidity, as there is not an awkward reach to do anything.
The multi-player experience is great, as rim-shaking dunks and not-in-my-house block shots are rampant. But don't assume offense rules the day: the defense collapses on penetration to the lane quickly.
The main shortfalls of the gameplay exist with player movement, namely those cutting players on the wings in the open court who always seem to stop at the three-point line, as if they were obedient players running to the X marked on the court during a children's recreation league game. Players stop when they are thrown the ball, too, instead of catching the ball on the fly. Both of those shortcomings cripple the game's pace, as you advance down the court in sort of a rugby style - pass, take a few steps, pass ahead, run a few more steps. Think of Magic Johnson's Showtime Lakers' squads. Sometimes it was one pass and dunk, or one long pass, then a quick one for a layup.
A similar feeling is apparent in the half-court game, as off-the-ball movement is unintelligent. A penetrating guard often attracts help defenders (read above), but instead of players moving to open spots on the court, they either stand like with the statue-like discipline of a British Palace Guard, or they follow the dribbler like it were a youth soccer game! And if players do space out, they often stand with their feet on the three-point line, thus preparing themselves for the worst possible shot in basketball (the farthest two-point field goal). When playing the Pistons, did I ever see Rip Hamilton run one of the curl moves off a screen that he often does in real life 20 times a game? Nope. Did I ever see a backdoor cutter, a la Utah Jazz days? Nope. Understandably, programming such creative spontaneity may be difficult, but there should at least be an attempt.
What results is a game that results in an inconsistent fast break and a stagnant half court offense. Hmm, wait, maybe that isn't too far from real life? On another positive note, the game does mimic the one-on-one play seen by teams with star players. When I played the Lakers, Kobe took half the shots and was nearly unstoppable (Kobe: 43, Pacers: 38).
The battle to straddle entertainment versus realism is nothing new, in fact, it's something all video games battle. What makes Live frustrating is the fact they want the best of both worlds, and it results in unfulfilling gameplay at times. On one hand, the game is endorsing full-court play with the high number of blocks, but then players don't run their lanes to the basket for easy dunks. So maybe the game wants you to emphasize team basketball in the half court? Sure, but why then is the off-the-ball player AI so horrid?
Replay Value : 85
The Dynasty mode was enjoyable. EA Sports is doing a good job with all of its games, adding all the front office variables (ticket prices, concessions, etc.) while making player transactions more difficult. The online community is great. I logged onto the server one night and hundreds of players were online. The dunk contest is a great mini-game that you can play for hours.
Overall : 82
NBA Live 2005 has its shortcomings, but I think it is the inferior game to ESPN because it is a game without an identity. Sure, Live has the reputation of being a more fastbreaking, high-scoring game; in many ways it still is, but in trying to take a step with realism, the game lost its arcade appeal. To its credit, like it is in real life, Live does capture the superstar strategy of most teams that results in a lot of isolations and one-on-one play.