EA's NBA Live series has seen more ups and downs in the past decade than the Bush administration has in the past month - and that's saying a lot. Political witticism aside, EA just can't get it right. It's a series with so much potential and plenty of innovations (such as the playmaker passing and pro-hop), but every year since Live 95, it's been a struggle to produce a solid basketball title. But as for the latest entry into the franchise, NBA Live 2006 takes the series one step further in the right direction by including just about every great feature from its past games, plus a few more noteworthy additions to make 06 one of the better basketball outings yet. It's the game that should have been made five years ago - but hey, better late than never right?
Just like NHL 06, and well, every other EA Sports title, Live 06 is heavy on arcade-like action and has - more so than ever - strayed away from its simulation roots. Whether that's a good thing or not is up to the player, but think of it like this: Live 06 is basically NBA Jam minus the steroids and severe lack of all things gravity related. Gameplay boils down to zigzagging through the defence and making the jam repeatedly until time runs out. You never really need to take a shot from the point or anywhere else for that matter. In fact, your chances of winning a game are severely increased if you just drive to the basket and hope for the best. And as bland as this sounds, and as bored as you think you might get, the system actually works quite well thanks to this year's superstar mode.
Superstar mode makes just about every play look like it came straight out of a highlight reel. No longer do you have to shout out in anger at the screen when your player does a lay up rather than a dunk, because both look just as spectacular. The way it works is that each player can be assigned one superstar ability, ranging from powerhouse, to playmaker, to high-flyer and so forth. But of course you can't just assign any ability to any player. Good luck trying to get Shaq to be a shooter or Iverson to be a powerhouse, because just like in real life, some players are better than others at different aspects of the game; it all depends on the player's rating.
Each ability brings new life to the game and you'll see some truly outrageous baskets, like Iverson's no-look lay up as he falls to the ground, or Nash's behind the back passes as he leaps through traffic. It certainly spices up the gameplay, and along with all of the other features that have carried over from previous years (pro-hop, playmaker passing), you've got yourself one heck of a ball game.
'Initiate any number of superstar modes and you'll blow right passed the defence...'
The only, and painfully obvious, downside to the superstar mode is the players themselves; they're just too good. I'll use Shaq again as an example. He can't be stopped. Period. Initiate any number of superstar modes and you'll blow right passed the defence for an easy basket. Combine that with the absurd amount of blocks and steals and you can see why I made the NBA Jam comparison earlier. If you don't believe me, double team the player who has the ball and mash the steal button as fast as you can. Ninety-nine per cent of the time you'll score a steal.
The Dynasty mode has carried over well from last year with a few new nifty features like the player evolution system. The idea is to mould your average Joe into a highflying superstar as well as manage your team by hiring scouts, assistant managers and coaches, each of which has a specific area of expertise. As you practice more and train harder your player gains better attributes and at the end of each season you can actually see how he's evolved over time, both in appearance and in skill.
It's still surprising to see just how much control you have over your team in the Dynasty mode. With a little hard work and dedication, you can create the next Michael Jordan and see him through his entire career. Or once your older players have retired, sign a few drafts and start fresh. You'd be amazed at the results if you just put in an extra few hours a day into training your team.
Visually Live 06 is a bit of a mixed bag, even more so when you compare it side-by-side with the superior NBA 2K5. In its defence, EA has developed a brand new graphics engine that produces some pretty high-end animations, but the detail is noticeably lacking. Vince Carter definitely looks nothing like Vince Carter and the same can be said about other superstars like Bryant and Duncan, who look more like they've undergone a botched Botox operation. And it's impossible not to mention the gliding, which seems to make its way back into every Live game. If you press the boost button while dribbling the ball, the player literally skates across the court like he's Elvis Stojko.
The same can be said for the audio department. The tracks on offer might be pleasing for some people, but I'd like a little more variety in what's available. On the flip side, the on-the-fly commentary by Steve Kerr, Marv Albert and the always amusing Kenny Smith is about as good as it gets, even if some of their comments happen after the play.
While EA is clearly shying away from a realistic take on the sport, Live 2006 is one of the better entries in the series with the superstar mode being by far its biggest highlight. And even with its fair share of shortcomings, Live 06 is a big enough leap from its predecessors to warrant a look. So, whether you're a veteran of the sport, like yours truly, or a casual newcomer, Live 06 is right up your alley.