Submitted on: 06/25/2015 by Chase Becotte
When a game starts from the bottom like NBA Live did two years ago, it’s easy to say it’s improving year over year because it’s hard to really fall any further. At the same time, on some level it might be fair to say “it’s easier to go from bad to average than average to great.” Still, right now as I take a step back and look at what NBA Live 16 is trying to pull off this year, it finally brings about a level of excitement that has not existed with the franchise in many years.
However, this is not me saying “LIVE IS BACK!” or “WATCH OUT NBA 2K!” This is not a hype piece, but rather me saying it feels like Live is finally moving forward. The development team is adding and improving NBA Live now rather than just simply trying to create a functioning basketball game.
So with that in mind, here are my thoughts after playing six full games of NBA Live 16.
Let It Flow
What immediately stands out when you start playing the game is that the game is just moving and flowing way more than it has in the past. Guys do not simply stand around on offense, and dribbling and creating movement on the ball just comes together in a more natural way. In other words, it feels like five guys are finally starting to act as a unit without needing any heavy input from the user to create opportunities.
The development team is promising to really improve and add unique sets to the game. In the demo, playbooks were not turned on, so the Warriors just had one basic set where Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes would more or less come off a series of baseline screens and down screens. On the other end, Cleveland was built more around JR Smith moving off the ball and LeBron trying to get a dribble handoff of sorts. Even in this limited state, there was enough you could do with these basic sets to create some interesting halfcourt moments, but the real hope is that teams will actually feel different on the court when the game is released.
Dribbling should be a strength for Live, and it’s starting to become one again. And I think it should be a strength because it’s a basic system where you use the right stick in a way that should feel normal to anybody who plays any other EA Sports games. There are layers of complexity below the surface, of course, but still it’s a system that’s easy to understand and fun to toy around with in isolation situations.
The biggest improvement to the dribbling comes in the form of the R2/RT modifier to create hesitation opportunities. It’s not completely unlike FIFA’s new feinting system that’s being introduced, but the point is it allows you to better size up opponents and then blow by them. By flicking the right stick different directions while holding R2, it can create chances for step backs, signature dribbles, blow-by opportunities, or a chance to simply dance around as you wait for a pick to be set. Live has really struggled to find ways to make players feel explosive off the bounce, but I believe this mechanic is now the best way to create those chances.
Dribbling does not feel quite as fluid when you are simply trying to run the ball up the court or carve up the defense while at more of a sprint. If the game does a good job of taking you from 0-100 when at a standstill, it still feels a bit off when trying to take you from 0-60 and then 60-100 when trying to grab an outlet pass and fly up the court. And I don’t mean to say the pace of the game does not feel fast enough, because if anything the pace of the game maybe feels a pinch too fast, but rather it feels like the player with the ball is still struggling to get moving at points.
Pick and Roll/Dribble Handoffs
Something that also adds to the fluidity of this year’s game is the tweaks to the pick and roll, and the incorporation of dribble handoffs. It all revolves around using the B button or Circle button (depending on your console of choice), and since it all revolves around one button it makes understanding and using these mechanics simple enough to grasp.
You can quickly toggle between a pick and fade or pick and roll now, and you still have the option to do a quick pick and slip by just releasing the designated button ahead of the pick being set.
When it comes to dribble handoffs, the same rules apply as pick and rolls. You can more or less designate who you want to come get the handoff (it can be any of the four players, much like any of the four players can come set a pick), and then that player will sprint to you and come look for the ball. It creates some dangerous scoring opportunities, and it feels like a very worthwhile addition to the game. For example, when LeBron comes up to get a dribble handoff, each time you have to make a quick decision: either you’re going to trail him with the on-ball defender, or you’ll switch to the other defender already on the ball and try a hard hedge, or if it’s a big already up high then you can choose to sink deeper into the paint and just try to stop Bron from driving. Again, the dribble handoffs have the feel of a nice tactical cat and mouse game that changes based on the personnel involved.
Coming right off a dribble handoff, sometimes you might just take a dribble or two and then pull up. And what’s nice is that those pull-up jumpers do feel much cleaner this year. You feel the momentum and weight of the ball handler as he tries to rise and fire. The new shooting mechanics come in here as well because signature jumpers do have different timing windows, which will add a nice layer of difficulty.
The big thing here is that it feels like those in-between animations that act as connective tissue between going from a dribble to a pull up have been cleaned up or added. In fact, it actually felt more natural and rewarding to shoot off the bounce rather than rise and fire from a set position on the baseline or wing.
The fluidity of the game is also obviously impacted by passing. I have no issue saying the passing is improved in NBA Live 16. It can be done more quickly, and there is an element of pre-loading passes now to more quickly whip the ball around the perimeter. Still, passing does not quite feel as strong an element as it could be moving forward.
To me, passing still feels a pinch slow when trying to ping the ball around the perimeter. Balls do not float as much as they did in the past, but I don’t necessarily feel like every pass has the right zip on it either. In addition, while you still always know who you will pass to based on the white halo under a player, I still feel most comfortable using icon-based passing.
Defense and Physicality
Another aspect of NBA Live that has been talked about a lot in the past is this idea of “force fields” and the fact that it never really felt like players were actually interacting with each other on the court when they ran into each other. Improvements are being made here, but it’s probably the aspect of the game I’m most worried about at this point, which I’ll talk about below.
So what is cool here is that Live is continuing to add more off-ball controls. You can bump cutters and so forth on defense, and you can also clear space for yourself on the offensive side before coming off a screen.
This ends up actually being important at times because, using the Warriors as the example, you may want to switch off the ball and sometimes bump Klay when he tries running around the off-ball screens. It’s an added layer of strategy that exists now in NBA 2K and NBA Live, and it helps for those moments when you need to stop a money play.
Beyond that, I don’t know what Live’s new mode will be at this point, but a focus on this type of stuff really pushes the idea that it will be some sort of extension of using a single player.
Going To the Rim
Now here is where we get to the high highs and low lows. Live is touting a new physics system that’s based off real physics tying together with motion-captured animations. It’s a system they say they’ve worked on for two years. In short, this system is definitely helping in some regards, but it’s also not making me forget about some of the previous shortcomings either.
When you attack the rim, it can lead to singular moments of visual brilliance or moments of abject failure. For example, there was a moment where I got the ball on the break with Harrison Barnes. It was a two-on-one and Barnes decided to just rise up on Tristan Thompson. Barnes collided with Thompson but still more or less climbed up him and hammered hard. It looked great, felt great and was a nice “wow” moment that showed off this new system at work. However, soon after LeBron James did a nice job blowing by his defender, only to get bumped a bit on the way to the rim before nearly trying to lay the ball up backwards.
The point is things are looking better -- even amazing at times -- but it’s not like a switch was turned on and now everything is magically fixed. Like with anything else, this seems like a work in process. And hey, there’s still time. I know, for example, they have not even turned on certain animations yet -- in this case ones where you would usually catch the ball rolling to the rim with a big before going right up with it for a layup/dunk in one seamless movement -- because they were not ready as of yet.
At the very least, the development team is aware of the issues, so at this point I just hope they can clean up the animations relating to contact on layups and putback attempts.
Force Fields and Fouls
Regardless, it feels like “force fields” are very much less of a thing now. There is no secret wall keeping you from running out of bounds anymore. For example, I caught a ball out of bounds and also dribbled out of bounds. Both things were my fault, and it felt good to see that happen.
At the same time, there’s nothing stopping defenders from being able to step up and body up players driving to the hoop. The help defense did not always feel as on point as it should, but there were great moments here as well. One that sticks out is on a Klay Thompson drive; Tristan Thompson got over and just absolutely annihilated Klay’s layup attempt with a swat off the glass, leading to a fast break going the other way.
I was also fouled on multiple occasions when rising up to take a shot. However, I still feel like not enough fouls were called when I drove to the rim.
Hitting the Glass
Rebounding is the last element that comes into play here. Again, it’s sort of a mix of good and bad. Last year, I think it’s easy to argue offensive rebounding was overdone. This year, it feels like boxing out is more easily done, but I feel like I trust the AI way more to box out and then attack the glass than I do a user. It could just be sample size at this point, but it just felt like when I would try and box out and then go get the ball, I would lose those battles far more often than the CPU would in the same situation.
Beauty of the Game
NBA Live really does look impressive to me this year. It’s visually arresting, has a slightly subdued color palette that brings about a more realistic look, and it has an art style that is consistent with itself. Beyond the looks of the actual game, the UI is also more prominent this year (as it is in all EA Sports games this year) as the game is trying to teach you more as you play. I’ll talk more about both these elements below.
How the Game Looks To You
From the moment the starting lineups screen pops up to the close-ups of the players after they score, I think this is a game that is really clicking in all areas. I can obviously only judge two teams at this point, but the face scanning seems to have paid off, and overall it’s hard to really have too many issues with how players are looking on the court.
What’s more exciting to me is that what’s still being promised to be in the game should help more. Players still were not emoting as much as you would like, but the Live team is saying they’re still just adding those emotional elements to the game. In addition, players will have their warm-ups on as they sit on the bench. And lastly, signature celebrations such as James Harden’s “stirring the pot” celebration should end up in the game as well.
How the Game Talks To You
The UI is more in your face this year. Live got some guff for not giving users enough tutorial elements when the game launched last year, and the development team is trying to rectify that this season.
The bit that immediately sticks out is the UI prompts when shooting. To me, the UI is helpful but a bit confusing at this point. On free throw attempts, you’re shooting for 100 percent on the UI meter, but on regular shots, it seems 50 percent is more your goal. This 50 percent is based on shot quality as well as shot timing. Overall, it’s a good addition, but it’s just a matter of trying to explain these elements to users so they do not get frustrated.
The other element that is not there right now, but may end up in the game, are play art prompts on the floor itself. These may show up only for plays, or they may show up when sets are just automatically playing out. I think it would be a good addition if it makes it into the game (I always use play art at all times in 2K, for example), but we’ll see if that happens.
So at this point, it’s interesting to see how Live is coming together. As it’s the title furthest from being released among the EA Sports titles, it means it has the most time left to be improved. I did not talk about the post game, for example, because there is not much to talk about as of yet. The development team knows the post game needs to be improved, and they are promising they’ll be adding to it before launch, but as of now it has not gotten a major upgrade. So while I’m cautiously optimistic overall with this game, we also have to be aware that there’s still a hefty amount of development time left here as we move towards release.