Live and let fly.
Rarely has an NBA off-season seen as much change as what went down this past summer. Shaq moved to Florida, T-Mac moved to Texas, the Nuggets suddenly look terrifying and the Lakers suddenly look like the Clippers. My fantasy team is a mess.
But in case you simply can't wait for the NBA to officially start in November, EA has stolen the tip by releasing NBA Live 2005 in October. Unlike a busy off-season filled with change, however, this is mostly the same game you've been playing since way back in the '03.
In fact, the biggest change has nothing to do with the normal game at all. NBA Live 2005 brings the fans what they wanted by adding a playable NBA All-Star weekend, complete with a Rookie/Sophomore game, Three-Point Shootout, All-Star game and, the one that rules them all, a Dunk Contest.
The first three are pretty self-explanatory. The Rookie/Sophomore game is just as it sounds: the rookies versus a squad of second-year men, and it's pretty forgettable. The Three-Point shootout is almost identical to the one found in the old NBA Live games for the original Playstation, forcing you to simply pick up the ball and shoot it. There's a bit of added depth since the different players require different timing (the quick-firing Peja has a much different release than the more classic Ray Allen), but by and large it's just a diversion. And of course, the All-Star game has been in video games forever.
The Dunk Contest, though, is entirely new. Dunks are broken down into three phases: the takeoff, the trick and the release. Each of the four face buttons gives you a different takeoff, be it off one foot, two feet, or with a spin. You then press another button in mid-air to start a trick and hold it for just the right amount of time to jam it home. The shoulder buttons modify the tricks and the analog sticks can be used to bust out cool alley-oop tosses during the takeoff. Couple all that with the fact that the dunks and animations change depending upon your location on the court, and you wind up with a system that boasts literally thousands of dunks.
It's surprisingly robust and looks very cool thanks to the great animations, that's for sure, but the whole Dunk Contest isn't very intuitive. Completing basic slams is pretty simple and, if modified and done perfectly, can net some high scores. Getting the perfect 50s, though, requires a more advanced alley-oop toss, which is where the difficulty suddenly spikes through the roof. The timing is very, very hard to master; most gamers will probably play around with it for a while, then opt out and go back to the main game. Still, hats off to EA for giving the crowd what it wants.
The Dynasty mode has received a minor facelift. A handy calendar has been added alongside more scouting options, and it's now possible to actually have a prospect work out with the team. An occasionally annoying PDA keeps you up to date on news, trades, injury reports and owners concerns. You can simulate your way through 10 seasons and can even halt a game in progress during any quarter to take control yourself. It's better than last year, although isn't quite as slick as the one found in ESPN NBA 2K5.
And while the Dynasty Mode is adequate for would-be GMs, it's fairly bare bones. Apparently the different development houses at EA don't share info, because the kind of detail we see in the Madden series is still nowhere to be found in Live.
The gameplay sees a couple notable tweaks. A new tip-dunk ability expands your control over rebounding, while the pro hop button, which was far too powerful in NBA Live 2004, has been dialed back to the point of being almost unusable, often resulting in a charge or a turnover. EA is also touting "Freestyle Air," which is just a fancy name for the ability to press the dunk button while in the act to switch to a layup. You're now afforded a bit more control over the type of shot you switch to, although this is a move that has been in b-ball games for years and isn't really new.
Otherwise, NBA Live 2005 plays out much like NBA Live 2004. Freestyle control is the same as it ever was, which is a good thing as it still trumps ESPN as the better, more responsive control system. Live retains a more arcadey feel than ESPN; it's a faster-paced game in general, and the 10-man motion capture means it still looks much more upbeat than the competition. The core gameplay is solid, no doubt.
Still, some old programming flaws have not been resolved. Players prefer to stop to catch passes rather than catch them on the run, making fast-breaks nearly impossible. Though you can still choose between a jump shot and a layup, you don't feel like you have much control on whether or not it goes in – it seems like a roll of the dice more than anything.
This failure to upgrade is most evident in the graphics, which are largely unchanged since 2004 and are starting to look a little dated. The Dunk Contest looks great, filled with fancy effects and fantastic animations, but the rest of the game could use a spit-shine. In all three console versions, player models don't look as realistic as those in ESPN, clipping errors are common and the framerate tends to gum up a bit. The Xbox version is the best looking of the three, but it still isn't a looker. You almost get the feeling they're waiting for the next round of consoles to crop up before they make any significant changes to the engine.
The sound is also much the same. Ernie Johnson and Kenny Smith handle the dunk contest duties pretty smoothly, while Marv Albert and Mike Fratello take care of the play-by-play and color commentary. They grow redundant fairly quickly and occasionally offer ridiculous insights (Fratello likes to point out, for instance, that despite being down by 30 with 2 minutes left, the Hawks "better start scoring if they want to get back into this game." Did David Stern give the okay to a new 15-point shot, Mike?) Expect plenty of hip-hop for the soundtrack, which is par for the b-ball course nowadays.
Poor Gamecube owners miss out on the ability to hop into some online play, and beyond that, there isn't much else to NBA Live 2005 in terms of extras. You can unlock gear and jerseys and whatnot in the NBA Store, but none of it actually has any bearing on the gameplay.
Like the NBA in general, NBA Live 2005 goes for flash over substance by putting more effort into its dunks than the fundamentals, although in this case the basics were pretty sound to begin with. The much ballyhooed Dunk Contest offers some incentive for fans looking for more sizzle, but for the most part, this baller didn't learn a lot over the summer.