Spud Webb steps out onto the floor for his first dunk. Dr. J just scored a 49 with an alley-oop off of the backboard, between the legs jam, and now the pressure falls on the smallest man in the contest. At 5-6, nobody ever expected Webb to be in the competition in 1986, and now, almost twenty years later, the virtual Spud is ready to fly again.
He places the ball down on the ground, kick flips it up over his head and off of the Jumbotron to the right of the basket, but instead of going after the ball, performs a front handspring then leaps into the air to grab the rock. But that's not enough. After snatching the ball, Webb, still in the air, decides to do The Doctor one better. Spud takes the ball and swoops it between his legs, not only once, but twice in a figure-eight style motion before finally slamming it home.
The crowd of players sitting on the floor jumps to their feet, some recording the moment on camcorders, some just waving their hands in the air in amazement. When the panel of celebrity judges is shown, dunk legends like Dee Brown give Spud (and the player controlling him) the props he deserves... a perfect 50.
You have just won the Slam Dunk contest in All-Star Weekend. A mode that's sure to go down as one of the most addicting new ways to spend your time in any sports game this year. A mode that helps make NBA Live 2005 a must-buy for sports gamers looking for something more than your typical 5-on-5 action.
Don't be fooled, though, as Live is not just a one trick game... even if that trick enables you to perform windmills and 720 slams. The crew at EA Canada managed to not only add in new modes, but fix the majority of play issues from last year to finally create the game Live fans have been waiting for since the game's inception ten years ago. And so it's fitting, on Live's ten year anniversary, the game delivers to fans its best version to date. And I'll take that over the traditional ten-year tin or aluminum anytime.
Flow. To a basketball video game, it's everything. Make the flow too fast, and you get an arcade dunkfest. Slow the game down Piston-style, and you have a bump and grind game that might win you an NBA Championship, but doesn't make for a fun polygonal experience.
One of the main problems in last year's game was the flow. You could barely walk three feet without bumping into somebody, and the double teams were so quick to stop you and strip the ball, players were often left frustrated. Years prior, Live's flow was all fast with no breaks in the action as you could freestyle the crossover ankle-breakers from basket to basket, even watching as Shaq pulled off moves that would make Hook Mitchell proud. But in Live 2005, that has all changed, and it's definitely a change for the better.
The tempo of the game is faster than last year, but not arcade fast. It's faster simply because you're not constantly bumping into people every second dribble causing the flow of the game to be a lot smoother and a lot more realistic. Special freestyle dribbles are also more limited to those with good ball handling skills. So while Allen Iverson will put on some moves that will quite literally send your defender down to the ground and checking to see if his feet are still attached, if someone like Yao tries the same move, the ball will be ripped by the defender or kicked off of the big man's knee for a turnover.
Another aspect of the game that helps improve the flow is the return of the mid-range jumper. Last year, it seemed like every shot was either a three-pointer or a dunk. This year, not only can you hit the open J, but the computer will work the ball around to the open man and shoot from mid-range, not trying to jam every shot down your throat with an alley-oop or monster slam. The animations have even been improved to show shooters like Reggie Miller and Rip pushing off of their defender and calling for the shot.
The realism doesn't stop there, as there are a variety of player-specific animations of the game that add to the overall experience. Basketball fans will love to watch the smooth dunks of T-Mac and the way Kobe hogs the ball, even trying to throw up double clutch three-pointers. Shaq throws down one-handed dunks from the side of the basket, Wally Szcerbiak shoots his little running ten-foot jumper, and when a star shoots a three pointer, you'll even see them pull their hands back and watch in a cocky animation that will bring a smile to your face... unless of course, he misses.
It all factors in to the way the AI plays, as the game has finally evolved to the point where superstar players not only play like superstar players, you can actually see their moves in the game and it brings up an instant visualizations of those same plays in real life. And it's not just the players who have improved, as the teams finally play more like their real-life counterparts as well. Play against the Heat and watch as Shaq dominates the paint. The Pistons defense will hound you every second of the game while Wallace and Wallace down low are sure to bat the ball emphatically out of bounds just to get a rise from the crowd. It's like the game finally recognized the superstars inside of it and decided to use them as they should, and the results dramatically improve the experience, not to mention, the more sim-like feel.
Also adding to the experience of play is the way that the pro hop has been toned down. This year, the move is used more on fast breaks or in situations where you're trying to beat your opponent past the baseline, but not just as an all-powerful, beat-your-man-off-the-dribble super move. If you try to hop step through a group of defenders, or even straight on through the man in front of you like you were able to last year, the collision detection picks up and you will smack into the defender, throw your hands up in the air and lose the ball. Defensive players will also be able to draw more charges if you try to force your way into the lane. One cool new animation is the Vlade Divac flop. Not limited to Divac's character, of course, defenders can try to draw the charge, and when the players collide, the defender flops down to the ground. This might result in a foul, or it can result in a no-call, leaving the defense a man down as the offense looks for the open shot.
While the pro hop has been toned down, the designers of the game were careful that the new controls for 2005, and most specifically, Freestyle Air, have also already been tweaked to a point where they're great additions to the game, but not the focal point of gameplay. One aspect of Freestyle Air enables players to draw contact with defenders, then change their shot in mid-air in attempts to earn a three-point play. This results in some serious Sportscenter moments as Steve Francis spins in the air and flips the ball over his head for the score, LeBron hangs in the air just long enough to throw up the off balanced jumper, and the guy controlling the action instantly hits the replay to watch it all again.
The second aspect of Freestyle Air is the newfound ability to tip rebounds back into the basket. This is a great way for a team like the Heat or Spurs, a team with a dominant big man, to utilize their strengths in the paint to their advantage, and it's completely up to the user to attempt the tip-in as you press one button to attempt a rebound, or the shoot button to try to put it back in. This ability made me nervous when I first heard about it because it seems like something that can be abused, but the accuracy of the tip-ins really regulate its use, as you're not guaranteed by tipping the ball back up that it's going in the basket. I've been able to make a few from outside the lane while experimenting, but nothing so outrageous, and nothing at any sort of significant rate, that it makes the move as powerful as the pro hop of a year ago. Think of it more as a nice compliment to the moves you already have.
While all of these improvements have been made to the game, Live is still far from perfect. One main point of contention deals with fast breaks. You might think you have a clear path to the basket, but the defenders are able to catch up too easily. This wouldn't be too bad if the defender simply trailed behind you or came from an angle and tried to make a Tayshaun Prince-like block on the ball -- that would keep with the whole theme of realistic flow. Instead, what happens is that the defender simply gets in your way and both of you stop, stopping the break, the scoring opportunity, and the flow all in one move. If you have a trailer or a player swooping in from the wing, you can pass the rock and still run the break the way it should be run, but if you're one-on-one, the majority of the time, you end up stopped by a defender who never should've been able to get in front of you in the first place.
Another bothersome aspect of the game is the slowdown as the camera tries to switch after a steal. If you rip the ball in the backcourt, you often need to shoot blind to get an open layup, because if you wait for the camera to rotate to your side, the defender will surely be in front of you for the stop. There also seems to be some slowdown issues every once in a while during Freestyle dribble moves. Occasionally when you're pulling a crossover or spin (or the computer is attempting a freestyle move on you), the game will stutter for a split second. It's not a big deal and doesn't happen too often, but it definitely takes some of the smoothness out of the action.
The one area that probably bothers me the most, however, are the absurd player ratings. It's like the team took a vacation to Portland and drove around in smoke-filled Hummers for a week before randomly throwing out player attributes. Marcus Banks is a 70 for speed and Gary Payton is an 80!?! Does anyone actually watch the NBA? Marcus Banks is the fastest player in the entire league but in the game he's slower than the ancient defender formerly known as Glove. And it gets worse. Rip Hamilton has a lower field goal rating than Lindsey Hunter. Antoine Walker, Mr. 5-24 himself, has a higher field goal rating than Michael Redd. And maybe worst of all, Tim Duncan, arguably the best player in the NBA, is only rated as an overall 89... the same overall rating for Paul Pierce. Nothing against The Truth, but how many rings has he won again?
There was one big negative from last year's game that EA has spun back into a positive, though, and that's the Dynasty mode. Last year, the menus were confusing, you could manipulate any free agent to sign for the minimum, and everything just seemed bogged down by task lists instead of just letting the situations arise naturally over the course of time. In Live 2005, all of this has been fixed and upgraded with an entirely new system. Unfortunately, to fit this system in, all of the cut-scenes that showed things like the draft, or players reacting to getting cut, had to be taken out. It ends up being a small cost for the overall good, however, as I'd rather have a mode that worked than a couple of cut-scenes that showed players in suits shaking my hand (even if I did love to watch players who I cut walk out of the locker room with their bags).
This year, Dynasty mode centers around two things, a calendar of events and a PDA. The color coded calendar is simple to navigate and shows you every important date you need to know, from the trading deadline to the draft. There is also this new theory of time meaning something. When you try and make a trade or sign a free agent, you now submit your proposal to the other team or the player's agent, then wait a couple of days before they e-mail you back with a response. This really prevents you from acting crazy and trying to make too many unrealistic trades, because the more time you fool around, the less time you're going to have to actually do your job right.
The AI has also been improved to the point where free agents won't just sign with you because you offer any old contract. In fact, now each player is receiving and reviewing multiple offers from teams, and they'll take into account things like wanting to play for a winning team and how much you are trying to backend their deals. Same goes for when you're trying to make trades. No longer can you just swoop in and steal all of the stars for draft picks and mediocre players. Even deals like Jason Richardson and a number one for LeBron get shot down as they should. In most games, you'd be able to get away with something like that, but not in Live 2005.
As you continue to play and simulate your way through Dynasty (you can even use a sim intervention by quarter similar to MVP). You earn dynasty points that you can then spend to train your players, buy new shoes and throwbacks, or scouts that you can send to check out the talent for the upcoming draft. During the season, you send scouts out across the world looking for the best talent from Europe, Africa, Asia, Europe, and of course, the United States. The better the scouts you employ, the more accurate the information you get back.
After you narrow down your selections and the season ends, you can actually bring those kids into your practice facility and match them up against one of the players from your team to go one-on-one and check their skills. You can play as or against the young player, enabling you to see how he handles from the spin to the slam and everything in between.
This is a great way to not only know the names of the potential draft picks, but how they are actually going to play for you in the future. That way, when the draft rolls around, you know who you are going to pick, and it's not just because your scout gave him a B grade for dunking. It's because you remember when you brought him in, he dunked in Karl Malone's face and you want to see him do plays just like that in your upcoming season.
Player progression throughout Dynasty has also been fixed so that now, you can actually take a bad team like the Bobcats or Warriors and actually develop your younger talent. In just a few seasons, I watched as Mike Dunleavy Jr. turned into a star and my number one draft pick became a force in the middle to return the Warriors to the playoffs. You cultivate this talent through training sessions and game time, feeding them the ball and watching as they slowly improve. Unfortunately, there are no player personalities involved like in MVP, Madden, or ESPN NBA 2K5. If Jason Richardson doesn't get the ball or improve, he's never going to demand a trade, although he will be less likely to sign with your team when his contract finally does expire. But after seeing how players react and talk to you in ESPN NBA 2K5's Association, it definitely feels like an aspect of Dynasty mode is missing in Live.
If there's one area, one feature that people will remember and talk about most when it comes to NBA Live 2005, however, it's definitely All-Star Weekend. The slam dunk contest is by far, the best representation of the event ever created, making the real dunks seem boring in comparison. Any player with a dunk rating of 80 or above can participate, and up to four players can play at once, turning into one of the best party modes of the year.
The thing is, while there are thousands of different dunk combinations that you will be able to perform in practice mode, when the money is on the line, the clock is ticking down, and your friends are talking junk in your ear, that's when you'll need to pull off these moves in the clutch, and it's a lot tougher than you'd imagine. Also playing into the equation is the fact that once a specific dunk is performed by any of the competitors in the event, the next time someone performs that dunk, the scores will be lower and commentators Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson will really start to ride you for your lack of creativity. You can throw the ball off of the Jumbotron, the backboard, the shot clock, you can bounce it off your head or elbow, run and do front hand springs and spin in the air for a 720. Simply amazing.
Gamers who have mastered titles like Tony Hawk will have an easy time adapting as you'll need to pull off button combinations in sequence -- one to gather your jump, one for the trick, while at the same time tweaking the move with the triggers and alley-ooping the ball with the right analog stick. And while it may sound simple, actually getting the right combinations down takes time, although it's time well spent, especially when you throw down your first 50 and hear Kenny Smith call you the man. Everything about the slam dunk mode screams perfection, from the stylized look to the announcers to the dunks themselves. In fact, the mode is so good, I recommend people buying the game who might not even like the 5-on-5 aspect, but are looking for a unique and fun experience to play in groups. The only downer is that there are no online dunk contests, as that would truly let you know where you stood in terms of the best Live ballers.
All-Star Weekend isn't only about slams as there is also a three-point shootout, a rookie/sophomore game, not to mention the actual East vs. West All-Star experience -- a mode that plays even faster than a typical game, where it's easier to dunk and shoot the long ball, and players can even alley-oop the ball to themselves off the backboard similar to T-Mac's trademark move from a couple of years ago. You can also play both the dunk and three-point contests in split screen mode, playing for overall points against one opponent, similar to how the home run contest is handled in MVP.
Online, the regular hoops game plays smooth, and the addition of Xbox Live is a big bonus. Roster updates will be available throughout the season, and you will be able to set up tournaments and play opponents head-to-head. The lack of leagues and an online All-Star Weekend is extremely disappointing, though.
Graphics and Sound
One area that has really been improved in the series is the game's overall look. For the first time in a Live game, all of the players have unique faces, there is more detail in all of their tattoos, and the licensed shoes from Nike, Reebok, and Adidas really help add to the realism on the court. That being said, however, the models still look years behind those offered by ESPN NBA 2K5. So while it's a step in the right direction, it's still just two steps behind. Another area holding the visuals back is the fact that the players still seem to be skating across the court rather than running, jumping, and stopping using real physics or momentum.
And while Live might not dazzle the eye, it will hold your ear with some of the best sports commentary around, especially for the slam dunk contest. You really get the sense that Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson are actually in the booth talking about the dunk you just performed, and the variety of comments, jokes, and jabs at your skill are amazing. During the regular game, Marv Albert and Mike Fratello return to provide play-by-play and color commentary, but they are far more repetitive than Smith and Johnson, and not nearly as smooth. It's like all of the audio team worked so hard to provide the best of everything for All-Star Weekend, then rushed when it came to the actual game.
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