NBA Live 10
Sports titles don't change all that much with each successive release, right? A combination of relatively short development cycles and the need to stay within the confines of the sport they represent, means that these sports 'simulators' regularly struggle to define and separate themselves from the previous game in the series - just look at the recently released NHL 10 for a prime example.
However, this year the planets must have aligned in a magical formation because something very strange has happened with NBA Live 10. Not only has the game changed considerably since last year's outing, it's changed in an overwhelmingly positive manner. It seem that the team at EA Canada have finally drawn a line in the sand (or on the court) and have overhauled a series that looked destined to spend the rest of its life under the shadow of the NBA 2K franchise.
Live 10 plays an entirely different game of basketball from what we saw last year in Live 09. For a start players come across as much more realistic and lifelike, each one able to influence the action in a variety of ways. For example, the Phoenix Suns' Steve Nash is now as effective passing the ball around the outside as he is at attacking the basket, drawing defenders out of position and executing a quick pass to the open man to tuck away. It gives the game a much more realistic feel, as players no longer feel like one-dimensional mannequins waiting for specific situations to arise in which they can be effective, allowing you much greater freedom to experiment with new plays and player combinations with a sense of curiosity and intrigue rather than apprehension and trepidation.
Not only have the players suffered from over-specialisation in past Live titles, they've also been unable to recognise when they've made contact with their fellow 'ballers'. Live 09 consistently allowed you to dribble straight through opposition players, with no discernable consequence in terms of being stopped in your tracks, or even slowed down. It's all change now though as the collision detection mechanic employed this time round means that even if the defender doesn't make an attempt to block the fact that you're running straight into their path invariably slows you down. This seemingly small improvement has a dramatic effect on gameplay, forcing you to slow down and take stock of what the defence is doing - and how it has reacted to you throughout the game - in order to work the ball into an area where you can take a high-percentage shot (i.e. one that is likely to go in). This is a huge departure from last year in which the only sure way to put up some points was by handing the ball off to Kobe and having him take a 3-point shot, or handing the ball off to Kobe and driving to the basketball, or handing the ball off to Kobe and... you get the idea.
There are still a number of suspect moments in which the collision detection seems to go AWOL, allowing you to perform the kind of miracle dunks that only Superman (and I don't mean Dwight Howard) would have a hope of executing. To my knowledge, no sub-6 foot player has ever managed to launch himself into the air from the free throw line, glide straight through 3 defenders and finish up with the kind of dunk that LeBron James would envy. Thankfully, these moments are fairly rare and so don't really influence the outcome of the match but, when they do occur, they stick out like Shaq on a team of midgets, destroying any prior sense of realism you may have been enjoying.
When creating a game based on a team sport it's imperative that the AI - both friendly and adversary - is able to make you feel as though you're playing alongside real people, with their own sense of the game and what they should be doing within the confines of their position. Generally, the AI for Live 10 is fine. Your own team move around in an attempt to get open, track opposing players whether they have the ball or not and are able to spot free space and react quickly enough to get there before a defender blocks the passing lane. The opposition is no slouch either, consistently running the pick and roll to spectacular effect and regularly showing new looks on both offence and defence, forcing you to stay on your toes and change your own strategies accordingly.
That's not to say that it's perfect however, because it's not. Players seems to step out of bounds just before collecting a pass, leading to an intensely irritating (and entirely unforced) turnover that can ruin your chances of winning during close games. There's also an occasional problem with your team-mates becoming glued to the spot, forcing you to look for other players as their opposite number simply stands next to them daring you to throw the ball towards them. It's usual that a game with so many changes will have a few rough edges that need to be straightened out, but it's annoying and disappointing nonetheless.
No matter how much the gameplay has improved, it's the on-court presentation that is the real star of the show. Everything from pre-game player intros to highlights during stoppages in play and what is arguably the liveliest crowd in any sports game ever has been produced to make it feel as though you're watching a real game on the TV. Whereas spectators in other EA Sports games tend to fall on the unconvincing side of convincing, the crowd in Live 10 are not shy about supporting their team and making the visitors feel as unwelcome as possible, cheering and booing on almost every possession. It's remarkably satisfying to travel as an away team and beat your opponents so badly that the home crowd is literally silenced, not knowing whether to just leave the arena now or stay in and watch as their heroes succumb to a humiliating defeat.
While Live 10 has an abundance of game modes to get stuck into (Dynasty Mode, online leagues, play-offs et al), there's only one new addition worthy of mentioning, the Dynamic Season. Dynamic Season allows you to play along with the 2009-2010 NBA season, complete with the Dynamic DNA feature first seen last year that updates each player's stats on a daily basis in line with their recent performances. Interestingly, rather than selecting a single team to play as, you can play any number of games that are scheduled for that day. The results of those games are then merged with the real-life results of the games you didn't play to create a league that is unique to you, based partly on fantasy and partly on reality in varying degrees depending on how many games you choose - or have time to - to play yourself. It's a wonderful idea that puts an entirely unique spin on the traditional season-based modes and is also a fantastic way to keep up with the NBA if you happen to live in a country where TV coverage is somewhat lacking.
Overall NBA Live 10 is a significantly improved title from last year and you could even argue it's the best game in the series so far. There's no question that a major makeover was needed if EA had any hope of displacing NBA 2K from its spot as undisputed king of basketball games. While there are some issues that need to be addressed for next year, the Live series is one that is most certainly on the up and ready to win back the legions of fans it has slowly lost to the opposition.