To say NBA Live 14 had a rough debut is an understatement. With sluggish transitions, almost no off-ball movement, and a troubled shooting system that saw some A.I players take shots with their backs to the basket, the play resembled the Washington Generals more than a true NBA team. The developers at EA Tiburon owned up to the game's shortcomings, and rather than sulking immediately went to work on getting the Live gameplay to a competent level. Part of that effort includes bringing on longtime NBA Live and NCAA Basketball vet Connor Dougan back into the fold as a producer.
Dougan and the rest of the Live team set out with a four-part plan. First, they wanted to improve the responsiveness of every action taken on the court, from dribbling and passing to shooting and driving. To do so, they replaced every transitional animation to give players instantaneous changes of direction and the feeling that actions happen at the push of a button. The pass reception system was also overhauled to ensure that players square up to the basket and get into proper position to shoot or drive.
Secondly, EA Tiburon wanted to make the game more accessible. A long time has passed since Live has been on equal footing with rival NBA 2K, and an entire generation of gamers have grown up with 2K controls. To get these types of players on board with Live more quickly, EA Tiburon designed a new tutorial system to teach players the basics of dribbling, passing, and shooting before jumping into a game. Guided by cover athlete Damian Lillard, players learn all the basics in an easy-to-follow series of drills on a practice court. Other changes to improve accessibility include moving alley oops to a face button and bringing over the quick action system from NCAA basketball. Tapping L1 at any time on the court will enact a series of ad hoc screens and cuts to try and free up an offensive option. If you tap it while carrying the ball up the court, it also serves to initiate early offense with high screens.
The third major endeavor pertains to upping the animation quality. The team aggressively overhauled its approach, making changes to locomotion, off-ball movement, guarding, passes, catches, and shooting. More than 600 new dunking and lay-up animations were added to Live 15, and the new jump-shooting footwork evens out inconsistencies present last year where timing could be different whether you were moving left or right with a signature shot.
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Last but not least, EA wanted to hone the physics in the paint to not only even up the matchup against 2K, but in some cases beat it. Anyone who plays basketball games knows animations get messy when players come into content under the hoop, causing arms, legs, and sometimes even the ball to warp through bodies. To improve these entanglements, Tiburon is applying true physics to both the shooter and defenders while a player is attacking the rim. For the entirety of the shot, rag doll physics are applied, which means you'll see true contact and realistic-looking animations. In several instances we saw defenders jockeying with each other for space on the court while trying to block a lay-up.
I checked out these improvements first-hand in two exhibition games. The game definitely plays faster than last year's sluggish effort. Stringing together dribbling moves and penetrating looks much more natural, and the drive, hop step, shoot strategy isn't 100-percent successful anymore. The closer camera angle gives you a chance to check out some of the improved player animations – the body models and glistening, sweaty skin in particular look fantastic. Players react naturally with emotion when celebrating blocks or slamming a dunk home.
I was always a fan of the quick action button in NCAA basketball, as it gives you on-the-fly options when you don't feel like calling a proper play. This translates well to Live 15, which helps keep players from idling listlessly on the court. Last year movement would come to a standstill if you didn't initiate a play, but the players in Live 15 move with urgency and purpose as much as they would on a real court.
The gameplay may still have some rough edges – I noticed in particular that players reacted slowly to loose balls, and some contact animations in the paint resulted in defenders being driven aggressively backward. But if the majority of these alterations prove themselves out over extended play sessions, the Live series may finally have a foundation from which to build a true competitor to NBA 2K.