The last few years I’ve preferred Take Two’s NBA 2K series over EA’s NBA Live, mostly due to a more accurate simulation of the game. This year I went out and picked up my yearly copy of NBA Live for the PC, and am happy to say that this is a huge improvement over the past couple of years. The graphics are better, the game forces you to play smart more often, the controls are more solid (provided you use a controller rather then the keyboard), and the superstar mode actually works. It’s not perfect, but it’s a definate keeper.

The Superstar feature works very well. It’s a good feeling to have moves at your control that you know are there when you need them. Being able to do an up-and-under layup or a quick-trigger three on command gives you more of a feeling of being in command of the game. I won’t say that these features make you feel a great change when controlling or playing against a superstar, but they can be used to make a small difference. Some of the choices, however, as to who is what kind of superstar are a little odd, though. Also, the Highflier and Power superstars can often lead to cheap points in the hands of a competent player since you can just enter the commands some distance from the basket and watch the points roll in, regardless of whether you have an open path to the rim or not.

The game has good overall graphics, but I’m disappointed with the emotionless faces. NBA Live 98 introduced facial expressions to the series and NBA Live 2000 perfected them, but it seems that ever since then EA has left us with these shells instead. They have no expression or emotion, whatever the situation. I’m also sad that they’ve never brought back the 3D portraits. Also, the player’s hands seem very inert; players hang from the rim with open hands and make odd gestures after big plays that can be hard to understand. Players faces also don’t track plays well. In the top pic on this page you can see that players stare at the ceiling to block shots right in front of them. The graphical weirdness also finds it’s way into the create-a-player mode. Some of the head/cheek types put what look to all the world like giant scars and cuts on the player’s head. Um, EA? My create-a-player didn’t want to look like he’s fresh out of a street fight, he only wanted to play basketball. It feels in some ways like we got NBA Live 2005+1 while they spent most of their time working on on the Xbox 360 version, which looks awesome.

There are also some odd kinks in the gameplay itself.  If you’ve got more then one player within fifteen feet of the basket and press the alley-oop button, it’s a toss up who’ll jump for it. I hate seeing Antoine Walker go up for the dunk when I meant to throw it to Shaq. I’ve also noticed AI players routinely dribbling straight out of bounds after an in-bound pass. Not that I mind getting the ball back, but it breaks the believability, which was wavering to start with. It does feel good though that pick-and-pop plays work again and that players don’t stop dead whenever you pass them the ball anymore, which means fast break plays are back in the fold. It’s also nice to see the AI take advantage of defensive miscues for once. Last year a double team usually meant automatic turnover, but not this year. The AI will break your double team with a dribble or pass and make you pay if you’re not careful.

EA has touched up the Dunk Contest mode and made it a little tighter then before. The biggest problems are the same as always: too-long miss animations, players laying down after really bad attempts (I refuse to say they fell), and some depth perception problems on alley-oop attempts. I’ve also noticed that some dunks you might have  perfected in practice don’t seem to work the same in Dunk Contest mode. I had a lob/cartwheel/windmill slam I’d gotten down to a science, but in the contest the ball wouldn’t bounce where it had in practice, which led to me getting a no-dunk score. I’m not talking a little off, I mean the ball went left instead of right, and one time hit the side of the backboard. I went back into practice – mad as hell, of course – and it worked perfectly again. I dunno, maybe I’m just inept but that’s been a reoccurring theme in my game.

NBA Live 06 is a sure purchase for the PC, if only because it’s the only game on PC. Even if it wasn’t, it’d still be a buy, flaws and all.