I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that – HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey
HAL’s classic line was what ran through my head last year when Dynamic DNA was unveiled at E3 ’08. But it’s not because I thought Dynamic DNA would become a self-aware AI that one day turned on me, though, what a twist that would be. Instead it was because the idea of a learning/changing/evolving AI system was a real hard thing for me to grasp as a sports gamer. I don’t think I was the only gamer who was overwhelmed either.
It also seemed like Dynamic DNA was a hard thing for the Live developers to wield last year. Taking all that real-world data and cramming it into a game on a daily basis so the experience was always different was a huge undertaking, and it showed in NBA Live 09 as the system was only sort of “Dynamic.”
Sure, it was great to replay games from the ongoing NBA season and check out the ratings and tendency changes, but the game didn’t always feel like it was “made fresh daily.” I would still run into too many games where Mario Chalmers would take over, not Dwyane Wade. I would still run into teams like the Warriors that, for whatever reason, played the same slow style as a team like the Spurs. It was a house that needed another coat of paint.
Adding that second coat of paint seems to be the goal this year when it comes to NBA Live 10, and getting to that goal does seem to start with Dynamic DNA. This year the developers are also promising that teams will act like their real-life counterparts, each venue will have its own unique flavor, and the game will be, well, at least somewhat self-aware.
Unique Play Styles
Starting with the teams, the developers are promising that each team will have a unique play style. This means the Warriors should be pushing the ball and chucking at an alarming rate, while the Magic should be about transition offense before feeding the cover athlete down low.
The example I saw of the differing play styles was brief -- we’re talking 3-4 plays -- but promising. I got to watch the Denver Nuggets run their offense (in their classic ’85 rainbow jerseys). Billups obviously dominated the ball, but the best part of the whole demo was watching J.R. Smith constantly running the baseline while looking to spot up from the 3-point line. It was a simple thing, but that type of off-ball movement is important to note because it wasn’t happening because a play was called, J.R. Smith just did that because he’s J.R. Smith and he likes to shoot.
The players should also look more natural as they move around without the ball because the developers have added over 150 off-ball movement animations, which tie into moments like players doing V-cuts or shooters settling into the 3-point line. However, it’s hard for me to personally judge just how much those new animations will help, because I just saw a glimpse of gameplay.
It was truly hard to gather much else from the super brief play-styles portion of the demo, especially because the developers were trying to show off other elements at the same time, but it was enough to at least give me hope that it’s a promise that may be fulfilled -- let’s not forget that this isn’t the first time developers have promised that each team would be unique. If anything, hopefully the new play styles will make the solid play-call system from last year more interesting to use.
There wasn’t much that was unique about any venue in NBA Live 09. Every arena was dark, cold and soulless. While arenas are in fact soulless, the people inside them do make them special, which the Live 10 developers now seem to realize.
I briefly got to take a gander at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Lakers faced off against the Magic in a Finals rematch. The Staples Center court had a nice big Larry O’Brien trophy painted on it, and the players also sported a special Finals patch on their jerseys.
In the crowd it seemed like almost every spectator was sporting some sort of Lakers apparel, whether it was a hat, jersey or both. What’s nice about this is that the crowd won’t always look the same. First off, obviously that means if the game is played in Orlando, the fans will be wearing Orlando apparel. But beyond that type of simple stuff, during a regular season game not all the fans will be rocking their home team’s jerseys and hats. Instead you’ll be seeing more regular clothes and less fervor.
This type of varying fandom also carries over to the noise level in each arena. If the Lakers are playing the Celtics in Boston in the Finals, you can rest assured that all the fans will be screaming “BEAT LA!” at the top of their lungs. But during a Grizzlies versus Kings game in the middle of May, there won’t be that same type of excitement in the air.
All 30 arenas in the game have also been re-lit to better capture how they look. As I mentioned previously, the Lakers arena is bright on the court, but the crowd is dimly lit. Arena sounds also play a part in this reimagining of each venue. You will hear various organs playing during a Lakers game; you will hear the sound of the backboard shattering in Orlando after a dunk; you will hear a “WOO!” ring out after Chris Paul makes yet another layup; and you will hear the Toronto crowd booing the crap out of Vince Carter every time he touches the ball in Toronto.
The Game, It’s Alive
One of the more Space Odyssey moments of the whole demo presentation was when the developers mentioned that Marv Albert and Steve Kerr would be reacting in the game to what happens in real life.
The example that was put forth was a what-if situation that involved Tracy McGrady. If Tracy McGrady got hurt (again) in the second game of the real NBA season, the in-game Marv and Steve would know that he was hurt in real life, and McGrady would obviously not be on the court in Live 10 either. And because he was hurt in real life, Marv and Steve would talk about how the loss was affecting the Rockets in the game.
Now of course all of this commentary has to be recorded ahead of time, but it will be interesting to see what commentary gets unlocked as the real NBA season unfolds. It’s actually one of those things that you can expect to surprise you during the course of a whole season.
Beyond the aforementioned commentary and DNA, some of the other touches that should potentially make the game feel more alive are the removal of most of the cut scenes and the pursuit of player authenticity. The removal of the cut scenes was really a necessity because they never really synced up with what was happening on the court. So now players will simply react after plays in real time, and a more dynamic camera will capture these moments. One of the moments I witnessed was a close-up of Mickael Pietrus as he pointed to Jameer Nelson after drilling a 3-pointer -- Jameer assisted on the play.
The pursuit of authenticity is a multifaceted undertaking, but two good examples are the 500 authentic pairs of shoes in the game and the player-specific pregame rituals. In other words, Dwight Howard will do his little jig, LeBron and KG will toy around with their chalk, and in general it seems like if a big-time player does that little signature something before a game, it will be in Live 10. I personally got to see the LeBron chalk maneuver, and it was, well, it was what it was supposed to be.
Open the Pod Bay Doors, HAL
At the end of the demo presentation, that was what I wanted to say to the developers. After all, as nice as it was to check out some of the elements surrounding the on-court action, the gameplay has been Live’s downfall for the past however many years. And until I can touch the controller and see how the game feels, the gameplay will continue to be an unknown.
*Full disclosure: EA paid for my one-night hotel stay and airfare during this trip. While it did not influence what I wrote here, I always think it is important to be upfront with the visitors of this site whenever possible.*