Hitting the hardwood

Trailers and behind-the-scenes looks at NBA Live 15 have continued to show steps forward since last year’s abysmal return after the franchise’s self-imposed three-year absence from the gaming scene. The next hurdle the NBA Live franchise needed to clear in order to continue its battle back to relevancy, though, was finally letting the press go hands-on with this year’s iteration.

After playing a pair of games as my New York Knicks, and getting about an hour’s worth of hands-on time with NBA Live 15, I can say there’s been a clear step forward in how the game handles itself on the court (I just wish I could say the same about the Knicks!). Starting off with a brief tutorial where I played as cover athlete Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, I was taken through the ins and outs of basics of offense: passing, shooting, dribbling, and alley-oops. The HUD showed each player’s stamina bar, and a meter let me know my chances of making a shot from a particular range and how open I was. I then got the chance to move to a 5-on-5 scrimmage to try out everything I just learned.

On offense, I was immediately able to make significant strides as I stepped confidently down the lane for a powerful dunk with Amar’e Stoudemire or kicked it out to Carmelo Anthony in the corner for a clutch three once we moved to real game action. Ball movement felt swift and, for the most part, accurate. There were some moments in my haste, however, whether trying to beat the shot clock or the end of a quarter, where I wanted to pass to one player and instead passed to another, which led to an ill-timed turnover—and led to my questioning the intuitiveness of the system. Maybe I just needed more time with it, but there were several moments where the ball just didn’t seem to go where I wanted.

Another thing I noticed on offense was the new rag-doll physics. Though they weren’t prevalent throughout the court, everything near the basket seemed to have improved physics, with players naturally adjusting in mid-air to work around a steadfast defender in the paint or taking a hard foul and contorting in ways that would accurately depict contact. Considering the amount of action that usually takes place around the basket, it was impressive to see when players would fight for rebounds or try to draw a foul on a layup for a potential three-point play.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to the game of basketball than what the tutorial showed me, like the entire defensive side of the game. For as competent as I felt on offense, the only thing I felt when transitioning to defense was dread. At least in the demo, NBA Live 15 didn’t do nearly as good a job of teaching the defensive basics as it did the offensive elements. I ended up in foul trouble more often than not as I tried learning the best timing for steal attempts. Meanwhile, shot-blocking was an endeavor I’d rather forget about, and my players flew away from the shooter about often as they succeeded in getting a hand in the opponent’s face.

And in those few instances where I actually succeeded in making the shot attempts more difficult for my opponent, I had no idea how to command my players to box out, and my frustration only grew as I gave up offensive rebound after offensive rebound. These are basics that the game should’ve focused on just as much as passing and shooting.

At least the presentation for NBA Live 15 appears to be top-notch. Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy’s commentary, representing ESPN’s No. 1 broadcast team, provided a lot of authenticity to the presentation, and their commentary was hysterical—especially when talking about James Harden’s beard when facing the Houston Rockets. Meanwhile, Jalen Rose hosts the pre-, post-, and halftime shows that give game highlights and spotlight superstar players in a way that would make you feel like you’re actually watching an ESPN/ABC broadcast of the NBA.

I walked away from my NBA Live 15 time with more positives than negatives, and I definitely had fun while playing it. But I also think that if it’s going to successfully close the gap between itself and NBA 2K, it’s going to have to deliver a more complete package than what I saw in my brief hands-on time.