Amaré Stoudemire stands 6-foot-10. At that height, little lob-in passes are what the Knicks power forward receives, not what he throws. But he's a little out of position, with Carmelo Anthony set up on the right block in front of Miami's Udonis Haslem, asking for the ball. So here goes, because, it's not like Stoudemire's gonna call for a pick-and-roll with Jeremy Lin, even if this is video game basketball.
Stoudemire, as you would expect from a big man, sort of pushes the ball out and it's not on target. Anthony has to lunge away from the basket and high with his right hand to corral it, so there'll be no lowered-shoulder drive to the baseline. But there is now space between him and Haslem, so he turns and plops a 12-foot fadeaway with a signature flick of the wrist.
Even as a broken play executed in a video game that has yet to enter alpha state, it demonstrates that NBA Live 13, shown exclusively to Kotaku yesterday, has moments where it hits its gameplay ideals: authentic passing, recognizable players and behaviors, and a sophisticated, believable outcome with a minimum of control inputs.
E3 is mostly a graphics showcase, and NBA Live 13 indeed looks good. I'll get to that further down. Gameplay is what will feed the bulldog as this series tries to re-establish itself against very a formidable competitor in NBA 2K. And passing is what you'll likely hear the most about once others are shown the game beginning on Tuesday.
In a trip to EA Sports' Tiburon studio in April, I saw more guys working on passing than anything else, fitting for a game whose creative director was a college point guard. They're trying to make it a more intuitive act, directing the ball to your intended player without the extra step of bringing up icons and selecting a corresponding face button for an otherwise straightforward pass to the wing when a big man's also set up in the neighborhood.
With strong ball movement and helpful teammates on the floor, NBA Live 13 shows promise early in the game.
There still will be icon passing for those who prefer it or play with it out of habit. But a simple A button with Stoudemire is going to key the entry to Anthony, however clumsy it was. The same single button, with Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook on the perimeter, sent a longer pass out to Thabo Sefolosha, who had come free from an off-the-ball screen, and not to Kevin Durant, who had set it and was in fact nearer, having rolled back to the hoop. That's what I wanted to do, too. This is tied to an AI system in which players are supposed to recognize the most appropriate target in the area you're facing with the left stick.
That's the direction of the pass. The type of pass will work in your favor if you have a skilled passer as much as it will be an adventure in the hands of someone who isn't. Another example: Mario Chalmers, the Heat's point guard, saw Chris Bosh across the lane on the block. Bosh is 6-11; Chalmers is 6-2. A chest pass to Bosh's numbers in this situation is high enough to get deflected. Chalmers slammed a high, one-handed overhand bounce pass instead, hitting Bosh square to begin his move to the basket.
These are highly specific cases and the interactions are not by themselves heretofore unseen in a video game. And you're still going to turn the ball over if you make a bad choice. But they were aspects of a passing game that became taken for granted after just a quarter. Working in concert with your teammates' AI, NBA Live 13 shows promise as an accessible title that won't resort to handholding.
Players do move purposefully without you telling them to. (Playcalling was not present in the build of the game I saw, anyway.) For example, James Harden came out to set a backscreen up near the foul line and I exploded off it with Westbrook. Harden still rolled but there was nothing but daylight to the rim. And as to player speed, there's a good sense of momentum and inertia depending on size and quickness.
But while Kendrick Perkins is leaden and LeBron James is a jackrabbit, both maintain starting times and stopping distances that allow for precise movement. I've found this especially important when you're playing from a broadcast camera angle, trying to position yourself on the far wing for a three-point shot, for example. The dribble moves, entirely on the right stick, just like NBA Live 10, are quickly interrupted when you change direction with the left. It didn't take much to get the hesitation-and-go move for Westbrook properly timed.
The broadcast is more than ESPN's logo; the network's camera locations and replay angles are used, too.
The game's visual presentation already shows refined detail and strong polish, even with more work to be done. NBA Live 13 will incorporate ESPN's broadcast package and thus lean heavily on motifs familiar to televised basketball. Each arena will, in consultation with ESPN producers, be "filmed" from the specific camera locations the network uses in them. This goes for pre-game and timeout cinematics. I was happy to see the traditional tight close-up of a player squaring up for a free throw on the opposing team. Replays will come from these angles.
The true-to-life camera angles mean the main broadcast view will be slightly different in each arena. It's steeper and shows less of the crowd in Oklahoma City than it does in Miami. But you may still play with a top-to-bottom baseline angle that some seasoned ballers prefer. (There will also be an alternate camera angle, which I didn't see, that is an homage to NBA Live from the 1990s). Additionally, some, but not all, of the arenas were scanned using the same technology that imaged Augusta National for Tiger Woods PGA Tour. The result is more distinctive arena interiors, particularly in Orlando and Miami (imaged because they're near the Florida studio building the game).
Lighting also changes from venue to venue, and even among teams who play in the same arena. The Los Angeles Lakers darken the seating to highlight the court, and the stars playing on it, or sitting by it. The Clippers, in the same building, light up the seats more. NBA Live 13 will reflect that. The crowd, something a lot of sports video games seem to skimp on, was very well done, with varied patrons (including some for the opposition) in decent resolution. I was told some atmospheric sound effects—crowd noise, sneaker squeak, player chatter— come from ESPN audio.
Players are large and recognizable in their modeling though some texture work still needs to be done. They've done a good job with Dwyane Wade's baby face and Tyson Chandler's beard has the appropriate level of mange. Players also can be picked out by how they act. A pet peeve I have when playing with an unfamiliar team is when I've rebounded the ball, the team's in transition, and I can't spot the point guard who should bring it up, especially if it's a taller guard. But I could recognize Westbrook on sight for the outlet pass, without looking for his uniform number or name in the player call-out.
These sorts of things can be found in NBA 2K, too, and, I don't mean to suggest the same features in Live constitute some kind of a revolution, just because it hasn't published a game since 2009. That's not what NBA Live 13 is seeking to accomplish. In fact, the failed revolution of NBA Elite is what sent the series on a two-year journey into the wilderness.
NBA Live 13 must reestablish itself as a fundamentally solid game that plays to state-of-the-art expectations. What EA Sports is taking to E3, and what I saw yesterday, show that it's on that trajectory.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears weekends.