It's not real secret: basketball games have been largely the same for years, simply getting minor cosmetic adjustments rather than dealing with issues that plague the genre year in and year out. But that's all about to change. Having seen 2K's star ascend whilst theirs tumbles somewhat, EA Sports are out for blood this time around and, in ditching the 'Live' tag usually associated with these games, they've delivered something of a statement of intent: they're doing things differently this time around.
Avid sports fans amongst you might be aware of the shake up that took place with the NHL series around 008, moving much of the controlling action onto the right stick, allowing for more precise, realistic play that, as the series developed, incorporated real-time physics more and more, removing animations and having clashes take place in real time without the need for random chance to stick its ugly little nose in. This new level of precision and control, allowing skill to win out over luck, restored EA to the top of the pile. Now they're looking to perform similar magic with the NBA side of things and it's shaping up pretty nicely indeed.
Random dice-rolls have been a part of basketball games for a long time, whether you've been going for a shot, attempting a swipe or clashed with a player and gotten yourself into a Post situation. Sure the stats get taken into account but previously, where you found yourself in a gameplay scenario, there'd be a random dice-roll element in there as well to help determine whether or not you'd make that awesome shot from halfway. Now, if you float in a 3-pointer from range, or smash the backboard with a tag-teamed dunk, it's all your own work, baby!
EA Sports have done this by making the twin sticks your primary interface with basic navigation, dribbling and directional movement on the left, and pretty much everything else mapped to the right. You want to shoot, you flick the right stick forward, holding to determine the power of the shot. There's a sweet spot for each shot that changes in size, and therefore difficulty to hit, depending on distance, angle and difficulty setting. The straighter the stick pushing up, the straighter your shot so if you, for example, push slightly to the right, you'll miss to the right. Too little power and you won't go the distance, too much and the ball will rebound back into play, depending on what it hits. It's the same in defence too, flicking the stick to try and steal or jump, with timing obviously playing a massive part in proceedings.
The right stick is also responsible for skill moves, much in the same way it operates in NHL and FIFA. But the layout's make sense: nudge right and you'll fake to the right. Flick between left and right and you'll change hands, something that can also do (impressively) in mid-air. Spins, leg-tricks, feints and pump fakes are all pretty intuitive and, although it took me a good ten minutes or so to familiarise myself with the controls, after fifteen I was kicking bottom. In fact hogging the controller for the entire length of the twenty minute match definitely yielded a noticeable and rapid improvement.
The beauty of it all is that everything happens 1 - 1. There are no canned animations here, everything that happens on the court is a direct result of one of two things that look to elevate Elite above all of its genre predecessors: user interaction and real-time physics. Stats, shapes and sizes are now more important that ever. If a 5 ft 10 wannabe jumps high against a 6ft 6 opponent, the former is probably going to land up on his back having lost the ball. Post scenarios are a matter of real aggression, players constantly jostling for momentum and space, with two forces there in complete control rather than one locked pair as in previous instalments.
It might seem as if I'm laying it on a bit thick, but to play it is to notice just how far short in terms of total control previous games were falling. There's always a way out of a situation, control is never taken out of your hands, not by game processes anyway, and it makes for an experience that's not only accessible to everyone after a few minutes, but allows for full bragging rights too. it increases the pressure: being two points down with only four seconds on the clock means that if you make that long shot to win the game just as the klaxon sounds it's down to your skill, your quick thinking and it makes the inevitable victory dance that much sweeter.
In terms of game modes, there'll be two new additions to the series. Become Legendary is basically FIFA's Be A Pro mode. However, you'll be graded on your style of play. There are no fixed legends per se, if you want to specialise in an area, you can progress through the game however you want to, earning points your way. Not only that, but you'll be able to influence your draft position from the demo, so it's certainly worth checking the game out before it hits shelves if you're interested. You'll be able take things online too, with fully-supported 5-on-5 matches and level progression for teams.
Dynasty Mode, this game's version of career/manager/puppet master, will be boasting user-specific storylines and has been designed around the player. No longer will the big names of the sport be adorning front pages, this time things are all about you which should be good news to any b-ball egomaniacs out there. There'll be full ESPN integration for televisual effect and a three man commentary team of ESPN's Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mike Breen to pepper your ears with stats and comment.
I was impressed, I've got to say. A relative fan back in the day, though largely because of NBA Jam, a 'lite' version of which will be available to those who buy the game brand new, I haven't picked up a basketball game for a while simply because the formula became too stale. On the strength of this showing, Elite might just serve to be the revamp that fans have been begging for and could be the key to an entirely new audience too.
I got to play NBA Jam for the Wii again too but frankly my anticipation for that game has reached maximum levels and if I divulged it all right here, you might go blind. Still, you can check out the preview from the Ninty showcase here. Midway might be gone, but its legacy has hardly shone brighter.