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NBA Live 16, searching for an identity, takes it outside

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

NBA Live 16 will have several new features, says executive producer Sean O'Brien. The most important one doesn't get a bullet on the back of a box.

"An identity," O'Brien said.

After it endured a three-year salvage operation and stabilized last year with a competent offering, O'Brien thinks this is the year NBA Live will differentiate itself from both the basketball and sports genres, instead of merely establish that it can fulfill their baseline expectations. A free demo arriving Sept. 15, two weeks before NBA Live 16's launch, will give players a chance to judge O'Brien's claim for themselves.

The demo will showcase the game's new multiplayer suite, Live Pro-Am, which comprises the Live Run cooperative/competitive multiplayer basketball mode, and Summer Circuit, a cooperative-vs-CPU mode that tours seven real-world pickup venues, such as Seattle Pacific University and New York's Rucker Park, with matchups against NBA players from the main roster. (Live Run also includes these gyms and courts.)

In the demo, players may level up within Pro-Am, and carry that progress over to the main game. Standard modes of play also will be a part of the demo, which will be offered on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and has nothing to do with the EA Access subscription program offered on Xbox One only.

"We're trying to root this part of the game in authenticity," senior designer Ryan Santos told Polygon. "For me, as a basketball fan, I go on YouTube and I watch mixtapes [highlight reels] of Jamal Crawford up at the Seattle Pro-Am, or of players down at Venice Beach. That's how I consume the sport, that's how our fans consume the sport, that's where we wanted to start."

It's true that Live Run is not new, appearing in the before-the-fall NBA Live 10 six years ago. It's also true that NBA Live's competitor, the NBA 2K series, already has a robust co-operative/competitive online mode set on outdoor courts, MyPark, featuring created players running ball with all sorts of personal customizations like shoes, apparel and "dunk packages."

But it's also true that NBA 2K has staggered badly out of the gate in its past two launches thanks to manifold failures in its online offerings. And MyPark's locales are fictitious. If EA Sports does one thing well, it is exclusive licensing. The other is online support. In bringing the franchise back, NBA Live's creative team has long looked upon online features as an advantage, assuming they could pair them with a compelling product. Live Pro-Am is their shot.

"I'm somewhat superstitious and would hate to say something that causes us to have grief later," O'Brien said, when I solicited a boast for NBA Live's comparative strength in online experience. "But we do take a lot of pride in what we call launch readiness, and our software and servers are usually in a good position when the games go live, and we're always supporting them. Given our track record, our expertise in this space, we feel good about where we're going, but the proof will come when the game launches."

"This is the first year where we're building the idea of an identity," says O'Brien.

Summer Circuit would figure to be the most distinct offering in NBA Live 16, online or offline. Users must create a player (using a face-scanning app on a mobile device if they like; more on this later) and then run co-operative matchups against a series of CPU-controlled teams. Bot teammates are available if a user prefers (or if enough human teammates aren't on hand).

"These games are played to 21," Santos said, "and in real life, the NBA players are giving 100 percent against guys who play in Europe and play in college. It really legitimizes these leagues and the tournaments that happen in them."

The user's team then works its way through a five-game series culminating in a boss-battle style showdown with a team of all-NBA players, helmed by someone with a recognizable attachment to that venue. In Seattle, it'll be Crawford (the L.A. Clippers guard is a Seattle native and his foundation stages the Pro Am there). At Jordan Terminal 23, a gym inside a café in midtown New York, it'll be Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks. Four of the seven courts will be available in the demo.

"You'll be able to play on the same court where Kevin Durant scored 66 points," Santos said. That would be the famed Rucker Park in Harlem, where in 2011 Durant unloaded on the local talent after chowing down on comfort food from a nearby restaurant.

The five games played are neither a single-elimination tournament nor a best-of-five playoff series. Players will be given a three-star score for each game, with a set number of stars being required to reach the boss. Obviously, winning a game is the easiest way to progress to the next, but the NBA Live team wanted to give players a reason to revisit the tour and three-star everything.

nba live 16 EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Players within Pro-Am sound like they will be broadly customizable and will have progression and playing styles tailored to the position a user picks for them. So choose wisely. A pass-first point guard, for example, will have to spend more experience points to develop parts of his game that don't comport with that job description — rebounding, for example — but will be able to level up key skills more quickly. Players will pick not only a position but a playing style matched to it at creation.

Created players will begin, both in the demo and in the main game, with a rating between 74 and 76 out of 100. Progress will be capped at 80 within the demo, but the head start will include lots of unlockable customizations, such as shoes or signature moves, which also are portable to the main game.

"We've revamped the progression system to behave more like an RPG," Santos said. "Rather than [as in NBA Live 15] you acquire skill points and then you're dumped into a screen wondering 'Where should I spend this; should I be a 7-footer with great 3-point-shooting?' we're trying to play up the playing styles and reinforce where that should matter."

Created players also offer EA Sports a chance to elbow in on another area where NBA 2K15 came up short: face-scanning. NBA Live 16 will use a companion app launching Sept. 9 for iOS and Android devices to handle the job. EA Sports showed it off at E3 2015 and O'Brien vows it is as simple as advertised then.

NBA 2K15's head-scan feature did work, but it provided poor feedback for framing or holding a shot, required optimal background or lighting conditions, and needed either a Kinect sensor or PlayStation camera. It led to many horrific creationstemper tantrums, and my unwitting guest appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live when his show excerpted this video last October.

I got all sorts of freelance expertise on what I was doing wrong, from the brick background to the fact my head (hat size 7 3/4) was too fat. "I have a size eight head and I'm fine" with NBA Live 16's app, O'Brien joked. "There's my guarantee.

"This is something we've been developing over two years." O'Brien said. NBA Live 16's developers wanted to bring a similar experience to users that they offer when NBA pros come in for a high-fidelity face scan. They deferred to the expertise of an outside firm to handle the face-scanning app, figuring that using a mobile device would be a much better route in the age of the selfie.

O'Brien said that users can see the results of the scan on the device, rather than wait to try it out in the game and not like it; and that an importation into NBA Live 16 will take between 3 and 5 minutes.

There will be bread-and-butter components to the demo as well, such as tutorials and a play-now mode that includes six teams from the main game. NBA Live 16 touted its gameplay refinements earlier this year, promising — as nearly every sports video game does — hundreds of additional animations to make things smoother and more responsive.

I asked for a concrete example of how that makes this edition better, and O'Brien acknowledged that "I know we love to create these buzzwords, like LiveMotion," the name for NBA Live 16's animation-and-physics package. Still, he said, the net effect will be something that looks more like the basketball you see on TV.

O'Brien said NBA Live 15's players looked "stiff and robotic" — another sports development trope, bashing last year's work — but he has been plainspoken about NBA Live's recovery being a multiyear effort. NBA Live 16 will be closer to an ideal they had in mind but knew they couldn't deliver on a one-year cycle. It also, O'Brien said, will offer more contextual variations in movement, where in NBA 2K16 these things come from a list of commands longer than a fighting game's moveset.

"A lot of the stuff we announced at E3, like dribble handoffs, our screen-and-rolls, a lot of that is there to help you in this online team play you'll see in the demo," Santos said. "It's not just the main game, we're giving you new mechanics to be successful off the ball. In a game of 21 you may not touch the ball as often with four other (human) teammates, but you may be successful setting a screen, or playing defense and denying their best player the ball."

NBA Live 16's demo arrives Sept. 15; the full game launches Sept. 29 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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