Alone in the gym, I start popping the three pointers, what everybody does in a casual shootaround. After four or five I feel like I've got a rhythm from this range, almost a shooter's instinct. Then I ask about ballhandling.
That, not shooting, is where NBA Elite will be either the breakout way to play console basketball, or bewilderingly complex, especially for those with little real-life exposure to playing the sport. EA Sports has put a new control set (and name) into its revamped NBA franchise, dedicating the right analogue stick to a player's hands and the left analogue to his feet.
The simplicity is seen in the new shot motion, which is brings a skill basis to jump shots and takes the dice-roll out of making them. Shooting is accomplished by pushing up on the right stick within a "sweet spot" direction that gets wider the better rated your shooter is. You have to release it within a certain window, too, to put enough distance on the ball to go in. After half-a-dozen bricks I started getting the release down, and was complimented on picking up the shooting mechanic so early.
The complexity will be in how you move with the ball, to break down your defender or to chart a path to the basket. In past versions of NBA Live, the CPU would pick the appropriate animation from a set of ankle-breaker moves you activated with the right stick. Now your right stick is going to be used to manually key them. A crossover dribble's motion is different from a between-the-legs or a behind-the-back dribble, all of which have different purposes and liabilities. Knowing which one to use and how to put it in play will take a patient tutorial and work in the game's gym setting. Novell Thomas, NBA Elite's gameplay producer, assured me the game would have both.
That said, it does create the potential for players to develop their own go-to-moves, much in the same way the pros have their own in a tight spot. Novell said Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings visited the studio and quickly figured out his real-life preferred move in a last-shot situation (a between the legs hesitation step-back into a shot). That speaks well of the game's learning curve - but Brandon Jennings also is an elite ballhandler with his own sense of how to break down a defence.
Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors also came into the studios, Novell said, and immediately picked up a shooting rhythm. You'll get a heads-up display in practice that shows your thumbstick's position, your shooter's sweet spot, and a timing meter for a proper release. This won't be displayed in standard play mode - but the idea is to get you to both accurately push the stick forward and then understand when to release it, with your shooter's form as a guide. You can deliberately aim left or right and put more oomph on the shot to bank it in, something I found a little too easy to do at first. (Novell said the game has yet to input specific player ratings, and more tuning will come to the bank shot mechanism).
Where I had trouble, interestingly, was on driving to the basket and remembering to finish the shot with my thumbstick. My instinct was to lay on the X (or square) button, at first, as it was the shooting button on the old NBA Live. EA Vancouver knows it has players who will come to the game with methodologies built on old face-button control sets, whether from NBA Live or NBA 2K. It will try to shorten the curve with a pre-release demo in September (the game is out in October), and you can always enable the old face-button control set. But if EA Sports truly is making a new game here, then some part of its experience will be completely new, and not familiar, and both sides must understand each other on this.