NBA Live 09 Review
Every year, 2K Games and EA Sports goes head-to-head in all major sports, and recently, 2K has had the obvious edge when it comes to the basketball battle. However, EA made significant strides with last year’s Live installment and after hearing about several significant additions and enhancements featured in NBA Live 09, we thought EA might have a shot at reclaiming the crown this year. However, we soon realized that developers are faced with an interesting decision with sports titles these days: should they go full-on simulated, thereby making the controls more complex (yet hopefully more realistic)? Or do they back off on the depth and intricacy in favor of a more accessible, pick-up-and-play style (which in turns lowers the authenticity)? Well, it seems that this year, while 2K asks a great deal of the b-ball fan with NBA 2K9, EA embraces the idea of appealing to as many gamers as possible. Hence, the decision to buy will be based upon your expectations; if you’re looking for something both deep and fun, it’s a good option.
The graphics seem to be a subject of much debate, primarily because there seems to be a pronounced difference between the background visuals and the on-court graphics. Thing is, the crowds in the arenas are really quite poor, and during replays (which we consider to be an off-the-court visual), the frame rate can stagger badly. But the presentation is better during the actual gameplay, and despite some screwy-looking animations and a few clipping problems when up-close-and-personal, we don’t have too many complaints. The player detail is good, the court and immediate background sets are nice (again, excepting the lackluster crowd), and there’s a lot of appealing color and an appropriate amount of flash. There’s a satisfactory level of sharpness, too; none of that old-school jagginess and blurriness, which long-time Live fans will most certainly remember. All in all, the graphics are probably the low point of NBA Live 09, but that’s actually good news, because the accomplished visuals only fall short in terms of small technical glitches and some background flaws.
The sound excels thanks to great effects during the gameplay, competent commentary, and a soundtrack that will appeal to most fans of the basketball culture. We thought the players could’ve been more animated and verbal during the course of a game – real ballers can be particularly energetic – but then again, we always say that. Perhaps it’s just not something that developers are prepared to do, but when KG throws down a mammoth dunk in traffic, that guy screams. It’s part of the panache of the sport, and although we do get a few automatic celebratory animations, things really are too quiet on the court. But the effects that do exist are fantastic. The clank of the ball on the rim, the squeak of the sneakers, the players running into one another, the referee’s whistle, the well-balanced commentary, and the solid soundtrack all come together to present the player with a very nice sound arrangement. Few b-ball fans will have any issue in this category, and while we could be ultra-anal and point out a few very minor snafus, we don't see a reason to do so. The sound should satisfy, and that’s that.
Above all else, it’s the aforementioned pick-up-and-play focus will allow many players to dive into the full experience without much in the way of learning or preparation. While NBA 2K9 is the better game overall, it also requires that you spend some time learning certain button assignments and special movements on court. They were all effective, but none of them could be considered “user-friendly,” and if that’s the type of thing that frustrates you, than you should try NBA Live 09. EA goes back to basics with this one; they focus on the fundamentals of the game by having the player execute pick-and-rolls and post play, both of which work quite well. Furthermore, while you won’t be able to do either within the first five minutes of play, you should be taking advantage of the most effective maneuvers in the game after only an hour of practice. The pick and roll actually lets you control both the “picker” and the “roller,” and all you have to do is hold the L2 button and release at the right time for the “roller” to slip past to the basket.
The low post play is equally essential and even easier to pull off. In many ways, it’s an off-shoot of the LockDown Defense system, which has returned after last year’s initial implementation. However, they’ve overhauled the mechanic this time around, as you won’t have to hold down a button during the Lockdown. All you have to do is place your player close to the ball-handler and just leave him there; he will maintain his closely guarded position, pressuring his man and forcing him to make a move. The only tricky part about this is that you have to pay close attention, as the ball-handler could dart to the left or right, and if you choose wrong, you’ll be “locking down” nothing but air. It’s more of a guessing game, really, and this is mostly realistic. The closer you are to an opponent, the faster you’re going to have to be to stop him from getting around you, right? The low post mechanic works in much the same way, but it’s even better, because guessing right can lead to a steal or block. We have absolutely no problems here, although snagging the advantage from the opposing team wasn’t always so…advantageous.
We’re not sure if this is a version of rubber-band AI, but for whatever reason, clean fast breaks were almost impossible to come by. Stealing a ball and tossing it down court to a wide open Kobe should’ve led to a spectacular dunk, when in fact, he mysteriously had to deal with defenders who appeared magically right next to him. What’d they do, hit the turbo “I-have-to-get-back-on-defense!” button? Because we didn’t have that. This really made us despise a run ‘n gun setup because we typically had to retreat to a standard half-court game, and that was a major downer. We also weren’t such a huge fan of pulling off the QuickStrike Anklebreaker moves with the right analog stick; the commands seemed to be too sensitive and we’d do a hop-step when we wanted to do something entirely different. Even so, the first time you spin around a pressing opponent, drive directly to the hoop, and double pump under the leaping defenders for a fantastic layup, you’ll be grinning ear-to-ear. Like we said, it’s all about giving the fans an accessible and entertaining title, and EA does just that.
Then there’s the addition of NBA Live 365, Dynamic DNA, and the Dynasty and Be A Pro modes. For those who haven’t heard of the much-hyped DNA and Live 365 feature, it’s probably the most dynamic and appreciated addition to a basketball game that we’ve ever seen. Now, it’s not 100% perfect, but it lays the foundation for the future: we imagine this is something that’s going to return in next year’s installment, and EA will have had time to streamline the entire process. NBA Live 365 has you tapping into the EA servers, which will automatically update your game on a daily basis. It reflects the real-life NBA and implements those changes into the virtual recreation on your screen, and it goes well beyond roster updates. Players will alter their play depending on how they perform in reality, which is an extraordinarily cool aspect. If LeBron has had the hot hand over the past few games, that hot hand will transfer into NBA Live 09. For true fans who follow the sport, they’ll know which players are doing well on their favorite team, and after updating, they’ll take that into consideration when playing in their living rooms.
Furthermore, there’s the NBA Rewind feature that comes along with Live 365, which lets you re-play games just recently played in the NBA season, utilizing all the DNA alterations generated by the outcome of that match. Hence, player DNA for all relevant skills will rise and fall based on two things: your own performance in the game, and the player’s real-life performance. If you factor this into Dynasty mode, which is a full-on simulation – no skimping on depth, here – you’re looking at quite possibly the most authentic virtual depiction of the NBA in history. Or, if you’d rather focus on one particular player, you can try the Be A Pro mode, which is exactly what it sounds like; it places you in the shoes of a star of your choice. Finally, there are International tournaments for those of you outside the U.S., so the addition of FIBA is crucial if EA wants to expand their horizons a bit. All the other typical facets of a next-gen basketball game are here as well, and if you want to take a gander at ESPN updates, you can do that, too. Really, there’s a lot to be happy about.
But it’s not all roses. Things don’t work as smoothly on the court as we would’ve liked, and in addition to the previously mentioned anomalies (really annoying ones, too), weird things can continue to happen. Players will still blow lay-ups and easy jump shots far too often – still a flaw that wasn’t entirely fixed from last year – and they’ll sometimes even pass to players who are out of bounds. Blocks tend to happen too frequently as does the embarrassing air-ball, and while we’ve always hated the foul shot mechanic in recent basketball titles, this one isn’t all that great, either. Using a little meter with a “sweet spot” may be better than using the motion sensing of the controller, but it feels like a last-generation system. Why is it so difficult to come up with a decent foul shot mechanic? It can’t be that hard. Then there are the iffy animations that can cause “sliding” players or jerky movements every once in a while, and although the controls are easier than ever, we rely too much on the right analog for the special moves. Then again, developers are limited with the controller; you have to put the option somewhere, so we don’t have a ready solution.
NBA Live 09 isn’t quite as good as NBA 2K9, but EA’s effort will appeal more to those who aren’t so interested in a steep learning curve, and you won’t sacrifice much in the way of realism. The Dynamic DNA adds a whole new level to the world of video game sports (expect to see it in other titles soon), NBA Live 365 is a robust and even revolutionary system, and the enhancements are both clear and effective. There are still too many errors in the actual gameplay presentation, but the pick-up-and-play philosophy shines through and erases many of our misgivings, while the quality sound and accessible play-calling cement an entertaining experience. Want to call a quick play on offense or defense? Press L1, pick one, and give it a try! The foul shooting system just feels out-dated, the graphics aren’t amazing, and the Player DNA could use some tweaking, but the term “user-friendly” applies to the whole game. It’s fun, and if this is the new foundation for NBA Live 2010, next year’s entry could mark the final return to glory for this franchise.
11/20/2008 Ben Dutka