Name: NBA Live 09
Genre: Sports – Basketball
Platform: PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii, Xbox 360 (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
EA has had a tough time crafting basketball games in the HD era. Their signature NBA franchise, NBA Live, has been through three iterations so far on the Xbox 360 and PS3, and while there has been improvement each year, the series has never reached the level of quality found in its competition, the NBA 2K series. Last year’s offering was a major step forward for the franchise, and while it still couldn’t match up with 2K’s product, it at least showed that the Live series was heading in the right direction. The momentum from that game has certainly carried over to this year’s Live, and, for the first time in this console generation, EA’s hoops game might just be better than 2K’s.
This year’s control scheme is very similar to last year’s, though with a few new wrinkles and an overall improvement in responsiveness. Using the right analog stick is still an easy and satisfying way to perform dribbling maneuvers like crossovers and hop steps, and the left stick now moves your players with perhaps the most realistic and natural-looking animations ever seen in a basketball game. The left trigger now performs triple duty, and all three functions are important to winning games. With the ball, LT will call for a pick, and releasing it will cause the pick-setter to break away for either a run to the basket or a step back for an open jumper. This is a very effective method of for generating offense, and in some cases, it can be a bit too effective. Against the normal difficulty setting, pick and rolls can prove devastating, scoring almost every time. Playing against a human opponent or upping the difficulty to Superstar will alleviate this issue. On offense, players without the ball can set a pick with LT. Defensively, LT puts you in a lock-down mode that makes face-up defense much easier and more realistic than before. The other new addition is the left bumper, which selects and runs a pre-set play while painting the play on the court so that it’s easy to follow. It seems like a minor addition, but it makes play-calling and execution a simple, effective affair that even new players will easily pick up after a few possessions.
While the NBA Live franchise is known as something of an arcade-style basketball series, the pacing in 09 feels only about 5% faster than actual NBA basketball. Players tend to move at about the right speed, meaning that Steve Nash may torch forwards and centers, but he won’t be breaking world sprinting records like in NBA 09: The Inside. Since player movement is more realistic, the way you set up and run your offense needs to be based on real-world tactics. Launching three-pointers from 30 feet out will get you nowhere fast, and without a mix of respectable interior and perimeter offense, you’ll end up playing a lot of catch-up. It can be a bit too easy to score from the low post, especially with players like Shaq, Kevin Garnett and Elton Brand, but a team with a good 2-guard who can penetrate and shoot can easily counter this bit of imbalance. The physics engine running behind Live 09 is easily the best that EA has utilized for basketball, and it shows in the form of realistic rebounds and blocked shots. Collision detection has been improved dramatically, as evidenced by the way players interact with each other. While driving through traffic or boxing out for a rebound, you’ll clearly see that players’ arms, legs and bodies actually impede each other, and watching replays of fouls almost always shows an actual hand making contact with an actual wrist, face or body. This being said, there are still some issues with the ball and players’ arms clipping through environmental objects, such as the rim and backboard. There is also much less ball morphing; the tendency of video game balls to “magnetize” or “teleport” to the hands of a player. This means you’ll really need to make sure you have a clear lane to the basket before launching for a dunk, as an errant arm can easily knock the ball loose, even if the defender isn’t trying to. With the exception of the dunk mechanic, which still allows you to launch from way too far away from the basket, there aren’t many aspects of the game that don’t feel like an excellent recreation of the actual sport.
NBA Live 09’s visuals have received as much attention as the gameplay, and for perhaps the first time since 2004, EA has a better-looking game than 2K. Character models are absolutely gorgeous, with faces and body scaling that match the real-life counterparts perfectly, realistic sweat (a hallmark of EA’s character models), and convincing textile textures on jerseys and shorts. The players look even better in motion, with some of the most realistic animations in all of sports gaming. Watching players run up court, you’ll see them backpedal, point to each other and realistically move their heads to view the position of everyone on the court. The high standard even makes its way to the coaches, who look better than in any game ever. The first time you see Denver Nuggets head coach, George Karl, you’ll be sure to say “hey, that’s John Lithgow!” That’s a compliment to the game’s fidelity. The effect is truly impressive, and combined with the broadcast-style camera, makes for a visual presentation that could easily be mistaken for a real game at first glance. During cut-scenes and occasionally during the game, the game will unexpectedly load from the disc, causing significant slowdown. It’s a noticeable and unpleasant black mark on an otherwise spectacular visual experience.
This year, EA has introduced a new mode to each of their sports games; Be a Pro. NBA Live 09 is no exception, though the mode is not as deep as it is in EA’s football or hockey games. Instead of creating a player and playing through a season in that one position, you can only choose an existing pro from an NBA team, then play as them through one exhibition game. It’s a fun mode, with automatic performance monitoring rewarding you for scoring, rebounding an assisting, and penalizing you for committing turnovers and allowing your checked man to score, but without being able to create your character or follow them through a season, it feels like more of a gimmick than a full-on game option. Hopefully, next year’s iteration will expand on the mode. This year’s game also allows you to play on the international stage with 24 FIBA teams and a full tournament mode. Online play supports 5-on-5 exhibition play, letting up to 10 players get in on the smooth, nearly lag-less online play, as well as full league play and a stripped down version of league play called Club play. Sadly, the most impressive and innovative feature, NBA Live 365, is not ready to go at this time, so it can’t be counted as part of the game for the purposes of the review score. Once it is in place, however, it will offer daily updates to team and player stats and trends, promising the most realistic rosters ever. If it works, it could very well revolutionize the way sports games are made and marketed.
NBA Live 09 is a massive step forward for the franchise, and, in some ways, for sports games in general. It looks better than 2K’s excellent hoops game, and plays just as well, too. The massive gap in quality between the Live and 2K series has finally shrunken to the point where either option will give you a solid basketball experience. Which one you choose is up to you, but this time, you can’t go wrong with NBA Live, and that’s pretty exciting news.