NBA Live 08 Review (Xbox 360)
The less said about NBA Live 07 the better. I have reviewed basketball games for this site for the last six years and I’ve never seen a lazier effort by a major video game developer, but, there is a ray of sunshine that came from such a disastrous effort. Last year’s game served as a wake up call in the same way that the last year of the Triple Play series led to the great MVP baseball series. Without even delving deep into the game it's clear that this year’s effort is an improvement. The only question is how big of an improvement.
Let’s start with the new features. Electronic Arts (EA) started early with the promotion of NBA Live 08 and trumped out four new features - Go To Moves, Hot Spots, Quickstrike Moves and the FIBA World Championships. Go To Moves are pretty much self-explanatory. Certain star players like Kobe Bryant and Gilbert Arenas have their signature moves included in the game. Go To Moves are not the same as signature jumpshots. Players will use their go to moves depending on the player’s position on the court. This feature is well implemented and even though the name makes it seem as if the moves are automatic, they aren’t.
The Hot Spots feature is an attempt by EA to appeal to the sim crowd but it’s horribly implemented. Every NBA player has specific spots on the floor that they love to shoot from. Bruce Bowen loves to shoot from the corners and Tim Duncan prefers taking midrange jumpers from the wings. By pressing the LB button, a color graph covers the entire court and indicates which spots on the court are the best places for the player to shoot from. The problem is pretty simple: The graph covers the entire court! Not only is this a bad idea graphically but also when playing head to head games your opponent can tell where you intend to shoot. This feature would have been better suited as a menu item that the user can view to learn where a player’s preferred shooting spots.
NBA Live 08 gets rid of the now dated “Freestyle” system and added a new version of dribbling control called “Quick Strike.” It’s a very simple system and similar to the “Freestyle” system in that you move the Left stick to make dribble moves. The difference is this system is more position oriented. With the “Freestyle” system, moving the left stick left to right a player would always attempt a crossover. With “Quick Strike”, a left to right movement may lead to a crossover but if the defender is over playing to one side it could lead to a spin move or an aggressive drive to the basket. Quick Strike is a good dribbling system and one that prefer over the Freestyle system and the competition’s dribbling system. One thing that I found disappointing was that Quick Strike seemed more responsive in the NBA Live 08 demo than in the retail version.
Finally, we have the FIBA World Championship mode. This is a tournament featuring the top eight national teams including the US, Italy, Spain, Argentina among others. While its fun to play with Dwyane Wade and Lebron James on the same team and Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon on the Spanish team, there isn’t much else to this mode. It’s a good start and I would love to see EA either expand this mode to feature more teams and an Olympic style tournament setup or stick with the international scene and include the European leagues.
Now let's get to the gameplay and unlike last year’s game, there is a lot of good in this year’s title. The highlight is the brand new post moves. NBA Live 08 features some of the best post play I’ve ever seen in a professional basketball game. This system gives you total control over the moves your player makes in the post. I found myself enjoying playing with skilled big men like Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan much more than I ever have in a basketball game. Fast breaks are run much better by the AI than in last year’s game and in the competition’s current game. The reason behind this could be that this game is geared toward a fast pace run and gun game than a realistic half court game. Offensive fouls are called at a realistic clip and the new cutscenes add much need emotion to this game.
The ball physics are better but still need improvement. Last year’s game had some of the worst ball physics I’ve ever seen in a basketball games with balls going through backboards and rainbow jumpshots from short distance. Those issues are gone from NBA Live 08 but there are still some issues with some very flat looking jumpshots. Dribble animations have been redone and it no longer as if the ball handler is chasing after the ball instead of controlling it. I hate to constantly use this word but stiff is the only way to describe many of the animations in NBA Live 08 especially when describing the dunk animations. Taking a closer look at the animations, it appears that the dunk animations are fine during the initial take off but on the follow through the animation is too fast and not fluid. On a positive note, EA did add many new dribbling, shooting (there are a small number of signature jumpshots) and dunk animation and the game now runs at 60 frames per second on the XBOX 360. The footplanting is less clunky this year but for all the touting that EA made about eliminating sliding from the NBA Live series with this new technology there is still a small amount of sliding present in the game. The animation improvements are a step in the right direction but the game still has a long way to go when it comes to animations.
Graphics have been a staple of the NBA Live series and this year is no different. The player models have been improved and most of the players no longer resemble the stick figures that were present in the 2006 and 2007 versions of the game. The legs are still too skinny but that’s something that can be fixed in next year’s game. The only issue I have with this game is the arenas. In the quest to get this year’s version to run at sixty frames, EA darkened every arena so that you can only see the first ten rows of the arena clearly. Also, EA hasn’t improved the arenas since NBA Live 06 and it wasn’t like the arenas were perfect in that version.
Even with all of the improvements there is still alot wrong with this series. First, the XBOX 360 version has XBOX level load times. I waited over two and a half minutes to play my first dynasty game and three minutes to play an online game. At first, I thought it was my 360 but the same wait times occurred on my friend’s 360. The wait wouldn’t be as bad if EA hadn’t made the incredibly dumb decision to remove the option to shoot around with a player during loading and replace it with a trivia game. The free throw system is still incredibly stiff and clunky and hasn’t been improved since the series’ first version on next generation consoles.
The playbooks are still only four plays and the system hasn’t changed much since the series was on current generation consoles. This would be OK if the competition didn’t allow you to call more plays during the game and didn’t have over twenty plays in each teams playbook. This also limits the realism when playing a game against the CPU because the AI primarily only calls the four plays in the playbook and a few pick and rolls. Due to this limitation, it sometimes feels that that there are no individual team styles and every team plays the same. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t like past versions where it felt like the CPU didn’t call plays at all. This year’s is improved on this front and even features some deep plays like post double screens but it’s not enough for the hardcore basketball fan.
At default, the fatigue levels are too low and you will see very few substitutions in each game. Thankfully, that can be fixed by adjusting the fatigue sliders but for some strange reason the developers decided to only let the user access the fatigue sliders before the game. I had to start and stop a few games before I was able to determine the most realistic levels for fatigue and substitutions.
Presentation, like most features in this game, is hit or miss. One thing that NBA Live 07 does better than every other basketball game and most sports games is commentary and crowd sounds. Marv Albert and Steve Kerr are back and they do a tremendous job calling the action. There is team and player specific commentary and the team does a great job of adding the right emotion to big plays. It seems that Marv yells his signature “Yes!” at the right moments and not just at random. The crowd noise is excellent and blows the competition away. Listening to the crowd on Dolby Digital 5.1 will make you feel like you are watching a game in Madison Square Garden.
EA stated that this year the NBA Live team was going to focus on “five on five basketball” and its clear that this is all that they focused on. Dynasty mode is mostly unchanged from last year’s version. The mode is still only single player. The training camp, training and staff management is the same as last year. The only apparent addition is the ESPN stats central that shows news from around the league and a mock draft of the upcoming draft prospects. Hopefully, Dynasty mode improvements will be in next year’s version.
Online is an improvement for two reasons: smoother gameplay and online “leagues”. The reason I put parentheses around the word leagues is because while EA refers to this new mode as giving you the option of being in a league, technically it isn’t a league. The new mode allows 32 players to play in a league. The game only keeps statistics and results and doesn’t handle scheduling or create a website where users can view the statistics. Also, there isn’t a playoff mode at the end of the season. The game determines the winner based on the team with the best record after all games are played. After taking this step, I hope that EA will go all the way with online leagues and give gamers a setup similar to 2K’s online leagues. Once you play online, you will see that the game is lag free online and there isn’t a noticeable difference between online and offline.
NBA Live 08 is not a game for hardcore pro basketball fans. Its not a game for people who obsess about team styles, player tendencies and accurate animations. It’s not a game for people who focus on whether Kobe has the right shoes or if a team has the right color headbands (For some strange reason, EA removed the ability to edit player’s accessories). Operation Sports is a website that attracts mainly hardcore sports video game fans and fans who obsess over things like that. That’s why I can’t recommend NBA Live 08 for the type of gamers that visit this site. NBA Live 08 is a game for the casual NBA video game fan that just wants to play a basketball game that’s fun and easy to pick up and play. This year’s version is a big improvement over last year’s game and while it’s not the best basketball game on the market, it’s a fun head to head game. For hardcore basketball fans all we can hope is that EA will continue to make strides towards making this game more “sim” without losing its fun factor.