NBA Live 09 Review (PS3)
At one time, NBA Live was the king of basketball games. Not only was the game the best around quality-wise, but it also sold in large numbers to anxious fans nationwide.
As of late, the Live series has fallen on hard times. The game still sells well, but the first two editions on next-gen consoles were atrocious. NBA Live 08 began to bring the series out of the gutter, but there was still plenty of work to do. Enter NBA Live 09.
NBA Live 09 isn't a bad game, nor is it merely average. In fact, NBA Live 09 is actually an above average offering from the boys in Vancouver. The problem is, there are enough issues that hold the game back from reclaiming its past glory.
Many Live critics have cited unmistakably broken gameplay elements as the single biggest reason behind Live's terrible ratings the past few years. Fans of the series will attest to the fact that despite where the game has been, the gameplay has been steadily improving from year to year.
This year is no different as the Live team has been able to bring the gameplay one more step up the ladder. While the canned animations are still here and messing with the gameplay, the game plays more like basketball than it ever has on the next-gen consoles.
NBA Live 09 can be compared with the Hornets turnaround last year: it is dramatic, but not Championship caliber just yet.
No longer do A.I. players sit around and do nothing if they don't have the ball. You will quickly notice in 09 that the A.I. players will be screening for their teammates to get them open, while your defenders struggle to fight through these screens.
At times in previous versions of NBA Live, I felt like I was playing a preschooler. However, this year the shot selection and overall A.I. strategy has been improved quite a bit.
The computer teams will play to their strengths much more than before, which leads to a much improved basketball experience for those gamers who try to outwit their opponents. Thanks to the signature playcalling system, picking plays and switching up your strategy is something that can be done on the fly with little hassle.
To pick your plays you simply hold down L1 and then you pick a play by pressing the corresponding button. All of this happens while the action on the court is never interrupted. There are also multiple pages to cycle through when you are selecting plays, so there's a good amount of variety -- plus each of the plays has branching paths.
Since Live has improved a lot this year and is doing many things right on the court, it makes it all the more frustrating that there are still some issues with the animation system on the court. There are times where your player gets stuck in an animation and you lose all control over him until the animation completes. Hence, expect to see your players run straight out of bounds at times. This is just a very annoying problem when you try to drive the lane and you end up overrunning the basket because you pushed too many buttons and went through too many animations. Live 09 tries to help you out by softening up the out of bounds line a bit -- it seems like your player is out sometimes but he isn't called for it.
Pick and roll time for Steve Nash and the Suns. Don't get stuck in an animation please.
Another huge problem with the canned animations is when your defender decides to latch on to a ball handler and you get a closely guarded animation for however long the game deems necessary. While tight defense is meant to be frustrating, it is not supposed to be frustrating because of an unknown force that binds the defender to the ball-handler; it's supposed to be frustrating because you are playing someone who is good at defense.
My favorite example of this was trying to use the quickstrike moves with Chris Paul to get past Steve Nash in a full-court man defense. Every time I would bring the ball up the court it felt like I was pushing against an unknown force to try to get the ball up the court. EA could have easily added an animation where the ball-handler slides around the defender or even runs over the defender so a foul is called. But alas, this isn't the case this year.
The biggest problem with the canned animations comes into play when you try to use the new Quickstrike Anklebreakers to make a move towards the hoop. Usually, one of two things will happen when you use the anklebreakers: You will drive to the lane for an easy lay-up since the lane is totally open; or you will get stuck in the closely-guarded animation before you can make any significant move to the bucket. The anklebreakers are cool, but they seem way too effective unless you get stuck in an animation.
My biggest beef with the canned animations is that it feels like portions of the game are scripted and out of my control. When I go up for an inside shot, I will either see the shot animation or the get fouled animation. There is a certain amount of randomness to this in the NBA, but Live just doesn't offer you enough control over the game still. What would be really nice is if Live could implement the same interruptible animation system NCAA and Madden debuted this year.
Another huge problem with Live is the fact that the rebounding system is still messed up. CPU players still don't box out well enough and sometimes shots fall off the rim and hit the floor before being picked up. It's certainly easier to box out when you control the potential rebounder, and rebounding is improved from last year to this year, but it's still not good enough.
Loose balls are treated very poorly in Live 09.
Loose balls are also a problem. Whoever ends up with a loose ball has to be randomly chosen by the game because I felt like I had the position on a ball numerous times but still ended up empty handed. Players will not dive for loose balls or even go after them with much gusto. As it stands, players treat a loose ball with a laissez-faire attitude.
One time, actually several times over, I would tip the ball out of the ball-handler's hand and would get a jump towards the ball, but somehow the ball-handler would end up with the ball even though he was a couple of steps behind me. The whole thing just seems wacky and a bit random. It would be a far nicer solution for a player to go diving after a ball and maybe have some tie-ups and such on the court. As it stands, you don't really see any aspect of that part of basketball.
It is still a mystery to me why companies cannot find a good free-throw shooting system. This year, EA's free-throw system is handled poorly. You simply push the shot button down and release it within a certain zone. If you release near the zone (not even in it) you will make the free-throw shot. Basically, with a good free-throw shooter you should shoot 100 percent, and with a bad free-throw shooter you should shoot 75 percent at the very worst.
Case in point, through 10 games of my NBA regular season my team was shooting an incredible 95 percent from the line. My only misses were when I admittedly wasn't paying a lick of attention. I'm not sure why it is so hard for EA to get the free-throw shooting right, but it seems like the company comes up with a new way to do them every couple of years -- none of which end up sticking.
Spurs vs. Thunder. A battle of small market teams.
Also, fouls are almost nonexistent on the default game sliders, which I suppose is a way to cater to the gamers who don't want to worry about swiping at the ball at will. However, if you jack up the foul sliders then you will see the frequency of fouls reach a more realistic level.
Speaking of fouls, the CPU handles foul trouble quite well from what I have seen. When playing Canada in the FIBA World Championship Final, Steve Nash ended up in foul trouble in the early part of the third quarter. The Canadian coach pulled his PG and waited until a third of the way into the fourth quarter before putting him back in the game.
Of all of the new gameplay additions this season, the new pick-and-roll system is probably the best. You simply press and hold L2 to get a screen set up, then you use the screen to make a move towards the bucket. During your big move you release L2 and then the screener will either pop out or roll depending on how long L2 was held.
The drawback to the pick-and-rolls is that they seem to be rather effective and could border on a cheese tactic with the right personnel. However, running the pick-and-roll with Team USA members Kobe Bryant and Amare Stoudemire might have been the most deadly form of the play ever seen. But again, beware of the cheddar.
The CPU players tended to play defense rather realistically as well. Players off the ball played their help positions rather well -- although their positioning still isn't quite perfect -- and overall they behaved like they should.
In a short summation of the gameplay, you will find that it has improved in many key areas, which makes the game much better overall, but there are still enough problems that keep the game from achieving top-notch status.
Dynamic DNA is a very well done concept.
The "money" feature in NBA Live 09 is Dynamic DNA. As with all of EA's other money features, Dynamic DNA is everywhere. Unlike most of EA's other money features, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Simply put, the amount of statistical depth and realism Dynamic DNA could provide throughout this NBA season could very well be the greatest leap forward in player rating systems in sports gaming history. I'm not exaggerating when I say that either.
Dynamic DNA basically is EA Sports' answer to the gamers who have asked for more realism out of their sports games. Dynamic DNA simply tracks a player's tendencies and abilities via real-life happenings, thereby making each virtual player play more like the real player.
The possibilities are really endless with Dynamic DNA. With each team also possessing a DNA based upon what players are on the court, there is a certain amount of realism that is achieved in the playcalling.
Back to my FIBA World Championship Final against Canada, which should help accentuate this point. When Nash was pulled, the Canadian team DNA was completely changed without its superstar player at point guard. Team Canada switched its strategy away from its offense revolving around Steve Nash and instead the squad used a more deliberate offense and focused it around the inside game.
Since the tendencies and skills ratings of each player and team will be changing throughout the season, you can fully expect to see a whole new game all year long. For once, an EA money feature delivers and delivers big.
The player faces are kind of hit or miss in Live 09.
The meat and potatoes of the single-player experience in NBA Live 09 is the Dynasty mode. While the mode lacks in several areas, it's still a very solid experience overall.
The entire Dynasty mode is built around achieving certain goals each season, depending on which focus you decide to pursue at the beginning of each season. You can choose between rebuilding now, building to win, and pursuing an NBA Championship.
Depending on which focus you choose, your team has a set of goals that they must achieve for you to attain dynasty points, which can be used to hire better staff, which in turn, will improve your team in a variety of ways.
Your owner will leave you little notes telling you how impressed or disappointed he is with your seasonal performance, which is obviously dependent on how your team is performing throughout the season. You can also watch your GM approval rating fluctuate throughout the season as well.
I am a huge fan of how EA has made the owner/GM interaction very key to your overall success. While the interaction is still a bit shallow, I believe the Live team is on the right track when it comes to how they have presented the Dynasty mode.
The simulation results seemed to be rather solid overall, as the teams who made the playoffs seemed to belong there, and the teams who were not supposed to be good struggled during the season.
As far as the offseason goes, it is what you would expect with an NBA game. First up in the offseason is prepping for the draft. You first go through the NBA Draft Lottery to see where you end up in the pecking order, and then you can work out rookies to see which ones you may be interested in.
One thing you will notice is that the A.I. teams are always looking for a deal. I got about 12-15 trade proposals from A.I. GMs over the course of my first season. Once you get into the draft, the trades begin to really accelerate. During the first round, I received at least 10 offers from computer teams that were looking to make a deal.
I will say this about the A.I. trade proposals, some were good proposals (improved both teams in either cap room or quality) and some were just downright bad. I liked the variety and they all kept you on your toes.
The new trade block feature is a really welcome sight in terms of shopping players around as well, as I was able to get a variety of offers after placing a couple of players on the block.
All in all, the Dynasty mode continues to improve but it isn't quite as deep as it could be at this point. In reality, you could sum up Dynasty as a mode that is good but it isn't incredibly good.
Be a Pro
While some might like the premise behind the Be a Pro mode, I personally thought it was kind of a waste of time myself. The whole premise of the mode is that you take over a player and try to raise his performance meter as high as possible during a game. Think about Be a Pro Mode like the player lock mode in year's past, except you have a meter to gauge your performance.
If you score, your performance meter goes up. If you miss a shot, it goes down. I played a game as LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and ended up with a 100 performance rating after scoring 32 points, gathering a few rebounds, and making a few assists along the way. No matter how you look at it, I really feel Be a Pro mode is an afterthought this year as the mode offers no lasting depth.
Look to the post! He's open!
NBA Live Academy
The other big, new feature in NBA Live is the NBA Live Academy. The basic idea behind the academy is to play several mini-games in order to achieve a certain score on the court.
While I think the various drills are well done, this is nothing we haven't seen in just about every other EA Sports game which has offered mini-games. In other words, the games are fun for awhile, but you probably won't spend that much time on them in comparison to other portions of the game.
Online and Other Odds and Ends
NBA Live 09 could very well be an innovative online title (NHL 09 innovative I mean) in terms of the Online Team Play and the Clubs feature. I admittedly only got a brief period of playtime online but from what I have seen during my time with the features, the only thing NBA Live is missing is an online dynasty mode.
My time online was relatively lag-free and for the most part was fun. However, it is obviously way too early to tell which cheese tactics will begin to bog down the experience for many. But as far as features go, NBA Live is very solid.
Another aspect of the game I want to talk about before signing off here is the atmosphere. I think it is just simply wonderful. If you closed your eyes for a few moments and just listened to the action on the court you would swear a real NBA game was on the tube. You can not underestimate how much the atmosphere of Live adds to the game.
However, the commentary needs work. After a game or so in, you will begin to hear Marv Albert begin to repeat lines. After you have played a few games, expect to only hear spotty new lines from the announcing crew. (I wonder if it's because Kerr is now the Phoenix GM?)
NBA Live 09 is a game which you want to love so very much. At times, the game is very fun and makes you think the series is back to its old form. However, you are soon brought back to reality when you see Live still doesn't do many aspects of the game of basketball quite right.
Many were saying that Live was a year away last year. However, Live was just so bad that the game had to do a lot to really become a great game again. This year wasn't their year, but next year will be if the game makes as big of a leap as it did this year.
NBA Live 09 is for gamers who want something new and can forgive its shortcomings. However, if you want the best game of basketball possible, Live 09 isn't going to be that game.
On the Court: A mixed bag. You will see flashes of brilliance with the Dynamic DNA and A.I. adjusting, then you will get stuck in an animation and the entire play will be ruined.
Graphics: The player faces are hit or miss to say the least but the overall package is more than fine.
Sound: The arena sounds are about as good as you possibly can get. As usual, the commentary is very solid, but more repetitive than previous years. The lines we do hear -- and you will hear them a lot -- are well done.
Entertainment Value: Thanks to the atmosphere and the scheming A.I., you will have quite a bit of fun with this game, though, you will want to throw your controller when your point guard runs out of bounds on a drive at a key point in the game.
Learning Curve: You are going to need to spend some time figuring out all of the buttons and all of the features. This is a typical EA Sports game in terms of button layout complexity. New players will have to play for a few hours to get the hang of the game.
Online: Solid. The five-on-five works well and you can bet you will have a fun time with friends. The clubs feature could be the future of online sports gaming.
Score: 7.5 (Entertaining)