NBA 09 The Inside Review (PS3)
Back in June, I wrote about my experience and enthusiasm after buying a PS3. Part of my excitement was due to the addition of a Blu-ray player to my multimedia set-up. But just as promising was the ability to play platform-exclusive games. I dove in right away with Sony's premier baseball game, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute that I played The Show. It trumped just about all aspects of 2K's baseball game, and I never looked back. With the opportunity to play yet another Sony exclusive title, I jumped equally as fast into NBA 09: The Inside. Regrettably, I wish I had kept my feet on the ground.
While The Show sets the standard for baseball games, The Inside seems to lag behind its competition. While The Show captures the intricacies of control, The Inside features a sloppy and floaty control system. While Sony's baseball game is extremely fun, its basketball game quickly becomes a chore, and is an altogether shallow experience.
Before diving further into the negatives, let's take a brief look a what does work. First, this game has some nice things going for it graphically. Player models are very passable, sharp and often look good while in motion. The courts are nice and bright, and really jump off the screen as a backdrop for the action. Pregame introductions are a welcome addition and heighten the excitement before tip-off. Also, all of the actions runs at 1080p, or "True HD." Unfortunately, the pretty graphics don't include "signature" shots or moves, so while everyone looks good, they also all look the same while shooting and dribbling.
Batting .500 might be good in baseball, but it's not so good for gaming companies.
I also like the rewards system, which allows you to create up to 5 players, assign them to a team, and earn credits that can be used to buy gear and unlockables. It's not a game-changing inclusion, but it is a nice way to integrate player creation, the Life mode, and game time goals without seeming too gimmicky. It's not something that you have to use, but for players like me who like to create "themselves" anyway, it gives an added benefit.
Feature-wise, this game has a good deal of options that will keep you busy, assuming you enjoy the base gameplay. First there are the standard quick-play, franchise and online modes. There's also an interesting NBA Replay function that will allow you to replay some of last season's games or individual "games of the week" from the current year. I'm hoping that this mode becomes a standard in other games, especially for those of us who don't have the time to play through a full franchise each year. It's a good way to feel like you are involved in the season as it unfolds.
There are also a lot of mini-games, some of which can be fun. My favorite is Blacktop Golf. In this mode, you work your way up the court by shooting into trash cans. There is a risk/reward relationship by looking short or long -- hitting a short trashcan may be easier, but won't get you as close to the hoop. Penalties are given if you knock a trashcan over. While Blacktop Golf stands out from the rest of the mini-games, I can't see it taking a big slice out of my gaming time.
The main mode in the game is The Life, NBA 09's career/story mode. There's a lot of promise here, but unfortunately, it can't live up to similar modes, like Road to the Show. While there are three different "storylines," each is pretty short in telling the story of a D-Leaguer's rise to the NBA. While the cut-scenes are well rendered (except for the crowd -- I saw three adjacent fans wearing the same Cosby sweater), the actual gameplay is rather artificial. Each game -- actually, each part of a game, typically around three minutes -- gives you objectives that must be completed. So, instead of actually accumulating stats over the course of multiple seasons, like you can in The Show, you are simply filling time between cut-scenes, playing games where the score doesn't always matter. The Life games quickly become about fulfilling goals, some of which are not that natural to begin with. Oddly enough, you can't even lock onto your player, which would heighten the individual experience you are supposed to be "living."
Kobe spies a cheeseburger.
A few game mechanics are worth mentioning as well. First, the rebound "halo" is a good way to indicate where the ball will land off the rim, especially in the game's default broadcast-cam mode. It could be taken a step further by changing size based on player attributes, like rebounding ability or court awareness; but as it is, the halo works well.
Additionally, there's a "Showtime" mechanic that rewards your team's momentum for good plays, and penalizes it for poor plays. Some gamers find momentum functions very artificial or unnecessary; however, I tend to like them, especially here, since every momentum factor is clear and well-defined. Strangely though, it's turned off by default.
So, if that's what's mostly good, what's bad? Primarily, the actual basketball. The best word I can think of to describe the control of this game is floaty. It's not as bad as an ice hockey game or early '90s Madden, but it's nowhere near as crisp as the other NBA games. I suspect this is a function of the game's mediocre physics engine; regardless, it makes the players somewhat difficult, and certainly not any fun, to control.
Speaking of control, I find that the dual buttons for dunk and jump shot -- despite intent -- create less control than other shooting methods. For instance, pressing the dunk/layup button in the wrong court space launches your player into a canned animation. Live 09 has fixed this issue by still being somewhat context sensitive if you press the wrong button in the wrong situation, but this is not the case in NBA 09. Often, pressing the wrong button would drive my player out of bounds, when I meant to run the baseline. If this system were better implemented and connected with tighter animations, it might seem more intuitive. As it is, the shooting controls seem a little clunky.
When it comes to jump shots, the other button activates a shooting meter, not unlike a baseball pitching meter. The premise here isn't far off; essentially, better shooters will have a greater "green zone" than scrubs. It also puts some skill in your hands, as your reaction time and instinct play a part in the effectiveness of the shot. For me, though, the meter is too obtrusive. 2K's timing system functions similarly, but is "hidden" within the presentation; that is, you watch the player, not a meter, for correct timing. Additionally, the meter bounces around like crazy as your player moves, so hitting that perfect shot is that much more annoying. That said, I still like the shooting style at the core, it just needs to be improved to be worthwhile.
Compared to the competition, there just isn't much there.
While you would think the control issues and design decisions would make the game harder, it actually plays fairly easily. Whereas in past basketball games, I had to lengthen quarter times to get a realistic scores, NBA 09: The Inside generates good scores using default period lengths. Other stats may be off, but high scores happen -- and are a result of defensive issues.
First, the broadcast angle makes it extra difficult to mark a man when on defense, especially when the offensive moves are a little over-powered. On offense, I found myself relying heavily on the crossover to beat a defender. Conversely, the defensive player controls aren't sensitive enough to strafe with a flailing ball-handler. It seems that the recently developed defensive lock-on features found in other NBA games are becoming a necessity. It's too easy to get beat by just about anyone to the hoop, because of a wrong angle taken due to a camera view or because an animation goes on for far too long. Particularly, the "take a charge" animation freezes your man for entirely too long, while the offensive player walks by for a score.
The defensive A.I. for both teams seems less then adequate, and it is the main reason why there is a very high percentage of fast breaks. Even plays that are not fast breaks result in open lanes, as occasionally players mark a man and leave the ball-handler open. All told, these defensive and A.I. issues create a game that skews toward an arcade experience. Arcade doesn't necessarily mean bad, but in this case, it doesn't necessarily mean fun either.
Final Thoughts: I haven't mentioned sixaxis controls (unnecessary), commentary (rather robotic), presentation (a little bland even with the TNT license), franchise (minimalistic) and trophy support (not a big deal to me, but may be to some people). These elements get lost in a game that seemingly has a negative for every positive, resulting in a neutrally mediocre package. That's the best I can say for this game, which became increasingly bothersome to play, not only due to the game's faults, but also because of what I've experienced in other basketball games. This game kind of feels like a launch title; if it was, it would be a good one. However, NBA 09 has been surpassed by other games that have adopted innovations (defensive lock-on, signature style, respectable A.I., deep franchise) that are not found here. In some ways, it's like a third-person shooter without a cover system or an open-world game without GPS. These are features that are not necessary, but have come to be expected.
I don't like to review games based solely on comparisons to other titles (and I haven't), but I cannot recommend this game when there are far superior options out there. You may want to rent it to experience The Life, but in terms of actual NBA gameplay, I would prefer even last year's NBA 2K over this game.
Again, Sony's exclusive sports titles represent a dichotomy of sorts, creating the best baseball game available while creating an inferior basketball product.
On the Court: Annoying court physics create sloppy and floaty controls. Little strategy is required, as this game borders on the arcade, mainly due to A.I. issues and defensive breakdowns.
Graphics: Perhaps the highlight of this game. Courts and players look good in high definition, player introductions are a welcome display, and the presentation is functional, if not splashy. Lots of stat overlays.
Sound: Very robotic-sounding commentary does little to enhance gameplay. Court sounds seem to be too quiet by default -- it's occasionally hard to tell if a shot fell or bricked off the rim.
Entertainment Value: Many modes means lots of replayability, if you like the main game. The Life, while somewhat fun, won't take very long, but mini-games and NBA Replay might keep you coming back. Franchise lacks such things as multi-team trades and a trading block.
Learning Curve: The biggest challenge may be picking up the unintuitive controls and working around the defensive kinks. That said, it may be more accessible than other games that are much more sim.
Online: Standard online functionality, with 2-on-2 being the largest online match-up.
5.5 (Slightly Above-Average)