It was with no small amount of reluctance that I put away NHL ’09 – Electronic Arts’ phenomenal hockey title and home of the EASHL – to give EA’s new hoops game a whirl in my trusty Xbox 360. Personally, I’ve long found basketball games lacking as a whole as they simply haven’t translated into the realm of video games as seamlessly as other sports – hockey, soccer and football come to mind. However, EA’s effort quickly made me realize just how much progress has been made since I last played a basketball game for any length of time.
Despite not having played an NBA game on a next-gen console (outside of a few demo games), I had little trouble picking up the controls with only the occasional push of the B button (shoot) when attempting to pass to my shooting guard (designated B when holding down the RB button). The pick-and-roll controls work great and make that offensive set a staple of successful game play, just like it is in the NBA. The quick strike moves are assigned to the right stick and used by either pressing or flicking the stick in different directions, which when combined with the right trigger (turbo) allows you to unleash ankle breakers. I really think EA did a solid job of this and didn’t make it easy to shake defenders, though once you do they’ll catch up if you don’t make a move quickly, which feels artificial. Playcalling is also easy – just hold down the LB and select a play – and works well.
Defensively, things are pretty straightforward, though if you’re like me you’ll find yourself holding down on the right stick a lot to maintain your defensive stance. Of course, if you’re not like me you can simply hold down the left trigger and the computer will do the work for you. Boxing out works fine once you engage, though at times I felt the offensive player slipped away when he shouldn’t have. I also felt that once my player locked up defensively I was watching a series of pre-canned animations more than I was controlling him, and at times my guy would run right past the offensive player rather than locking up. If I did get shaken I found it hard to catch back up and lock him up again. Of course, in the interest of it being challenging that is a probably good thing.
My only real gripe with the offensive play came in the post, where at times I didn’t feel like the controls responded as quickly as I pushed them. For instance, I’d try to do a pump fake by tapping B, but nothing would happen, so I’d have to tap B again. It’s no big deal if there are 15 seconds left on the shot clock, but if you’re running out of time it can be a little frustrating. Overall though, low post play is a blast and the controls in ’09 are both rock solid and very easy to learn.
The overall on-court visuals are impressive, and the way the game flows and players move looks very natural. When the action is flowing and you make a nice play it looks like an NBA game on TV. However, I did encounter some issues here, such as players getting locked doing a specific move in a huge arc around the court (including out of bounds) and eventually making a lay-up. I’ve also seen a CPU player miss a free throw, one of their guys rebound it, get a slam dunk and then watch my guy pick it up and head the other way without the dunk being counted. I’m not saying these things happened frequently, but they did pop up and should be noted.
Blocks also seem to happen far too often, and the animations don’t necessarily look as though a shot has even been blocked. The game plays for what feels like a little too far away for my personal tastes. I do like being able to see the entire court – something that leads to frustration at times in the NHL ’09 game where cross-ice passes are leaps of faith on the tight default camera in Be A Pro – but it does lead to an almost disconnected feeling, like you’re watching more than playing at times. Speaking of far away, the 24-second clock is way too small as part of an undersized scoreboard that is difficult to read at times. It doesn’t need to be huge or gaudy, but either increase the size or give a little more heads up – it beeps and the numbers change colour now – when the clock is running down.
There are a few ugly parts of Live’s graphics, particularly the crowd, which doesn’t appear to be reacting to the action at all, even though the sound does. The close up after an attempted free-throw always looks strange as well, something to do with how their shorts flow back and forth just looks mechanical and borderline jarring given the general smoothness of the player animations.
The in-game sounds are the usual fare, and I do enjoy the crowd yelling “THREEEEEEE” when the home team puts one up from downtown, though it seems out of place when that team trails by 20 with 90 seconds left. I’ve always been a huge fan of Marv Albert, so I’m happy to hear him here, but Steve Kerr – who is currently the GM for the Suns – sounds like he’s reading off a sheet. Given that he’s not even an announcer anymore it makes his inclusion a little odd. Things repeat themselves but not too often, though the Albert/Kerr combo can’t compete with the stellar work done in NHL ’09. Overall, the sounds and announcing were solid and by no means took away from my enjoyment of the game.
Live ’09 features the introduction of Dynamic DNA, which is a fantastic idea that by virtue of its very design I’m not really able to give a full review of. The concept is that EA will download to your game system each day updated tendencies, injuries and roster moves so that your gaming experience will closely mimic what is currently happening in the NBA. This is light years ahead of the old days when a handful of roster updates would be available throughout the season, allowing you to always stay current. Hello, Allen Iverson in Motown!
Beyond that, it adapts your teammate/opponent AI (no, not Iverson) to mirror how players really perform. So if Iverson becomes a spot-up jump shooter in Detroit, that’s how Iverson will play in Live. If Yao Ming becomes Jack Sikma, he’ll hover around the three-point line and launch jumpers. In theory it’s a great innovation and one that other companies and sports will almost certainly look to integrate. As noted, however, this is a mode that’s usefulness will play out over the course of a full season, so I’ll have to reserve full judgment. Conceptually, though, I love it.
The Dynasty Mode is present, and it does a lot of things well. I like the option to select which type of club you’ll be – rebuilding, up and coming, championship – which alters your goals. For each goal you do accomplish (such as reaching the playoffs or having a player make the All-NBA Team) you get GM points, which you then spend on your assistant coaches and scouts to improve them. All games can be simulated, which is done via a play-by-play game log (the type you’d see on ESPN) and you have the option to jump in at any time with the push of a button. The game will also prompt you for team and individual events – such as you’re leading/trailing late in a game or when one of your players is about to score 40 points.
What I found very strange was that the playoff simulations were handled differently. Here you either played the game or you simulated it – there is no option to interrupt. My biggest issue came during the offseason, where it apparently doesn’t offer the chance to save during the numerous activities. On top of that, I encountered freezing issues during the offseason. There’s nothing like getting through 75 per cent of the offseason only to watch the game freeze up and have to start all over again because of the inability to save. I eventually chose to forego all the scouting activities because I was worried the time I sunk into them would be for naught. A scan of online message boards suggests I am not alone in having freezing issues. NHL ’09 has them as well, though they are easily fixed by clearing the cache of your Xbox 360 – NBA ’09 doesn’t seem to have an easy fix.
That was the biggest drawback I came across, and it really put a damper on an otherwise very enjoyable Dynasty Mode.
The Be A Pro Mode is here, wherein you control a single player for an entire game and are graded based on what you do well (score, rebound, steal) and what you do poorly (miss shots, turn the ball over). This mode is the highlight of NHL ’09, but compared to that it comes up woefully short in Live. There is no season mode for BAP here; instead you play a single game and the depth of grading just isn’t in place. In NHL you have three sub-grades (position, team play, stats) that make up your overall mark, but here you can run all over the place, hog the ball and not get penalized for it. It feels like it should have a “Coming Soon” tag assigned to it, because it feels like a mode that is still in the developmental stages. I would expect NBA Live ’10 to build on that as the company has already proven it can pull it off marvelously in other sports.
As for the other modes, online play is solid with some interesting options, namely online team play, though here’s hoping there’s an EASBA next year. The FIBA Championships is straightforward, but can be a nice way to mix things up. Finally, the NBA Rewind is a nice touch that may be overlooked by some – it allows you to play matchups as they were in terms of personnel, hot/cold, etc. from last season.
I had a lot of fun playing this game, though a handful of frustrating issues – game freezing, defenders catching up to you too quickly after you blow past them – knock it down a little. If the powers that be can tighten a few issues and come back with a fully realized Be A Pro mode and EA Sports Basketball Association next year this could go from a very good game to a fantastic one.