After a disastrous outing last season, EA Sports brings NBA Live 08 off the bench for the PlayStation 3 with a fully revamped game and we have the lowdown on well it performs on the hardwood. Coming right off of the heels of the impressive NHL 08, I was expecting a similar level of quality with NBA Live 08 but yet I approached the game with a bit of caution considering how poorly the previous NBA Live 07 fared on the Xbox 360. Fortunately, PS3 owners were spared the horror since NBA Live 07 never made it to Sony’s next-gen system. With that said, I would have to say I’m a bit surprised how well NBA Live 08 plays. It’s not a perfect swish but it’s definitely a two-pointer.The focus this year is on the inside game, which is refreshing since this has always been a weak spot in the EA Sports’ NBA series, in particular inside defense that was way too easy to break down. There is now a nice balance between how physical a defender can be in the paint versus the a**nal of new inside moves for your low-post man. One exception is weak matchups such as when you’re controlling a dominating inside man such as Shaq or Tim Duncan. This is when you can exploit inside moves and rack up big points in the paint. It’s still fun to watch the defender get blown out of the lane or foul you as you pull down a thunderous dunk. The extensive gameplay sliders do need to be adjusted to get a reasonable balance between these battles in the paint since the game tends to use missed short-range shots as the primary equalizer, which is really not the most realistic solution for NBA-level gameplay. So you end up moving the short-range shot slider (to the right) to increase short-range accuracy and then go in and beef up various elements of the CPU’s defense. It might seem like a lot of tweaking but it is well worth it if you want to get a reasonable balance for the inside game. Otherwise, you’ll end up with either a foul-fest or a continuous offensive beatdown in the paint. Hopefully, EA Sports will beef up the inside defense a bit more with NBA Live 09 so you don’t have to fiddle with the gameplay sliders. The AI in the game is decent with the only glaring deficiency being the inconsistent behavior in the closing minutes of a game. Sometimes the opposing team will act accordingly by committing intentional fouls when they’re behind while at other times they won’t be in any type of rush to get a shot off or they’ll shoot standard jumpers when 3-pointers are needed. This doesn’t detract from the otherwise excellent gameplay but does prevent it from reaching all-star status.With player control, I initially had some issues on defense since there isn’t any indication of a button for “squaring up” against an offensive ball-handler until I discovered the CPU “Defense a*ist” button (L2), which is primarily used for CPU-a*isted defense. It works great if your man tries to beat you since the CPU will help you get back in the right defensive position. You can still get burned but this feature helps if you’re having difficulty against a particular player. The other indirect benefit of this button is that when you still have it pressed down; you can take control of your defensive player and manually square off against a ball-handler. This is important if you want to play off of the ball handler. It’s too bad the motion control capability of the Sixaxis controller wasn’t utilized in this area since it would have been a perfect application for squaring off your player on defense with some type of one step feature. This type of feature could be especially useful in blocking out since there isn’t a dedicated button. Instead, you have to rely on the game triggering a block-out move when you get between your opponent and the basket. As it stands now, motion control is only used for free throws which relegates it to gimmick-mode status since the right analog stick makes for a much more accurate method of shooting free throws.New for this year is the Hot-Spots feature which gives you the ability to see a player’s performance level at different areas of the court. A one-button hit shows red, gold or blue zones on the court to designate hot, so-so and cold shooting zones. This is a nice feature especially if you’re not familiar with a given player but I think you’ll find yourself not using it as much as you think you will since the ball changes hands so frequently in any given offensive sequence. Hitting the Hot-Spots button every time the ball is passed around on offense just isn’t practical. Fans of previous versions of NBA Live 08 will be familiar with Dynasty Mode and NBA All-Star Weekend events. The NBA All-Star Weekend consists of the Rookie Challenge Game, 3-point Shootout, Slam Dunk Contest and the All-Star Game itself. These are nice distractions from the standard season schedule with the only one exception – the Slam Dunk Contest. The rigid button timing required to get off cool dunks really needs to be revamped since its current setup makes it about as much fun as watching a Sonics-T-Wolves game. The Dynasty Mode has all the detail from scouting to team chemistry so micro-managers should find plenty to fill in their time between games. NBA Live 08 also brings to the court a few new game modes such as Quick Pick Play, where you can customize your lineup with any players from the league. Another is the Scenario Play, where you jump into the end of a game in progress with the objective of either holding the lead or trying for a late-game comeback. This feature is a great way of testing key inbound plays or just testing your crunch-time skills in a high-pressure situation. Another cool game mode is the opportunity to play in a FIBA World Championship tournament mode but unfortunately with a very limited eight teams (Argentina, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, China, Spain and U.S.A.). The FIBA World Championship mode is good if you want to get some international play in but what is with the lack of a mid-tournament save feature? You’re literally forced to play all three games in one sitting. At least the developers are consistent with this ridiculous deficiency since you can’t save in the middle of a game either. Lame! The multiplayer is standard online fare with ranked and unranked games involving both set and customizable teams. You can also join an online league, which is a nice feature. Now we just need a dedicated player position option for online multiplayer. It’s not here so we can only hope it’s introduced in next year’s edition since multiplayer needs something new to give it some spark. The graphics and sound didn’t have as big of a leap in improvement as the overall gameplay but they are very good for the power of the PS3. There are still some funny looking faces but at least the players resemble their real-life counterparts. You get nice details such as tattoos, bad haircuts and even acne-scarred skin. I could probably do without the latter but it’s there for the graphics’ purists out there. My only criticism with the graphics is the instances of framerate slowdown in certain parts of the game such as huddles with the coach (during timeouts) and occasionally when the ball is brought upcourt. These occurrences result in a slight slowdown in the framerate so I wouldn’t consider it major but you do notice it since the rest of the game run pretty smooth. The sound is excellent with the stadium and court level noise sounding as good as ever. Marv Albert and Steve Kerr provide the play-by-play and color commentary, respectively. The presentation feels like a real NBA game even though Kerr’s voice is a bit bland and he tends to repeat some of his comments. On the other hand, Marv Albert is in top form with his usual play-calling enthusiasm. NBA Live 08 is big improvement over last year’s version of the game and PS3 gamers get to reap the benefit of EA Sports’ complete makeover. The inside game is so strong that it almost single-handily justifies the purchase of NBA Live 08. There a few areas that keep the game from reaching All-Star status such as inconsistent endgame AI, some framerate bumps and the lack of innovation (limited use of motion control and typical multiplayer) but it’s hard to dwell on these items since the developers did a great job of improving the core gameplay. It’s safe to say NBA Live 08 can now play with the big dogs and we expect the series to be vying for the top spot in NBA video games for the next few years.