Since the NBA franchise is not exclusive, EA has had to compete against other publishers such as 2K Sports and Sony in the console world for the NBA basketball experience. 2K Sports has been a consistent leader in the space but EA is trying its hardest to dethrone the champ. We saw a big improvement with last year’s NBA Live 08. It wasn’t perfect but it finally became a worthy competitor to the NBA 2K series. This year EA dishes out some new features in its efforts to pull ahead of 2K Sports. Let’s see if they have succeeded or not.
The most noticeable changes from last year’s game are the graphics, tightened controls and the NBA stat-based, Dynamic DNA. Starting with the visuals, the players have a more refined look and come much closer to appearing like their real-life counterparts. The monster faces are now gone even though their bodies still look like steroids are rampant in the league. The moisture from sweat tends to exacerbate the freakish look of the players’ bodies. The frame-rate is also improved especially in the full-court transition, where Live 08 tended to struggle at times. Load times are unfortunately not improved and almost seem slightly worse from last year’s game. There are no major changes with the more than adequate sound and this includes the professional play-by-play announcing of Marv Albert and Steve Kerr. The Dynamic DNA is a nice addition since it brings some player and team-level realism as the game reflects the on-court tendencies and trends of the actual NBA players and teams.
With the controls, the biggest difference is how they have been tightened, especially on the defensive side with the Lockdown Defense that gives your user-controlled defenders the ability to stay in step with the offensive ball handler. This change gives the game a much different feel than Live 08 and helps to shorten the learning curve both on defense and offense, where it is much easier to master signature moves. Veterans of the NBA Live series might think it’s a bit too easy as it veers away from the more combo-move mentality of Live 08 but overall, I think most will feel it is an improvement. Other positive additions include the expanded Pick and Roll move and the more intuitive Alley Oop pass. There is also a new one-button access for signature plays. On the downside is the unnecessary change to the Free Throw system as it junks the right stick shooting for a timed sliding meter. It’s not impossible to get it down but it would be nice if the developers of NBA Live would decide on one free throw system and keep it since nobody buys the latest version of a basketball game for the “new” free throw mode.
While I’m on the negatives, the other area that hasn’t been improved is boxing out and rebounding from your teammates. The CPU-controlled players still tend to stand around while opposing players position themselves for rebounds, even with the strategy sliders set to box out on defense or crash the boards on offense. This is definitely one area where the NBA Live series needs a major overhaul. This becomes much more important when you discover that missed shots are still used for balancing the gameplay (in the CPU opponent’s favor). Fortunately, gameplay sliders are available so you can adjust your shooting accuracy as well as dialing down the accuracy of the opposing team’s shots since playing against teams that shoot 60+% from the field gets old rather quickly in anything above the Starter difficulty level. I compared this directly with Live 08 and a lot more tweaking is required to get a more balanced game out of Live 09. One other area that also needs work is the out-of-bounds quirks since there are still problems with players stepping out of bounds and it not being called. This problem is expanded in Live 09 with players stepping into the court while they are passing the ball inbounds.
Some other added features to note are the new training mode, NBA Live Academy and the “Be a Pro” mode, which is a fun to play but is unfortunately limited to picking an existing player (you cannot create your own) for an exhibition game only. I expect and hope this to be greatly expanded to a fully customized player and full season with next year’s game. Fans of the Team Play mode, where 10 different online players take the court will be happy to know it is available right out of the box (it was patched for Live 08). This is a blast to play and adds a fair amount of longevity to the online component.
As expected, NBA Live 09 advances the looks and control of previous versions of the game but it still can’t get past the series’ longstanding issues with some of the more basic fundamentals such as rebounding. This wasn’t such a major issue with the past years’ games since the CPU-controlled opponents were never this dominating but this year’s game changes all that. If next year’s version can address the rebounding weakness, then we might indeed be crowning a new king of the hardwoods but for now, NBA Live still needs a bit more time in the gym.