NBA gaming enthusiasts are fortunate to have three simulation titles to choose from every year. The least prominent of the three basketball simulations on the market, Sony's NBA 09: The Inside is a progressive step from past installments in the series, though only slightly. The inclusion of The Life story mode and improved player models and presentation are welcome additions, but they're overshadowed by recurring clipping issues, a bare-bones franchise experience, and a lack of effective defensive controls.
While this game is classified as a simulation, the term only loosely applies to NBA 09 in comparison to competing NBA games. Too often the game will trap your player in an animation, removing him from your control. While this can be frustrating on offense, the defense has it far worse, because dribble moves and perimeter shooting are far too effective. Any player (we used Vladimir Radmanovic) can weave his way underneath the rim by using crossovers continuously, and players' field-goal percentages are excessively high. If that weren't enough, inaccurate physics continue to plague Sony's franchise. For instance, players seem to glide across the court, and ball magnetization is a common occurrence.
While some of the gameplay flaws can be attributed to bad physics, NBA 09's controls are to blame as well. The lack of a defensive lock-down mechanic makes staying in front of the ball handler an impossible task. This, coupled with the ineffectiveness of help defense, makes defense almost nonexistent. The result is that the game tempo is abnormally fast; even on the hardest difficulty passing is entirely optional, and it's commonplace to see dunks on nearly every possession. Although you'll never need to use it, play calling is severely limited, with only four options from which to choose, none of which are remarkably effective. For all the gameplay flaws, there are a few redeeming factors. The rebounding aid works very well in offsetting depth miscalculations resulting from the broadcast angle, and the skill-based shooting mechanic prevents you from feeling cheated on a missed shot.
The Life, the series' signature first-person storyline feature, makes its debut on the PlayStation 3. Now, in the fourth year since conception, The Life offers three separate storylines based on the position you choose to play (PG, SG/SF, and PF/C). Each story narrates your created player's progression from an NBA D-League unknown to a Finals MVP. Depicting experiences both on and off the court, the story's cutscenes feature voice-overs that capture the emotion of your character's ascension into the NBA, and the individual chapters serve as a teaching tool for how the position is played.
While the stories in The Life are compelling, the mode has major flaws that prevent it from reaching its potential. First, they are simply too short (each can be completed in just over an hour). Our career as a power forward included only nine chapters involving user interaction (the rest were cutscenes) and involved playing in only two basketball games: the D-league championship, where you play only the last 13 seconds, and Game 7 of the NBA Finals, where you play the last three minutes. The rest of your time is spent playing minigames. Overly rigid chapter objectives remove any element of spontaneity and essentially reward you for letting your opponent score so you can get the ball back faster. The lack of a player-lock feature (something that would fit well with a first-person storyline) is puzzling and leaves you feeling disconnected from your character. Improving attributes will help your created character in franchise mode, but it doesn't take long to max out many of the critical attributes, essentially making you a premier talent on your team at a bargain-basement price. It's possible to complete the power-forward storyline of The Life without improving a single attribute or buying any gear.
Franchise mode in NBA 09 is bare-bones by today's standards and lacks the basic presentation elements needed to make the mode viable. Trades can involve a maximum of two teams with up to four players and/or picks each. Although the trades are accurately governed by each franchise's current cap figure, these values are not displayed anywhere on the trade screen. Player evaluation during trades is equally cryptic since the game shows only the current season's stats and not the player's attributes. The game also doesn't include a trading block to field meaningful offers from the AI, and there isn't any way to monitor player moves made by other teams. Free-agent signing is skewed to your favor, because you will have first rights to sign any available player before the CPU-controlled teams. The list goes on and on. Suffice it to say that franchise enthusiasts would be better served by either of the competing NBA games.
In addition to Quick Play, The Life, and Franchise modes, NBA 09 includes a variety of minigames, ranging from NBA All-Star break skills and three-point competitions to more creative variations such as Blacktop Golf. Unfortunately, none of the minigames are particularly entertaining, and you probably won't play them more than once or twice. NBA Replay also returns this year, providing weekly challenges based on real games. Like in The Life, however, the objectives are too rigid and remove the spontaneity of the sport. NBA 09 also supports online play, but there are so few people playing that it's difficult to find a game.
The visuals in NBA 09 are superior to those in past games in the franchise, but they still fall short of the competition. The crowd is well lit, it dynamically reacts to on-court play, and it isn't just one model copied hundreds of times. Although player models (especially hair) seem more accurate than in last year's game, they are still not on par with those in either EA's or 2K's game. This is mostly due to the rubberlike skin textures, poor shadowing effects, and the occasional cross-eye. In addition to the models, the visual presentation is slightly improved this year. NBA 09 has switched to a sideline broadcast camera, and while it doesn't make playing defense any easier, it does make the game easier to follow, especially after turnovers. Player introductions at the start of the game somewhat resemble the real thing, though the lack of highlights is disappointing.
Ian Eagle does a reasonable job covering the game's play-by-play, but the color commentary from Kenny Smith is far too infrequent. As a result, the audio quickly begins to feel stale and almost unnecessary considering the frenzied pace at which the game is played.
NBA 09: The Inside is a small step in the right direction for a franchise that has typically lagged behind its NBA simulation counterparts. While implementation of a default broadcast camera angle and improved player models more closely mimic standards in the competition, glaring gameplay flaws and the overall lack of depth continue to hinder this series.