IGN Review of NBA 09 The Inside
One of Sony's largest selling points for their basketball series has been the focus on true HD gameplay in 1080p, along with an easily accessible shooting mechanic and gameplay scenarios thanks to the NBA Replay feature. However, while the arcade-styled game was friendlier than some of the other basketball games on the market, the Sony NBA franchise suffered from old issues and a lack of some features found on the PS2 and PSP versions of the game. A year has passed, and Sony has recently released its latest installment of the game, NBA 09: The Inside. However, even with a couple of new features thrown onto the court, NBA 09 doesn't feel like it's improved at all in the offseason.
When it comes to gameplay, most fans going through a basketball title look for something that is vastly improved over the previous year's gameplay, or that addresses any outstanding problems that existed in the prior version of the game. To that end, you expect a new control scheme or gameplay mechanic to take advantage of. With NBA 09: The Inside, the most noticeable changes to this year's play aren't so much newly created gameplay features as they are changes to the pre-existing items that are turned off by default. One of the largest selling points attached to the series in previous years has been the inclusion of Sixaxis "Free6" control to dictate the spins, jukes or crossovers on offense that you'd typically use the right analog stick for. Similarly, the defensive "Free6" controls allowed a defender to "get high or get low" with his hands by tilting the controller up or down to simulate putting your hands up or down to interfere with shots or moves.
These have been disabled in favor of using the right analog stick to perform all of these moves on both sides of the ball. While you can still turn on the Sixaxis controls, and they still work essentially the same as they did last year, it is an interesting retreat from motion controls. The same can be said for the Showtime feature, which provided boosts to your team's shooting and speed, and the frequency of the rebound indicators, which highlighted the best time for a player to leap up and have a chance to pull down a shot. While the disabling of these doesn't make or break the gameplay, especially because you can turn them on and off at will, but it's fascinating to see how much 09 has titled away from the franchise's roots, particularly the direction towards the fact that the analog sticks, which are more accurate, have established dominance in even Sony's basketball game.
What has been addressed somewhat is the AI of the players in the game; they don't make nearly as many stupid moves as they did in last year's game. Now, you'll actually see the game taking advantage of fundamental parts of the sport, such as passing to open teammates that are parked on the perimeter waiting for the ball or taking advantage of mismatches and capitalizing on them. The AI also won't commit as many clock management problems as before, so it will take a shot instead of holding on the ball or fouling a player when they're behind. Plus, while it will still make a number of plays where it will run out of bounds and call for the ball or commit turnovers by stupid passes, the frequency of these problems have been somewhat reduced. In fact, the game will perform some impressive defense on poor passes, although the passing mechanic does seem to slight the bounce pass in the game in favor of tossing the ball through the air where it can easily be intercepted.
Even with some of the AI improvements, the tweaks only highlight the large number of pre-existing issues that have not been addressed at all in this year's game. Defenders will still "crab walk" towards a defender 90 percent of the time or more, remaining in a ready stance to attempt to cut off cuts to the basket but remaining susceptible to a quick spin or fast break because they're not able to get a step on a ball handler. Putting a body on another player isn't a guarantee either because the game has to recognize that it has to stop sliding across the field to make contact with the ball handler, by which time the ball is frequently passed or shot. There's still no way to perform a half- or full-court press, and even calling for tight defense requires hitting the command a few times to make sure that your team rotates to pick up a free man on the court. The low post game is full of holes, and you'll frequently see an offensive rebound because the defenders haven't boxed out an opponent who swoops in and gets an easy layup. The lack of branching animations also stands out, as you'll frequently see your players stuck in one animation or another that they have to complete before they can pass the ball or go up for a shot. In fact, their momentum will often carry them out of bounds before they can shoot the ball or pass to a teammate. Fouls also seem to have an extended distance, and other people in the office playing with me would frequently comment on how the reach-in fouls that were being called occurred without a defender near the ball handler. Fatigue, while used to determine when a player is subbed out, has no impact on a player's shooting or speed. I could go on, but overall, the arcade-like nature of the game and the unrealistic flaws really make the play feel antiquated.
Now, the largest and most significant addition made to NBA 09: The Inside is the inclusion of The Life, Sony's story-based mode that follows the tale of players through a season in the NBA. For a number of years, PS2 owners were introduced to the ups and downs of The Kid and Big W as they dealt with fame, injuries and other issues of being a star in the league. While this is the first year that The Life has made its appearance on the PS3, this isn't a continuation of either storyline; instead, players are presented with three brand new storylines tied to a specific position and characters that you create. The first story revolves around a Point Guard, while the second takes the player through the life of a Shooting Guard or Small Forward and the last story uses either a Power Forward or Center. As you start the mode, you'll begin in the NBA Development leagues and make your way onto the roster of your favorite team by fulfilling different goals based on your position, such as creating a certain number of assists or low post shots in a game.
However, while it's an interesting twist to break from the pre-established characters that were found on the PS2, it's not nearly as compelling or as involving as it was on the older system. The primary fault lies in the length of the mode itself: each story takes an hour or less to complete, meaning that players that are accustomed to the gameplay mechanics found in The Inside will be able to breeze through the gameplay mode. The brevity of the mode reduces any reason that you'll want to return to this mode, regardless of what kinds of players you choose to make, and as a story mode, it fails in any kind of drama, suspense or intrigue that would actually make the mode compelling. The Big W and Kid story at least had injuries, trade suspense and other items that made you focus on the cutscenes. In this version, you play some street ball, maybe go through some mini-games or practices, and inevitably wind up in Game Seven of the Finals after only a few game situations. That's not interesting in the slightest – it's just boring play.
What The Life's focus on different positions does do is highlight the return of the Upside Progression system which has been expanded this time around into what's more accurately called the Team Progression system. Instead of creating one single athlete at first and trying to collect as many experience points to expand on his stats and gear, this time around you'll be given the ability to create up to five characters, letting them gain credits that can be cashed in at any time as you play through the various modes in the game. This ability to create a virtual starting five and add them to almost any mode does provide some replayability, however, especially if you're looking at taking these players into the Franchise mode, which has been expanded this year as well.
Thanks to the newly redesigned hub, gamers can track player and team stats, adjust lineups, check offensive and defensive strategies, and view awards that have been won, among other elements. Unlike last year, however, there is some trade logic that's been implemented in this year's game, which will evaluate whether or not a trade is possible within salary cap restrictions. No longer will you be free to make a dream team of unrestricted free agents or poached players. While it's not the most in-depth facet of the franchise, it's definitely a step in the right direction considering that the mode has been radically broken in past years. On top of this, players can dictate whether they want to play a game, sim by quarter so they can step in and rescue their team if they get in trouble, or sim through the entire game. This year also focuses more on the rebuilding elements of each season in the 20-year Franchise window, as you'll need to negotiate contracts and make players happy with their deals and train players in the offseason.
These are nice additions, but the franchise mode still doesn't go nearly as far as it needs to to accurately simulate the control of an organization. For one thing, the training of players in the offseason is an arbitrary mechanic where you select one facet to focus on, and the game instantly returns a set of random results. You have no control over what happens to these players during these regiments, nor do you have control over your coaching squad, scouting for rookies to help you with your selections during the draft, or other standard franchise elements to help you run your team. In fact, once you move through the offseason, the mode still comes across feeling shallow; unless you wind up using the transaction feature (which you can completely ignore if you want), you'll only come into contact with some of the new features at the beginning and end of the season.
As for the other gameplay modes, they all return with minimal changes. NBA Replay returns to highlight the best moments of the 2007-2008 season, although this year, the focus for the season section of the mode highlights both an individual performance of one player during a week of the season as well as the team efforts of one particular organization. For example, you'll play as the Cavs during the first round of the playoffs, but their team performance is completely different than that of LeBron's 51-point game during January of this year, with different requirements and goals. Mini-games return as well, although there's only two true standouts this time around – Rabbit has you running after the images of rabbits projected on the court and making a shot from their location turns them the color of your player. It's essentially a faster and more mobile version of Own the Court.
Blacktop Golf, on the other hand, places you on a virtual "golf course" on a court, with trash cans and bins on the court arranged to represent your drives. Tossing the basketball into one of the bins allows you to move forward on the court, with the overall goal of trying to make a basket when you're close enough to take a shot. There is a slight hazard with throwing the ball however, because if you knock over a can, you get penalized a stroke. This game can be quite addictive, although I still wish that I could pull up for a three and try to knock down a birdie or better if I get near the three point line instead of having to pull inside the arc. Finally, online play makes its return as well, but we found a rather odd situation that popped up when we played – the shooting halo that helps to indicate when a shot has a better than average chance of going in didn't fill up at all when we tried to take a shot. We found this during both free throws and jump shots, and while we weren't completely disturbed by it (especially since we'd been accustomed to playing without the halo), it was strange to see it work offline and have it suddenly disabled online.
Visually, NBA 09: The Inside looks and runs practically the same at it did last year. The character model details is still as sharp as ever, and while there are some cloth textures that wind up getting stuck on player's arms or legs, for the most part the cloth physics and realistic sweat engine that's been used in previous years has carried over. The same can be said for the crowd, and while they aren't the most facially detailed crowd in a sports game, they do react at the right times by rising to their feet during a close game or waving thunder sticks to distract a shooter at the free throw line. While I've already mentioned the restrictive nature of many of the animations, which can carry a player out of bounds with their momentum or keep them from shooting at an optimal moment because he's still carrying out a juke, there's one odd hitch that I and others here have noticed: during some sections of play, a ball handler will stutter or slow down as he approachs the basket.
This slowdown is almost the same as the dramatic effect the game tries to impart if you intentionally call for an alley-oop, but this occurs as you're going up for a dunk or a layup. It's as if the game is forcing the player to gather his momentum and the ball before going up for the shot, which is an odd decision to place on someone, especially during a fast break. It's even odder when you realize that the rest of the players on the court move at the normal 60 frames a second. As for the sound, the largest change has been the addition of Kenny Smith to replace Mark Jackson, and while he and Kevin Calabro do come up with some interesting banter, their lines do tend to repeat a lot of the time.
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