IGN Review of NBA Live 08
It isn't crystal clear whether it's the intricacy and subtle nuances of NBA basketball that makes it so difficult to emulate in a videogame, or if it's simply a lack of development skill on the majority of the teams that have produced these games (NBA 2K7 not withstanding), but regardless of the reason behind it there's really no doubting that basketball titles simply do not look like their real life counterpart when put in motion. Last year's NBA Live 07 was a sterling example of what's wrong with round ball on home consoles. Though the screens looked solid, as soon as the players started competing in real time things went awry. The artificial intelligence was an abomination, the animations were seriously lacking any kind of realism or fluidity for that matter, and the overall feel of the action was just plain bad.
Now NBA Live 08 is upon us. A year has passed since the failed effort of 07, and gamers have hopefully spent the last year in a love affair with 2K's previous offering so as to erase the memory of Live as quickly as possible. Is 08 the year that will finally see NBA basketball accurately portrayed by an EA-made game? Or is this year's Live just as horrific as the last? Our verdict awaits.
Lace Up Your Nikes
While last year's development effort was largely spent on bringing the features from the last-gen versions over to the shiny new exterior that makes up NBA Live on Xbox 360 and PS3, this year's game focuses largely on refining the feel of the gameplay. Last year's entry saw dynasty mode making the conversion, the same goes for the superstar abilities which coincidentally have been completely stricken from this year's game. NBA Live 08's changes and additions take a slightly different route. While there are still a lot of odd moments, like players dribbling once, stopping, then dribbling again and players stepping out of bounds with no whistle being blown, it has taken a few steps in the right direction.
Take the low-post play for instance. It's rare that a basketball game can accurately capture the dominance of Shaquille "The Diesel" O'Neal, but NBA Live 08 does as good a job as any. Thanks to the new low-post controls that allow you to pull off certain spins and jukes while grinding against another seven-footer, Shaq is more dominant than ever, almost too much so. He pulls down rebounds like The Daddy, dunks like The Daddy, and shoots free throws like The Daddy.
The quick strike ball handling is another addition to this year's game, though it doesn't really have the intended impact. The objective was obviously to make the animations as free-flowing and responsive to your commands as they were in NBA 2K7, but the difference between what this year's game can do and what last year's game could do is marginal at best. Sure you can stand in place and quickly dribble the ball through your legs, but pulling off fancy dribbling moves while driving the lane doesn't look much different than it has in the past. That having been said, the game still has a tendency to become a bit of a dunkfest, even on the higher difficulties.
To go along with the new ball handling mechanic, there are now go-to moves that players can pull off. A lot of the perimeter players, like LeBron and D-Wade, specialize in throwing up a convincing pump fake then taking a defender off of the dribble, whereas players like Shaq can pull off the baby hook like nobody's business. While some of the animations that stem from the new "go-to move" feel a bit canned and CPU-controlled, it's still cool watching a player like Carmelo use his body to create space and hit a fade-away jumper in a defender's eye.
Not an All-Star Just Yet
Rebounding is another area that has stayed fairly stagnant since last year. There are slight modifications that have been made so that the ball doesn't warp into a player's hands quite as often as it did, but you'll still see instances of a power forward jumping to clutch a rebound a split second before the ball even hits the rim. Either it's a flaw in the game or NBA players have suddenly developed some impressive clairvoyance.
Sadly there are also areas of gameplay that have taken an obvious step in the wrong direction. Shooting has been relegated to merely holding down a button. There's no timing to it, no real skill or user control over whether a shot is made or not. Whether the ball tickles the nylon or clangs off of the rim seems to be totally based on your player's ability and the defensive pressure at that time. It's not clear whether this was done to allow for real life animations to shine through a bit more, or if it was just to dumb the game down a bit, but whatever the reason it has had a negative impact.
Then there's the new lock-on defense, something that also makes its way into NBA 2K8, and essentially makes playing defense as easy as holding down the left trigger and maneuvering the left stick a bit. You no longer need to worry about switching players to follow the ball; the game now handles that for you. The whole defensive play experience has been taken out of the player's hands a bit too much.
There are also other areas, some small and some not-so-small, where NBA Live 08 stumbles. Fast break lay-ups are still missed a bit too often, though it's not nearly as frustrating as it was last year. Developers need to realize that NBA players, at least the upper echelon athletes, do not miss lay-ups, even when contested. If Stephon Marbury has a one-on-one situation with a back pedaling defender, there is no way he's going to miss his dunk or finger roll; it simply doesn't happen.
Inbounding the ball can be a bit of a challenge for the CPU. On occasion you'll see five-second violations that shouldn't happen, and others where you should have been able to steal an inbound pass, but can't. There's another issue that stems from inbounding the ball, one that has been in every NBA Live in recent memory. That being a backcourt violation that happens when tossing the ball in from out of bounds. Anyone who knows the game of basketball knows that this should never happen; no matter where you throw the ball in from, there's no way that it can result in a backcourt violation, yet it will happen every time in Live 08 if you pass the ball from out of bounds, back over the centerline.
The artificial intelligence in the game tends to be detrimental to the overall experience with friendly defenders not realizing when they need to rotate off of their man on defense and opposing all-stars not taking advantage of their abilities the way they should. If I'm playing against Kobe on the game's hardest difficulty he should take over the contest in certain situations. He should abuse my defense, not pass out of an open lane to the hoop.
Instant replays are another small nuisance, and while they don't affect the overall gameplay in a huge way, it's still something that shouldn't be an issue at this stage of technology. If you see something odd on the court, let's say a weird animation followed by a foul. The ref hands the ball to the player to inbound after the play, you press start, select instant replay expecting to see the preceding play and can only rewind far enough to watch the ref hand the ball to the player tossing the ball inbounds. Why the system's memory is erased after each play is beyond me and is an annoyance that will hopefully be remedied in years to come.
As you'd expect dynasty mode makes its sophomore season return in NBA Live 08, but not a whole lot has changed for this go round. There are more informative prompts that pop up letting you know when tasks like assigning training drills for the coming week, hiring staff, and orders from the upper-management (but if you're the owner of the team, who is ordering you around?) to better your performance - yes, you can be fired - are common throughout the dynasty mode.
Simulating the season to get to the all-important draft and shape your team for the future can be a bit of a headache. At first it seems like you have to sit through each play - albeit sped up - and click through a bunch of alerts, but thankfully it is possible to turn off simulation intervention and speed through a season at a steady clip. The same draft interactions from Live 07 are possible in this year's game. ESPN delivers a mock draft (as well as pop-up videos that play in the practice arena), you get a solid rundown of your team's needs and improvements that need to made, and you can trade players for draft picks or vice versa. Now if only EA could add in a playable training camp to drill your new recruits, then the off-season mode would be complete.
One oddity that pops up while selecting your team comes in the form of some mislabeled attributes. The attributes are broken up into adequate categories but things just don't shape up like they should. How the Cavs are said to have no athleticism with God's gift to basketball on their team is totally dumbfounding. LeBron is the second coming of Michael Jordan, only younger than his airness was when he got his start, and his team has an empty meter for athleticism.
New Kids On The Block
As with any adequate addition to a yearly sports series, the offering of game modes has been expanded on a bit. NBA Live 08 offers the FIBA World Championship, an eight-team tournament that pits the mighty USA against the rest of the world (even though Team USA doesn't feature Kobe Bryant as it should), there's Quick Pick Play where players can pick any ten players for a one-game experience - think fantasy draft, but only for one game - and there's Scenario Play where you can set several conditions like time left on the clock, quarter, and score and try and claim victory for your favorite team.
None of the new game modes really advance the overall NBA Live experience all that much; the Quick Pick Play, for instance, is held back by the fact that the CPU will pick some of the same players as you for its team. Chances are players will be most interested in a ramification that EA Sports has made to their online leagues. Last year's game confined players to meeting at specific time and playing their game, something that few gamers actually followed through with. Now players can participate in their leagues at any time, at their own pace. The GM of the league can kick players who are stagnant so leagues hopefully won't be bogged down by lazy players.
Moving away from the gameplay aspect of NBA Live 08, and focusing more on the visuals, we can see that the developers at EA's Vancouver studio have once again delivered a solid bit of realism. Players huddling up during a timeout reveals finely detailed models and droplets of sweat that will have you wanting to take a shower in no time. While the animations don't quite match the high level of visual acuity when the game is motionless, they're still better than they have been in the past.
The PS3 version is a little rougher around the edges than its 360 counterpart, showing off some aliasing and a slightly less polished color palette. Not to mention the fact that Sony fans are stuck with 720p as their maximum resolution. The frame rate stays fairly solid throughout gameplay on both systems, only dropping below 60 frames per second during online play, something that happens a bit more in the PS3 version than on Xbox 360. For whatever reason - and this could have been due to other users' connections - we experienced greater lag playing on the Playstation Network than we did playing on Xbox Live.
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