IGN Review of NBA Live 09
NBA Live has been having quite a run of bad luck over the past few years with gameplay elements that were simply flawed in execution or completely unrealistic to the sport. As a result, there's been a concerted effort to remake the entire franchise and streamline many of the mechanics that had gotten out of control. While last year's title was the strongest the franchise has been in a while, ultimately it was still disappointing. This year, EA Sports has chosen to go completely back to basics, focusing on elements like low post play as well as pick and rolls. It's also tried to focus on the stats of the game with its new Dynamic DNA system, which attempts to present the action on the court the way that it plays in the NBA. While these decisions for the game are laudable, the implementation of many features feels incomplete when you hit the court for tip-off.
To start with, one of the newer additions to this year's game is the pick and roll system, which lets you control both a ball handler and a player setting a pick during a play. This is a fundamental part of the game, and in NBA Live 09, it works really well. To call for the pick, you press and hold the L2 or the Left Trigger button, and a teammate will run over. Depending on how long you hold the button or if you make a move will determine what the screener will do by a basketball meter above the ball handler's head. Release the button before your ball handler makes a move, and your teammate will slip to the hoop, which can lead to a great break to the basket. If you take the screen, releasing the button before the meter gets halfway, your teammate will roll towards the basket, while filling the meter more than halfway will cause your teammate to pop out for a shot. Used effectively, you can perform incredible alley-oops or draw off defenders and free a teammate for an open shot. It's an excellent mechanic that works incredibly well.
Another mechanic that works well is the low post play, which has been solid for two years running now. In last year's game, you really could focus on working the blocks, putting a body on your opponent to knock them out of position before going up for an easy two. This year, the low post has been slightly refined with an easier spin move by flicking the right analog stick for spin moves, or performing a drop step by holding another button and flicking the analog stick. It's extremely satisfying to work the ball down to the low post, back down a defender, fake the shot, and when he bites on the fake, you pull off a spin to the bucket.
Tagged into low post play is the inherent guessing game that's included with the new Lockdown Defense system. While it was included in last year's game, the mechanics of it have completely changed this year, so you no longer have to worry about holding a button while you move the analog stick in the ball handler's direction; instead, you push your defender into the player and they will attempt to put a body on them, forcing you to try to guess exactly what direction the ball handler will go with the ball. In low post play, this works extremely well because making the right choices can cause you to force a big man to step out of bounds as he attempts to spin baseline, force him into a trap, or even take a charge by using the right analog stick to set your feet. The wrong choices will result in easy layups or dunks and a humiliating sense of not holding down the paint.
However, while this works well in the low post, using the Lockdown Defense in perimeter play, during presses or on another part of the court is much more hit or miss than any player would or should stand for. For one thing, moving into the ball handler seems to be one of those features determined more by the AI than the player. You can push the analog stick into your opponent, and instead of starting the lockdown, the player will just run around the ball handler instead of initiating contact. Even if you're trying to use the defensive assists and trigger this scenario, the lockdown feels a bit questionable as to when it is engaged. Even worse, you can be in the middle of a lockdown situation and when you're trying to cut off a move to the left or the right, the lockdown will completely slip off even if you made the right guess on where the play was moving, freeing the ball handler to cut to the lane and skirt past your defense. This happens regardless of whether they've tried to make a simple spin or broken out a Quickstrike move, which really makes the defense feel strained and inadequate at times.
On offense, the Ballhandling from last year has been augmented with new QuickStrike Anklebreaker moves, which are designed to include an number of hesitation steps to freeze your opponent so you can blow past them. Ballhandling moves are tied to the right analog stick, so flicking it in a direction will pull off one of the older moves, while holding the R2 or right trigger will cause you to start your dribble and end with a hesitation move that precedes a move towards the basket. If your opponent leans in a direction other than where you're going, you'll freeze him in his tracks and get a couple of steps on him. This is designed to help break a game wide open as you penetrate the lane or when you're working the ball around the perimeter to the open man.
In real life, freezing and faking an opponent out of his shoes can be a devastating way of breaking down a defense and creating fast breaks. Unfortunately, the Anklebreakers don't work the way that they're supposed to for a number of reasons. For one thing, you may get a head start on a defender with a few steps, but mysteriously, the same men that you just blew past get snapped back in front of you in a funky rubber band-like effect. In fact, it will happen so often that you'll begin to know exactly how many steps you can take before the defender will catch up to your player, which isn't realistic at all. This happens on both sides of the ball, so you'll be able to take advantage of it on the computer, but that isn't the point: if someone gets blown off the ball by a bad jump, they shouldn't automatically be able to catch up and make a play without hustling back down the court instead of generously being teleported into place.
At other times, the tempo of the game will slow down, allowing defenders to catch up to players that have managed to create a fast break on the ball. For example, playing in the office with Avi, our sports editor, I managed to create a steal and start a fast break up the court with Chris Paul a quarter of the court in front of everyone. Not only did the Rockets managed to catch up to him, but Yao Ming managed to run back fast enough to perform a block on the layup attempt. That was enough to make me want to break my controller, but when Tyson Chandler did the same to Tracy McGrady two possessions later, we both had to step away from the game for a few minutes in frustration. There's no explanation available for these issues to happen, but it'll pop up enough on the court to make you question just how this is basketball.
This is coupled with a number of old, longstanding issues such as players running outside the sidelines or making inbounds passes while standing on the court. The number of missed layups have been controlled much more in this year's game, but the number of air balls that are flung up seem to skyrocket in their place. You'll still find that backcourt or out of bounds violations won't actually be called as they should, and in fact, there even seems to be a degree of flexibility as to what these boundaries are; you'll have a player step on the line and still be considered perfectly established on the court. Other oddities will occur such as three in the key calls as you throw the ball into the big man who has just moved to the key to catch the ball from a screen. You'll just feel like elements of the game are just not being addressed here.
Outside of the standard gameplay elements, the largest inclusion has to be the Dynamic DNA system, which is supposed to control a large amount of gameplay from the artificial intelligence of players to their chances of making shots and the substitutions made during a game. Governed by stats provided by Synergy Sports Technologies, this Dynamic DNA system takes into account the way that a player performs in the NBA and translates these stats into a number of categories, such as their percentage of cuts to the basket, isolation calls or post up plays. This also tracks things such as a player's hot and cold streaks on the court or his tendency to perform a certain way on the court in a specific situation (such as spinning left when driving to the basket). This is the basis of NBA Live 09's slogan of "Live made fresh daily," scenario concept because you can connect to EA's servers and download updated data based on league play. For instance, if a player gets hot during the season and starts draining three pointers in back to back games, his stats will be updated to reflect this newly acquired range from downtown. Dynamic DNA will even go so far as to suggest specific plays for your team to run based off of the situation and the players on the court so you can take advantage of mismatches or other elements on the court to score.
In theory, it's a cool concept, but in actual implementation, it's a bit flawed for a number of reasons. For one, the 2008 NBA season won't start for a number of weeks, so players will have to wait to fully take advantage of these features. In the meantime, you'll have to rely upon the data that's been included in the game, which is supposed to dictate how a player will move on the court, leaving out of the equation the fluid, improvisational nature of the sport itself. What's more, unless you're a stat-head or someone that has been trying to draw up specific gameplans to go up against a team by arranging your plays around the DNA of an opponent, you either won't notice the feature at all during a game or you won't care that it's been included at all. If I'm getting Tim Duncan to post up, I'm not worrying about whether or not his DNA means he'll have a stronger or weaker chance at scoring from a particular side – I'm going up with the ball when I have a chance and try to throw the ball down.
Outside of that, the largest problem with the DNA is that it will provide you with erroneous information. While you can call up the DNA info at any time by pushing the left stick in, the DNA info on your player's tendencies will typically pop up whenever a shot has been attempted. However, you'll frequently notice that the information given doesn't have anything to do with what you just performed. For example, if I take a shot from the low post, I don't care that my player would take a shot from the perimeter a certain amount of the time. Similarly, if I spin to the right, I don't need to be told about my percentages of spinning to the left – details on the right would be much better. It just feels incompletely implemented, and with much of the features being tied into the upcoming season, such as the NBA Live Rewind games, it's hard to say whether or not the elements will be a fully functional or capable element for the game as a whole.
As a quick aside, make sure that you hold onto the slip of paper that's included with the game if you want any chance to take advantage of the features themselves. NBA Live 09 requires you to input a separate code to authenticate that you deserve to receive updates for NBA Live 365, and ties it to your PSN name or gamertag. Not only will this restrict you from playing and accessing the content on another system, but if you happen to lose this piece of paper, you'll have to pay another 20 dollars to gain the content. It's pretty apparent that this is a way to combat piracy or potentially used game sales, but considering that you would pretty much need the game itself to fully take advantage of the Live 365 features, this is something that could've been tied to the disc itself instead of by external means or squeezing users for an extra Jackson out of their wallet.
Apart from sections like this, the dynasty mode returns once again but has a few new adjustments made to the format. Players will be able to set a specific team direction for their upcoming season between rebuilding the franchise, being an up and coming team or contending for the championship. These directions will dictate the goals that you'll be given as the leader of the team, such as getting to the playoffs, getting your players recognized as all-stars or other objectives. By fulfilling these objectives, you receive points that can be used to augment elements like your staff's scouting, training and negotiation abilities. That's a pretty creative way to handle the dynasty mode, but players won't have to worry about continually hiring or changing their staff during a franchise – instead, you select a staff that sticks with you for years, which seems a bit strange. If I've got an assistant that isn't pulling their weight, I should be able to fire them at will and hire a newer, better coach that's available.
I will say this, however, the Dynasty mode does provide more of an impetus for you playing all of your games instead of simming through them, because you won't always be assured that you'll gain any points by letting the computer play them for you. You'll also find that there's more of a reason to use the training camp during pre-season to manipulate your team's stats by running your players through different challenge drills. However, there is a definite caveat here because some of the issues that I spoke of earlier will crop up in these drills. For instance, it's possible to try to beat a press and run right into the rubber banding issue that I mentioned, which will ruin the play experience as well as potentially harm your player's development of their stats.
Apart from the Dynasty mode, the other game modes that are included are fine but only expand on the fun you'll find on the court in a few ways. There's the inclusion of the FIBA World Championship like last year, although it's been expanded to a 24-team tournament split into four groups of six teams each. The top four teams from these groups move to a single-elimination tournament until a winner is established. Online play is pretty solid and has received a few overhauls, such as drafts, trades and playoffs during online league play. There's also online team play, which allows up to ten players on ten different consoles to play together in online games. However, the mode that it's based on, Be A Pro, is a significant letdown.
Be A Pro is designed to put you into the shoes of a specific player on the court and have you play their role during a game, getting evaluated on whether or not you perform your job properly. Make a mistake and you'll be marked down with an event listed in red, while positive events will pop up in green. Players will also have a potential threat indicator pop up over offensive opponents that have a chance to score. It's obvious that this is the first step towards having a superstar mode akin to that from NCAA or Madden for NBA Live, and that's to be applauded. However, it's not implemented far enough in this game and probably should've been left out of this year's game. For one thing, the mode only lasts for one game instead of a season, which feels too short and inconsequential. Another issue is that your players don't have to be phenomenal players or even do a lot on the court to be ranked high. For instance, all you have to do if you're a big man is constantly call for the ball and make layups to be ranked high. Hogging the ball instead of running plays or passing to the open man isn't penalized, which doesn't feel like an accurate level of measuring a player's success on the floor or how they ran their role next to the rest of the team.
In the visual arena, Live 09 is one of those games that can look good at times, and at other times looks completely atrocious. On-court action can look extremely slick, and during some transitional moments can even attain a decent framerate; however, although the action on the court looks good, move just out of bounds, and you'll notice that the crowd looks horrible, with a framerate that doesn't match that of the on-court action, which can be very distracting. In-game replays also drop a number of frames, stuttering as you watch a layup or monster dunk get thrown down. The title can look good during some screenshots, which is a nice plus, and the fact that some of the presentational elements have been redone during timeout cutscenes or game introductions (complete with cheerleaders) makes the game stand out. However, this is definitely balanced with some awkward animations that won't branch from one movement to another, as well as a lot of clipping and collision problems that constantly crop up as you play the game. Playing a few games, I easily witnessed a number of situations where I passed the ball through a defender instead of around him and other strange glitches. Finally, what's with the encoding of a four- to six-second replay taking more than three seconds to encode and save? While this is a new feature, it's almost prohibitive to use because of the amount of time taken for the feature to fully work.
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