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It's time once again to post up or shut up as NBA Live 09 hits the Xbox 360. Will the latest addition to one of EA's less convincing franchises have the game to impress, or will it once again lack the teeth to wrestle the crown from the clutches of 2K Sports?
There is no doubt that so far the 2009 crop has been a fruitful one for EA Sports, however, for my money NBA Live 09 arrives with the weakest track record and with the most ground to make up over its main rival, the excellent NBA 2K series from 2K Sports.
(As implied above) I was far less than blown away by NBA Live 08 and was therefore pleased to see that several key areas of improvement become obvious quite quickly this time round. The first is the design which has been overhauled and (mostly) looks very impressive and acts to intensify expectation and create a sense of (true to TV, if not real life) accuracy. Touches like smooth, sweeping pre-game sequences, on-court cheerleading and nicely paced, well implemented commentary, frame and complement the action stylishly.
Once on court, it is apparent that EA have refined the physics, movement and transitions from the very basic mechanics that so limited NBA Live 08. Not only do the players look and feel much more like actual, weighty entities subject to gravity and momentum, but a sharper and more precise control mechanic enables the player to take maximum advantage of this increased sense of physicality.
While on an individual level the physicality of the players is a real plus, things go considerably awry when they interact.
The main addition to the gameplay is the new play-management system which augments the ability to call a comprehensive range of preset plays with a new on-the-fly mechanic which makes various pick and roll plays easy and satisfying to execute. In addition, new 'ankle-breaker' moves enable your player to create space to drive to the hoop or time to kick the ball to a well-positioned team mate.
The main issue here is one of balance - while the easier, on-the-fly plays and ankle-breakers are clearly designed to offer an 'easy in' to play construction for the less experienced, they work so well and so flexibly that they not only make the set play calling seem a little rigid and fussy, but they also put pressure on it to make up for its inflexibility by way of precision - something which it largely fails to do. For me, focussing on and mastering the dynamic options might make for less variation, but it also makes for more a realistic and satisfying experience.
By far the biggest problem with the gameplay is the pacing. While on an individual level the physicality of the players is a real plus, things go considerably awry when they interact. The game feels slow and stodgy most of time and at the moment when you expect a player who finds some space to accelerate away from the defence, the change of pace is just not there. Not only does the ball seem to pull the carrier into the court making for a generally sluggish experience, opponents off the ball seem to have to ability to spring back into position at frightening speed from the most unlikely of spots. All of this means that, over time, all but the most uneven match-ups, can have a tendency to become a bit boring. For my money, one of the great things about basketball is the delicate balance of situations where accurate positioning and small, subtle movements make all the difference, and those where momentary imbalances make for lightening-fast, overwhelming plays and unstoppable scores. NBA Live 09 just doesn't get this balance right.
One thing the game is not lacking is modes. This having been said, while the flexibility of having several interesting avenues to explore has to be a plus, I lacked a clear sense of how the various modes related to each other or how it was intended that I should proceed through the game. There is a fine line between enjoying the many possibilities and feeling directionless while navigating the game.
NBA Live 09 just doesn't feel like a finished game.
Perhaps the source of my confusion was the strangely implemented 'Be A Pro' mode. For me, the idea of controlling just one player has a natural home in sports where precise positioning and a specific skill-set are key to each team-member's contribution - sports just like basketball. Combine to this the fact that 'Be A Pro' has by now established itself as EA Sports' main vehicle for one player modes, and I can't be the only person shocked to find that in NBA Live 09 the mode exists only as one game trial. While the Dynasty mode provides the in-depth experience and the All-Star Weekend cuts straight to the fun, in my opinion what the game really lacks is precisely what I was expecting to find at its centre.
While improvements from the last instalment are clear and many aspects of the game provide ample expectation for the franchise's future, NBA Live 09 just doesn't feel like a finished game. Both in terms of the on-court experience and the more overarching aspects, the game feels imbalanced and unpolished. I've no doubt that EA will have their triumphant day on court, but it's not going to be this season. For now, even if NBA 2K9 turns out to be a huge flop, NBA 2K8 provides a much better and more rounded basketball experience than this.
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