As soon as the leaves begin to turn orange outside and the early chills of the fall start making their presence known, it means basketball season is about to begin. Every year, Kobe gets more frustrated with the Lakers, Gilbert Arenas (this year's cover athlete, I might add) goes relatively unnoticed on a team that still manages to make the playoffs, the Spurs continually embarrass the opposition and EA Sports releases its annual game of hoops, NBA Live. While EA may hold the monopoly on the NFL market, NBA Live has its fair share of competition. For a few years, EA Sports has been trying to steal thunder from its rival, NBA 2K but has consistently failed to do so. NBA fans might be curious to know if NBA Live 08 establishes the much-needed turning point that the ailing franchise so desperately needs. Sorry, sports fans, but it's my displeasure to report that the answer is a resounding, "No!"
First off, we'll talk about what NBA Live 08 gets right. Slickly presented, the game's glamour is accentuated by a licensing agreement with sports media powerhouse ESPN.While having the ESPN moniker — and all that comes with it — is a great asset to the series, it doesn't do anything remarkable to affect the actual gameplay. During menus, either in Dynasty mode or one of the other game modes, such as All-Star Weekend or online play, you're able to turn on a live ESPN radio feed, as long as your console is currently connected to the Xbox Live service. From inside an ESPN in-game menu, you're able to access actual up-to-date videos and text-based news from the sports world. Score updates will flash across your screen, much like on the actual ESPN channels. The connectivity is astounding and proficiently immerses you in the sports environment, but this feature doesn't affect the way you play the game at all.
In Dynasty mode, NBA Live 08 puts every aspect of your selected team at your disposal. Players can hire a coaching staff, schedule training (including what kind of training takes place — offensive, defensive or athleticism), set up off-day events, keep athletes happy by balancing playing time and events and, of course, play the actual games that occur during the entire season. If all of the extra details aren't necessarily "your thing" and you just want to play some hoops, you can easily set all of these actions to simulate automatically.
There's a significant amount of depth to be found in all of the stat-crawling, but some of these aspects can become rather tedious. Having to choose a training schedule or event for every team's off day will wear out its welcome far sooner than later. It's nice to have the option and it can be rewarding, but everything is menu-based, and all of your choices are handled with a simple press of the A button. If more interactivity were involved, the managerial aspect of NBA Live 08's Dynasty mode might hold more significance. As-is, it's an uninteresting chain of menus and numbers that most people will most likely bypass.
Now, on to where the real problems begin: the actual gameplay. On the surface, NBA Live 08 delivers an authentic basketball experience, with signature moves from your favorite players, fairly responsive controls and solid use for the controller's face buttons. For those who have never played an NBA Live title before, pressing the B button will make your player fake, while holding the button will send him up for a shot, the X button will execute a layup or dunk, the A button handles passing and Y will perform a pro-hop or a power dribble when you need to set up a quick fake shot or open up a passing lane.
This year's iteration has a few new features to note, the most prominent being the ability to highlight a specific player's hot spots. When you hold down the left bumper while on offense, the floor lights up different colors (red for a hot location, blue for a cold spot and yellow for indifferent), depending on which area of the court that player's known for connecting successful shots. If you're a basketball newbie and you know more about how much you like your team's colors than you do the actual players on the team, this can be a really helpful feature.
The other new addition is the defensive assist on the other side of the ball. In NBA Live games of old, keeping up on the defensive side of play rested squarely on your shoulders. Now you can hold down the left trigger, and your selected player will keep in step with whichever player on the opposite team he's been set to cover. This doesn't mean the game will hold your hand on defense, but it does make things a bit more manageable. You can still operate specific actions, such as getting your player's hands up in the offense's face or blocking their route, and if your timing is good, you can easily set up blocked shots. This feature doesn't come without its flaws, however, as it can become too much of a crutch.
In the end, NBA Live 08's base mechanics are sound, but there are too many distinct flaws that hold it back from greatness (or even "good"-ness, if that's a viable label). Sometimes you'll go for a layup or dunk when you're left wide open in front of the rim, and your player will jump up and bounce the ball off the backboard or the post, sending the ball out of bounds to force the turnover. Alternatively, on occasion, it's possible to take a layup from behind the backboard and somehow push it through the glass and into the hoop. Frequently, when you pass the ball and take over control of a player previously on the run, you'll accidentally head out of bounds before the game's camera has even caught up. There are also defensive breakdowns that come down to poor AI: when one of your teammates stops, gets caught up on one of your own players or simply runs off in the wrong direction.
However, the two worst scenarios that happen far too often, in both online play and against the computer, are the off-handed but simple abuse of the game's camera to set up unstoppable fast breaks and the ability to endlessly draw cheap charging fouls. In an online game, this flaw becomes even more profound, as players will take turns earning easy points every time the other person misses a shot. As for the cheap charging penalties, the CPU will abuse this far more often than other players. This can render nearly useless the players who are best at taking it to the hoop, especially in the higher difficulty modes of play.
Dynasty mode and online versus matches aren't all that NBA Live 08 has to offer, though. There are the FIBA World Championship Series mode and the NBA All-Star Weekend, where there's the option to partake in either the 3-point Shooting Contest or the Slam Dunk Contest. In the FIBAs, you pick a country and play through a series of four games in order to win the championship title. This is a fun addition, but the USA team is horribly mismatched against every other team available. If you play as the USA team, every game will pretty much turn into a blowout.
In the 3-point Shooting Contest, you select a player from your favorite team (or one of pre-selected players) and take him to the three-point line to knock down five racks of basketballs. Landing successful shots comes down to finding a rhythm and specific timing more than aiming. In the higher difficulty modes, it's extremely easy to lose your rhythm and miss the majority of your later shots.
The Slam Dunk Contest offers a lot of flexibility and creativity, but unless you've mastered the controls from previous iterations, you're likely to give up on this aspect of the game rather prematurely. The timing and pacing are both brutally unforgiving, and most people won't want to invest the necessary time and patience to master the intricacies of the advanced slam dunk controls.
Two additions to this year's game include Quick Pick Play, where you assemble your dream roster of 10 players and go head-to-head with another team put together on the spot by the CPU, and Scenario mode, where you set up a scenario, such as a last-second possession to throw a game-winning basket or take a team on the comeback trail in a tight game in the fourth quarter. These modes are rather gimmicky, but they're not without their charms. Don't expect either of them to keep you occupied for very long, though.
NBA Live 08 offers a wide variety of online play and options. There's the inevitable quick play session, which can be played in a ranked or unranked fashion, the Quick Pick Play mode, also available in single-player, where you pick a dream roster and take it online or the new ability to join online leagues. You're able to join or form up to 10 different private or public leagues with up to 32 players per league; you can designate a commissioner, set up specific rules, post newsletters and play head-to-head with any other players on your league. If you and your friends are really into the NBA Live series or you just want make matters easier on yourself to find a game session to join, this feature will work wonders for you. Online play is a mixed bag, though, because of occasional lag issues and the ability to abuse the game's inherent flaws. The lag wouldn't be as much of an issue, except that it will sometimes decide whether or not one of your free throws or jump shots is timed properly enough to go through the hoop.
Admittedly, NBA Live 08 has its fair share of inadequacies, but that's not apparent on the visual side. The textures on the player models are fantastic, especially when their skin is beaded with sweat. Most of the players appropriately represent their real-life counterparts, though there are the few that may force some players to bat a questionable eye. The energy on the court and in the crowd is second to none, and the game's camera and overall presentation is easily the best available in any NBA game to date. The commentary by the ESPN crew is phenomenal, and despite the random miscue, they usually call the action with striking realism and hardly ever repeat themselves within the same game. As forNBA Live 08s soundtrack, it is primarily hip-hop, so unless you're a fan of the genre, you'll more than likely be indifferent toward the music.
EA games never fail to impress with the overall presentation on any of their sports titles, but sometimes it seems like that's all they were focused on when developing the game. Sadly, NBA Live 08 falls into this trap. Although it dropped some of the issues from last year's game, NBA Live 08 sprouted its own grocery list of new problems. There are too many inconsistencies in the gameplay, such as bugged mechanics, abusive cheap online and CPU tactics and AI miscues to keep anyone happily playing for very long. In a genre where gameplay is king, NBA Live 08 doesn't offer the best experience available. If you're a longtime fan of the series, you're going to buy the game no matter what anyone else tells you. Those wondering at which basketball title they should throw $60 this year should consider NBA Live 08 as another sorely missed opportunity at greatness.
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