Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: October 7, 2008
Having played both NBA titles this year, with NBA 2K9 and now NBA Live '09, I've got to say that both of the games introduce some excellent changes, but I'm not entirely in love with either one. There are some really slick presentation and roster update changes available in EA's NBA Live '09, but I found the actual gameplay to be a bit lacking. Some of that comes from the questionable AI in both the player- and CPU-controlled teams, and I also felt the control scheme was a bit unwieldy, which made the time spent on the court a bit more of a chore.
First, let's talk about what NBA Live '09 gets right. Similar to its rival title from 2K Sports, NBA Live '09 introduces the idea that rosters will get constant updates to reflect the current NBA season, as long as you're online with Xbox Live. If a player is injured or traded, or if he's seen some changes to his current percentages, those changes will be reflected in game. These updates are meant to occur on a much more frequent basis than previous Live titles, so if you're a stickler for accurate rosters, then this feature will definitely appeal to you.
NBA Live '09 also introduces a dynamic DNA system, which reflects changes that occur in-game, particularly with the players you control. If you have a tendency to approach from the left instead of the right, that'll be reflected, along with your accuracy — as well as the AI's — in shots, steals, rebounds, etc. Thanks to the dynamic DNA system, game updates aren't strictly limited to what the real-life players are doing, and it's nice to see that changes can occur within the game itself, especially for those who may not be able to take their systems online. You can also use the information in the dynamic DNA system to set up defense or offense based on your opposing teams, by keeping track of their tendencies and trying to plan ahead. This is going to be more useful for the veteran players out there, and probably not something that newcomers will appreciate as much, but it's still an excellent feature if you know how to use it.
Additionally, NBA Live '09 is probably the best-looking NBA title on the market. In particular, the animations really underscore this; from the regular gameplay movements to the solid replay shots, the graphics really do their best to drive home the sensation that you're watching an actual game. Toss in the once-again solid commentary work from Marv Albert and Steve Kerr, and it'd be easy to fool the unsuspecting eye into thinking that there's an actual game on TV. The integration with ESPN this year is also impressive, with not only a ticker of current scores and news, but also some voiced announcements and other tidbits of information, as long as you're online. The presentation in NBA Live '09 is top-notch, and the menus are really easy to navigate so you can easily find the desired play mode, unlike the menus in NBA 2K9.
While Live '09's presentation beats out that of NBA 2K9, it's the gameplay that really takes a hit. Since gameplay is obviously where it's at, all of the shiny bells and whistles that NBA Live '09 does so well don't end up meaning much in the long run. My biggest gripe comes from the lack of AI movement when playing both offense and defense, with the game seeming to rely on your ability to call plays more than it chooses to make any plays on its own. If you don't start using the play-making ability, which you can bring up at anytime, then more often than not, your team won't go up for rebounds. Otherwise, you should prepare to have some of the better-ranked teams walk all over you unless you constantly switch control from man to man and follow the ball around the court.
Likewise, offense has the same issues, so if you're not calling plays on a constant basis, they tend to underperform and never make any solid movement toward the basket or get open on the outside to make them viable for a great and unexpected play. This is particularly aggravating, since your opponent's defense seems incredibly adept at staying close and keeping you confined, which sometimes makes it difficult to scoot your way back into the paint without passing outside as you try to draw away defenders to open someone up. Granted, all of this is more or less negated when you start to call more plays, but it would be nice, especially for newer players, if some of this were a bit more automatic.
If you can get into the gameplay and you're able to start calling plays more often, you'll most likely enjoy Live '09. Outside of the solid and well-rounded Dynasty mode, you have your standard online multiplayer setups of five-on-five, and then there's the All-Star Weekend mode, Exhibition mode, and the Academy training camp. Academy is going to be a must for newcomers, and it does a great job of getting you acquainted with the game controls and showing you the particular abilities that you can use on the court. There's also the Be a Pro mode from the other current EA sports titles, wherein you'll make your own player from a set of parameters. You're allowed you to customize the look and background information as well, but this isn't quite as fully fleshed-out as I would have liked, so I don't really consider it to be a big draw. It's also a huge letdown that the character only lasts for a single game, and there isn't an option to use the character for an entire season. The idea behind it is obviously solid, and it's worked well in titles like Madden, but this isn't the best intro for it on NBA Live.
If you're looking for just one NBA title to satisfy your sports itch this year, I'd honestly have to suggest NBA 2K9 over NBA Live '09 this time out. While the latter has the better presentation and better roster update system, 2K9 was just more fun to play. That isn't to say that Live '09 is a bad game by any means, but its AI is less responsive, and its focus is on forcing the player to control as many aspects of the game as possible, instead of putting things on autopilot now and again. I'd only recommend this title to NBA Live vets because I can't say that it's very friendly introduction for new players. It's definitely worth checking out, though, especially if you don't mind picking up two different NBA titles this year. Hopefully next year, EA can run with some of the ideas that were introduced in this year's NBA Live offering to really punch things up and make it more enjoyable to play.