For a long time, the tale of two basketball franchises has been that 2K makes the best hoops sim, while EA's NBA Live series has been its faster-paced, but not-as-intricate rival.
One thing I enjoyed about the Live series was its speed. While the 2K games certainly had the advantage from an Xs and Os and execution standpoint, the Live series (at least to me) was particularly good at capturing the sometimes-frenetic pace of an NBA game, where you're not really bogged down by a litany of controls and offensive sets. The game understood that sometimes, you just play. That's it, and that's all.
That's the feeling I got when I played a little bit of NBA Live 09, which has a chance to be the title that puts the Live franchise on equal footing with — if not surpass — 2K's efforts, at least in terms of on-court experience. I managed to squeeze in a game using the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Philadelphia 76ers and the newly acquired Elton Brand. I picked the Cavs because, well, I'm from Ohio, and that other than Kobe Bryant, Bron Bron is probably the best player to use when you're still figuring out what the hell you're doing.
As you'd expect, the early build of the game looked gorgeous, but what caught my attention was how simple it was to call plays on the fly as well has how the players interacted with each other on the court. That's courtesy of the backbone of this year's Live experience, the "Dynamic DNA" system. It was assembled with the help of a scouting company that broke down and studied most, it not all, of the NBA's players. It analyzed tendencies, hot spots, shot types — even how often they go left versus right.
I was told this "DNA" system also extends to team play and how a grouping you have on the floor may (or may not) work together. You can use the system to figure out your team's best play within any given possession, depending on the defensive look you're getting. In theory, this means that if you know your favorite team and players, you'll be able to maximize their abilities. Also, you'll be able to realistically take control of matchups — no more watching someone like Shaq sticking with Chris Paul on the perimeter for no reason.
In terms of on-court stuff, one mechanic I enjoyed was the new pick-and-roll system. You hold down the left trigger to call for a pick. A little grey ball icon appears above the player setting the pick, and the longer you hold it, the more the ball icon "fills" with a certain color. Depending on when you release the left trigger, the setter can roll to the bucket with you, hang out on the perimeter or "slip" to the basket for a potentially easy two. It was a lot of fun — because that's essentially Cleveland's offense.
I also found it helpful to actually play like the player I was controlling and watching him excel in certain situations. My opponent used Brand in the post to efficient perfection, while I stuck with the plan of having LeBron James attack the rim for most of the game. He could blow by practically anyone and launch himself into the air for a foul, a dunk or difficult layup (plus the foul). One of 2K's cooler attributes was its "signature style," where stars and starters all shot and moved like their real-life counterparts. NBA Live 09's going to have some of that too, as I shot some quick-release threes with Wally Szczerbiak and saw that they integrated LeBron's improved shooting form, as opposed to the fading catapult heave he had when he first came into the league.
Based on my time with NBA Live 09 the Live franchise is looking quite sharp overall, but will it be sharp enough to take the title from 2K Sports? We'll find out in October.
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