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Andrew’s NBA Live 09 Xbox 360 Review

I can’t wait for this version of the game to make its long awaited debut on the PC. I really hope that comes next year.

In my opinion, NBA Live 09 XBox 360 plays a pretty good game out of the box but to truly get the results that most of us desire a few tweaks here and there are required. It’s possible to get pretty realistic results with the default sliders even on 12 minute quarters but the default Fatigue setting is a bit low even for 12 minute quarters and there could stand to be more fouls. Still, the default gameplay settings are geared towards a pretty good balance between realism for the hardcore fans and a more uptempo, looser style for the casual gamers and present a pretty good starting point if you want to tweak the game for more realistic play.From the time I play the game at the Community Event through the release of the demo and right up until I have the finished game in my hands, I must admit I remain a little worried that what I saw didn’t tell the whole story and that the finished product might not be up to scratch. I’m very pleased to say that NBA Live 09 on the Xbox 360 has lived up to my expectations and the impression it made on me back in June.

The improvements to defense are cause for celebration. Your CPU teammates rotate a little better and if you play intelligent defense by staying in front of your man, challenging shots and using double teams effectively you can make stops, force missed shots and even shot clock violations if you do a good enough job defensively. Lockdown Defense certainly works and as I mentioned in my Community Day recap reminds me a lot of On-Ball Scenarios in the last gen version, making for better player collisions and allowing you to stick to the offensive player and effectively shut him down. Overplay your man on defense though or play too loose and you will pay for it.

Something that takes a bit of getting used to is the occasional delay in jumping for a block or rebound. This appears to be momentum based which is realistic but presents a bit of a learning curve since you can’t leap up on the run without the player gathering himself for the jump; the trick is to gather when the offensive player does. Blocking and rebounding is certainly easier once you know how though and there are some very nice blocking animations (including soft blocks) and with players reaching for the rebound and leaning out to grab the ball, rebounding feels much less predetermined.

There is still room for improvement when it comes to the defensive game but I feel like the game is more rewarding of good defensive play this year, as opposed to previous years where the CPU had an easier time nailing anything it tossed up and forcing the CPU to use up the shot clock was merely delaying an inevitable bucket. That will still happen from time to time and dominant scorers will pose a serious threat but playing defense isn’t a lost cause which is definitely good news.

On the other side of the ball, the game feels great offensively as well. There are a couple of sketchy animations but as noted throughout the NBA Live 09 preview “season”, the dunks look great this year. Bringing back timed releases on the jumpshots was the right move to make and the game’s handling of jumpshots in particular – both the number that the CPU takes and the way the user is rewarded for creating space and working someone open – is quite pleasing.

Pick and Roll Control is proving to be a fine addition to the game, simple but effective. At times it is too effective but the “Fight Through Screen Ability” slider might be able to make things more challenging in single player and multiplayer on a local machine. Playcalling has greatly improved as the old methods of using the Back button and scrolling through pop-up menus with the D-Pad was cumbersome and distracting. The new method of pressing the left shoulder button then one of the face buttons is much quicker and benefits from the Signature Playcalling feature, calling plays that are run for those players in real life. For those comfortable letting the CPU pick the play for them, the CPU Playcalling function on the Y button is also a quick and easy method of running plays.Quick Strike Ankle Breakers can be a little frustrating at first as defenders have a habit of catching up too quickly but when used effectively can make defenders stumble leaving you with an open jumpshot or path to the basket. It’s probably better this way as it means that Quick Strike isn’t too overpowering and feels very rewarding when you do break someone’s ankles.

It remains to be seen how effective NBA Live 365 will prove to be throughout the course of the season but so far Player DNA seems to work fairly well. The Featured Scorer logic that the producers have talked about seems to work well too but if you lock up a team’s go to guy they will look elsewhere for their points and take advantage of defensive lapses. This means you should really be on your game defensively if you’re planning on guarding opposing point guards but I don’t think there’s a huge issue with point guard domination. Give them a wide open shot in an area they’re most comfortable or a wide open lane though, and they’ll make you pay for it. The same goes for all players, however, though you won’t see someone like Ben Wallace taking a lot of shots so I would say there has been improvement in this area.

There are still some issues that need to be ironed out though. Players have a tendency to step out of bounds or back over the halfcourt line without a violation being called. Without a Boundary Force Field slider there’s not much we can do about that. It’s one of those things that sometimes works to your advantage (and those calls are certainly in the game) but needs to be cleaned up. Players sometimes also appear to travel when they collect themselves for a dunk or layup attempt (insert joke about that being a realistic representation of the NBA here) but that’s usually more apparent in Instant Replay than during gameplay. On the whole, NBA Live 09 plays a very good game of NBA basketball, the best so far of all Lives released on the current generation of consoles.

Turbo usage takes of a bit of getting used to in NBA Live 09. This year a “first step” animation has been added when you use turbo which gives players a boost as they try to blow past defenders. This can be useful but it does mean you should be conservative in your turbo use and be wary of triggering that first step burst when you don’t want to. When running the fast break for example, it’s best to hold down turbo while making a lead pass so that the recipient catches the ball in stride and continues sprinting towards the basket. Be wary of pulling up for jumpers on the run, too. Some running leaners have been added this year and while they are useful they are a little too easily triggered if you’re on the move. This is pretty realistic since it takes player momentum into account but takes some getting used to if you like to stop and pop.

The learning curve for some of the new gameplay elements isn’t as steep as I first thought it would be but if you do find yourselves struggling with the timing or puzzling over how to pull off moves then the NBA Live Academy becomes a very handy feature. If you’re just after some free play practice of 5-on-5 gameplay then you can jump straight into a scrimmage, otherwise the drills can be quite helpful in honing your skills and can also serve as a fun mini-game when you’ve got some time to kill. If you’re the type who likes to rack up Xbox Live Achievements then you’ll definitely want to play through the Academy’s drills. The drills are available in timed challenges which makes for a good crash course in the basics or as free practice sessions where you can take your time learning all the moves.

Dynasty Mode retains the “push” aspect introduced last year, with the ability to automate GM tasks if you’d rather focus on playing the games. The ability to modify CPU rosters and disable the salary cap restrictions have been added this year which will definitely come in handy for fantasy draft Dynasties and anyone who wishes to update their Dynasty with the latest trades. There’s also a trading block this year to aid in shopping players you want to trade, immediately presenting you with offers from other teams who are interested. Draft day trades have finally been added further enhancing the NBA GM experience and you can also expect more two-for-one trade offers from CPU teams. The free agent negotiation mini-game is still there too, making this year’s Dynasty the most comprehensive yet.Beyond being a useful arena for beginners, the Academy certainly adds to the atmosphere of Dynasty Mode. It’s much more satisfying to partake in drills and see your players improve as the result of actual training in an NBA practice gym rather than assigning training time in a menu and relying largely on chance. Inviting rookies to participate in five on five scrimmages also gives you a much better idea of how they’ll play (as opposed to playing a one-on-one game against a random player on your team) and running five on five scrimmages throughout the season is a good way of trying out new strategies, working a new player into the roster and keeping your game sharp.

That said, as with gameplay Dynasty Mode still has room for improvement. Simulated stats are better than last year but still produce some odd results here and there. Scoring isn’t too bad on the whole but rebounds, blocks and steals could stand to be a little higher and there’s a few players on the assist leaders who shouldn’t be in the top ten. Nevertheless it’s a step up from last year and light years ahead of the broken sim engine of the PS2 version. The league leaders don’t seem to enforce the minimum qualifying totals so there are few field goal percentage leaders who shouldn’t be on the list but that’s a fairly minor issue. Generated rookies are much better though with fewer undersized players. When it’s all said and done, Dynasty Mode is pretty solid this year and combined with the gameplay should hold your interest throughout the year.

If you’re getting a little tired of Dynasty Mode, there’s still the All-Star Weekend, expanded FIBA World Championship and Be a Pro Modes. I think a lot of people might find Be a Pro a bit disappointing since it’s only a single game mode but my feeling is that’s it a warmup to a fully fledged career mode down the road and it’s not off to a bad start. It does seem to favour big men though and the greatest rewards seem to come from scoring so it doesn’t necessarily promote team play. It does serve as decent practice for Online Team Play though and the same zoomed out camera angle when you’re down the other end of the floor is definitely a good idea as you don’t have to worry about getting lost offscreen. Be a Pro might not have much replay value but it offers something different if you’re after a quick game and there’s an Xbox Live Achievement in it for you if you max out your score.

The expanded FIBA roster makes much better use of the license than last year’s taste did and despite some inaccuracies in the rosters, the expanded tournament offers a change of pace from the regular NBA game when you’re looking to take a break from your Dynasty.

I’m admittedly a “gameplay over graphics type” of gamer so I’m probably more easily pleased than most but the player faces, models and jersey movements all look great in my opinion. In overall presentation however, NBA Live does trail NBA 2K despite the addition of mascots and the highlight reels at halftime and after the game. I like that they’ve ditched the style of player intros they used in NBA Live 07 and NBA Live 08 as they were too video gamelike and the starting lineup overlays are fine, but the NBA Live 365 branding and info during the intros reminds you that you’re playing a video game. With 365 being such a big feature it’s obviously going to feature prominently but in future games I’d prefer if they went further in making the game look like a TV broadcast. The font is also quite small and difficult to read sometimes.

The new Instant Replay features are very cool and I especially like how saved videos appear on the big screen of the Academy. The video editing features are fairly comprehensive without being complicated so if you have the patience to put together a slick, professional looking highlight video you can show it off to the world. It’s probably not something you’ll use every game but when something out of the ordinary (or something you feel is rather cool) happens, you can save it for posterity.I’m also a little disappointed that the game localises player measurements, so that in the PAL version player heights and weights are in centimetres and kilograms. It’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things and being an Australian that is the unit of measurement I’m most familiar with but when it comes to basketball, I think in feet, inches and pounds since that’s how NBA player measurements are listed during broadcasts and in official bios. At the very least, this should be a toggle option as once again I’d prefer that the game reflected a real NBA broadcast rather instead of catering to countries that use the metric system.

I’m sure a lot of people will be relieved to hear that we are able to edit accessories again this year with the exception of headbands. I assume this is due to similar issues as last year pertaining to textures and headshapes which is a bit unfortunate but player accessories will apparently be corrected in the official updates and other bands can be added and removed as desired. Create-a-Player has also been expanded with the ability to assign different playing styles to custom players including Go To Moves and signature jumpshot styles. Unfortunately these can’t be previewed but it’s a nice touch nevertheless.

I won’t go into too much detail about the online features but Online Team Play is a standard feature out of the box this year and has been expanded to include clubs where players can meet and setup OTP games as well as online leagues. On the subject of online content, you’ll want to grab the downloadable update for the Oklahoma City Thunder as soon as possible since the game ships with the temporary logo and generic black jerseys the team used during for summer league play.

NBA Live 09 seems to be relatively bug free, as issues such as the disappearing player indicator and long loading times that were present in NBA Live 08 do not appear to have slipped by this year. The framerate is sometimes a little choppy on automatic replays but otherwise the game plays very smoothly. There are also some roster issues such as incorrect player positions but I anticipate the NBA Live 365 updates can (and probably will) correct these as the season progresses. On the whole, it’s a step forward from last year without too many missteps or major regression, though there is unquestionably still room for improvement. In the meantime, we’re left with what I’d deem a more than satisfactory product to say the least.

The Verdict

Although the professional reviews have been a bit mixed, for my money NBA Live 09 is a very good basketball game that has made some very welcome improvements, particularly in its defensive game, the addition of the NBA Live Academy and minor updates here and there which have addressed issues from previous games. There is still room for improvement to completely satisfy its harshest critics and most hardcore basketball gamers but NBA Live 09 remains a very strong effort. Sliders should take care of at least some gameplay quibbles and I think anyone willing to give it a chance will be pleased with the results.

It remains to be seen how successful NBA Live 365 turns out to be but I remain optimistic that it will prove to be a worthwhile feature. For now, I’d certainly recommend downloading the demo and giving it a try if you haven’t already. Putting all bias aside, I am very impressed by NBA Live 09 on the Xbox 360 and am looking forward to spending more time playing it. Now, if we could just get this version on the PC…