25th Anniversary of NBA Live: NBA Live 08 Retrospective

25th Anniversary of NBA Live: NBA Live 08 Retrospective

To mark the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re taking a look back at every game in the series with retrospectives and other fun content! This also includes re-running some features from our 20th Anniversary celebrations, with a few revisions. Whether you’re a long-time basketball gamer who grew up with NBA Live and are keen on taking a trip down memory lane, or you’re new to the series and want to learn about its history, we hope that you enjoy celebrating the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live here at the NLSC! Today, it’s a retrospective of NBA Live 08.

After NBA Live 07 fell flat on all platforms, the development team had their work cut out for them with NBA Live 08. As it turned out, the series bounced back with a very respectable release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Naturally it had its issues and room for improvement, but after playing it again for this retrospective, I’d have to say that it was underappreciated, at least in our community. There is a reason for that, of course. The prior gen version – from which the PC version was ported – was far more underwhelming, and ended up carving out a dubious legacy with long-time NBA Live fans. Let’s take a look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly of a milestone game.

I’ll begin with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 version. Considerable effort went into improving player movement and the overall feel of the game, and it’s one of the first things you’ll notice when you play NBA Live 07 and NBA Live 08 back-to-back. The game borrowed technology from NBA Street Homecourt, which resulted in Quick Strike Ballhandling. Although it sounded like a gimmicky replacement for Freestyle Control, it utilised the same right stick dribbling controls with tech that allowed animations to be better chained together and broken out of, and player movement to feel smoother. The jump to 60 frames per second was also a noticeable improvement.

That’s not to say that there weren’t awkward moments. Some of the dunk and layup animations were still a bit wonky, with abrupt transitions out of dribbles and triple threat situations. The controls were more responsive though, and not unlike other NBA Live games over the years that have had some awkward transitional animations, when something looked good, it looked quite good. There was more fluidity on the sticks, and it was satisfying to chain dribbling moves together as well as break out of them when necessary. The new tech also made it possible to perform faster crossovers with more rapid movements of the right stick, which was a rather unique concept.

Kirk Hinrich handles the ball in NBA Live 08

Player control and differentiation in general was improved in NBA Live 08. Freestyle Superstars was gone, but in its place were more signature jumpshot styles and Go-To Moves. Go-To Moves represented the signature moves of 40 of the league’s biggest stars, and were triggered by specific movements of the left stick and shoot button. This made it easy to perform moves such as the signature fadeaways of Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki, Gilbert Arenas’ step-back, Steve Nash’s runner off the wrong foot, Tony Parker’s floater, and so on. Go-To Moves weren’t guaranteed buckets, but they were effective and elusive. As with signature shooting forms, they added authenticity.

Own the Paint was also introduced in NBA Live 08. As the name implies, it was a revamp of post play, adding moves such as fakes and up-and-under shots. There was a “jostle” system in place to make post play a battle between the offensive player and their defender, though the balance was tipped in the favour of the offense. Another new gameplay mechanic introduced in NBA Live 08 was Hot Spots, which was a forerunner to the Dynamic DNA attributes that would come the following year. Hot Spots represented spots on the floor that players were more (or less) effective from, though unlike Dynamic DNA, they weren’t powered by data from Synergy Sports.

Two of the dribbling moves added in NBA Live 08 that always stick in my mind are the fake pick-up performed by flicking the right stick up, and the half-spin performed by holding the right stick up while on the move. I was obsessed with the half-spin in particular when I first saw it at the NBA Live 08 Community Day I attended, and to this day whenever I’m in the game’s practice gym, I’ll spam that move. The Defensive Assist control also made its debut that year, and unlike more recent games, it doesn’t completely replace the defensive stance control. These additions made the gameplay noticeably better in several key areas when compared to NBA Live 07 on Xbox 360.

Own the Paint in NBA Live 08

It helped that the new dribbling and player movement tech was backed up by some solid (at least for its time) AI. Players moved around more in an effort to get open and clear the paint, so even if you weren’t constantly calling plays, NBA Live 08 played a decent game of freelance basketball. Contextual passes made moving the ball around feel better, though the CPU is pretty adept at playing the passing lanes. There’s less frustration trying to do the basics, such as cross up a defender, drive for a dunk, or even just take a jumpshot without a jerky motion. While it certainly wasn’t perfect and does feel dated now, it was a breath of fresh air after NBA Live 07’s clunkiness.

In fact, playing the Xbox 360 version of NBA Live 08 makes me wish I’d spent more time with it all those years ago. It does have some annoying issues such as offensive fouls being called way too often – something we did bring up at the Community Day – and it’s quite up-tempo with the default sliders. It is fun though, and not in a “well, I’ll enjoy it if I can get used to it” kind of way. Its aesthetics and presentation are very good for its era, though I’m not a fan of the freeze frames during player introductions. As I noted, several of the dunk animations haven’t aged well and there’s awkwardness transitioning into them, but it’s at least respectable for its time, and it feels fun.

Modes are also solid. The 360/PS3 version of NBA Live 08 introduced the “push” approach to Dynasty mode, in the process doing away with the troublesome PDA. The “push” concept was all about providing Dynasty gamers with information, rather than them having to dig through menus or perform calculations. For example, the trade screen indicates whether the current proposal will work under the cap, making it much easier to put deals together. Without the PDA, transactions happened in real time once again. The new free agent signing mini-game added a sense of negotiation, where you have to make a successful pitch beyond simply meeting a dollar amount.

Free Agency in NBA Live 08

The “push” system also delivered news in the main hub and provided reminders about tasks such as scouting and training, though those tasks could also be automated if you wanted a more streamlined Dynasty experience. Simulation Intervention now featured play-by-play simulation with the ability to jump in at any time, or when special events (such as a player being on the verge of a triple-double) occurred. That’s another thing we take for granted now, but it was quite advanced in 2007. Unfortunately the same Rotations screen returned from NBA Live 07, though it was slightly less cumbersome. Although there was still room for improvement, the future of Dynasty looked bright.

All-Star Weekend mode returned relatively unchanged, but was still fun. A new mode called Quick Pick Play was added, facilitating one-off games with custom squads; sort of a successor to the original custom teams, and an underrated idea. Quick Pick Play was available offline and online, and on the subject of online modes, that’s where NBA Live 08 made some great strides. In addition to the usual head-to-head options, there were Online Leagues that we could create and manage. It emphasises how EA were trying to innovate with NBA Live 08, as well as bring the game up to speed. The ultimate example of that innovative approach would come in a post-release update.

In October, EA announced a patch that would add a new online mode to NBA Live 08 called Online Team Play. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because like “franchise”, it’s come to describe a specific type of game mode; indeed, one that is extraordinarily popular today. With Online Team Play, up to ten gamers on ten consoles could take part in 5-on-5 gameplay in which they were either locked to a single player, or if there were less than five users a side, could switch between any available unlocked players. As there were no career mode avatars back then, OTP was played with actual NBA teams and players. It may seem odd now, but it was an awesome idea back in 2007.

Ben Gordon in NBA Live 08

I wasn’t an online gamer by any stretch of the imagination at the time, but when OTP came through, I had to give it a try. I didn’t play it often, but along with JaoSming and Pdub, I took part in some fun games. It required organising some meet-ups to play, so it was a far cry from LIVE Pro-Am, 2K Pro-Am, and The Neighborhood, but history proves that the concept had merit. It’s yet another example of NBA Live innovating, but not being able to capitalise on a concept that NBA 2K later did much better. All the same, OTP was a huge addition that made NBA Live 08 on PS3/360 a landmark game. Top to bottom, that version of the game is solid, and fun to revisit years later.

NBA Live 08 also broke new ground by including eight FIBA teams and a special tournament mode for them. The lineups weren’t completely up to date and all teams played in the same arena, but it was still awesome to get some non-NBA content in the game. The eight teams may have been a small selection, but they were reportedly a late addition to the game. As we’d find out when we poked around in the roster files on PC, it seems that a selection of classic teams were originally planned for the game, only to be scrapped when all of the appropriate likeness rights presumably couldn’t be secured. It’s a huge “What If”, but as far as backup plans go, it was a pretty good one.

The Temple was replaced by a team practice arena, the branding of which could be customised in the options. We could also choose the player to shoot around with, which by default was cover player Gilbert Arenas. Upon selecting one of the players with a Go-To Move, a video demonstrating the player pulling off the move in real life and in gameplay was shown. The scoreboards were removed, though it’s still possible to shoot around with multiple players and defend each other, in essence practicing 1v1 and 2v2 scenarios. Although it was unfortunate to lose the makeshift pickup modes and The Temple was creative, I liked the switch to a more NBA-oriented setting.

Kobe Bryant in NBA Live 08 (PlayStation 2)

What about the PC/PlayStation 2 version? A couple of years earlier, NBA Live 06 PC had been one of the best and most well-rounded games in the history of the series, while the Xbox 360 version had been a disappointment. By NBA Live 08, that had all changed. Although the prior gen version was receiving more attention than the copy and paste PlayStation releases of the early 2000s, it was still clearly an afterthought. It was developed by HB Studios, whose multi-project deal with EA Canada saw them work on several of their sports franchises. Incidentally, HB Studios recently partnered with 2K Sports to develop PGA Tour 2K21, a continuation of The Golf Club series.

While that release has been received positively by virtual golf enthusiasts, sadly the PC and PlayStation 2 version of NBA Live 08 was a far less impressive product. The developers tried to cram in some Next Gen features, and to that end, prior gen did have a handful of signature jumpshot styles, Go-To Moves, and Hot Spots. Go-To Moves felt more like a replacement for Freestyle Superstars though, except that they were automatically triggered in spots on the floor, whereas in NBA Live 06 and NBA Live 07, we’d manually perform them. It didn’t feel quite right, and honestly, that pretty much sums up how gameplay in prior gen NBA Live 08 felt in general.

Gameplay felt devoid of strategy, and although there were some new animations, they made the game cheesy. There was an issue with free throws where it was impossible to move the players lined up along the lane until the ball had hit the rim; a restriction meant only for the shooter. In contrast to the 360/PS3 version, it just felt as though it was missing polish. Rookies were missing portraits, the sim engine in Dynasty mode (which was identical to NBA Live 07 prior gen) was broken with very weird and unrealistic generated stats, and options such as Player Lock and Dunk Package editing were inaccessible, though we discovered some unofficial workarounds on PC.

Tracy McGrady in NBA Live 08 (PlayStation 2)

Speaking of the PC version, we did our best to fix as many issues as we could, as it was clear that no patch was forthcoming. It was moddable like its predecessors and so it maintained an enthusiastic following in that regard, but several gamers preferred to play NBA Live 06, or even stick with NBA Live 07. As many of you are probably aware, NBA Live 08 turned out to be the final PC release in the NBA Live series, at least to date. The writing was on the wall, but given NBA 2K9 came to PC the very next year, it’s a real shame we didn’t get a port of the PS3/360 version of NBA Live 08 or NBA Live 09. Looking back, I think we really would’ve enjoyed them on PC.

I spent a lot of time modding the PC version of NBA Live 08; more time than I spent playing it, in fact. While I can’t say that I necessarily regret that, I do wish that I’d been able to spend more time with my copy of the Xbox 360 version. The PC version isn’t much fun to play with all its issues – new and old – while the 360/PS3 release was bringing something new to the table. It holds up better than I remembered, and while I probably couldn’t make it a regular part of the rotation these days, I actually prefer it to some of the NBA Live games on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. That’s a story for another time though, and I’ll be getting to that in the not too distant future.

Because of our focus on modding and the PC version, and the subsequent axing of PC releases after NBA Live 08, I think our community has a very different view of the game’s legacy. There’s been a lot of talk about how disappointing the PC/PS2 version was and how PC basketball gamers felt abandoned by EA Sports after that, and for good reason. However, there’s another side to NBA Live 08’s legacy, and I believe it’s important that we recognise it. On Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the game was making strides towards being the kind of basketball sim we wanted to see, from its authentic moves and expanded controls to deeper player attributes and Online Team Play.

Cover Player Gilbert Arenas in NBA Live 08

That really does make NBA Live 08 a landmark game in both positive and negative ways. The prior gen version represents rock bottom and the end of an era, while the PS3/360 version represents innovation, impressive improvement following a subpar release, and sadly, a bright future that would be derailed in a couple of years. Notably, it’s also the last NBA Live game to outsell NBA 2K, as the NBA 2K series would pull ahead with NBA 2K9, widen the gap with NBA 2K10, and starting with NBA 2K11 and the downfall of NBA Live in the wake of the NBA Elite 11 debacle, achieve complete domination of the market. NBA Live 08 marks a turning point in the genre.

Of course, it deserves to be remembered for more than that. It was a definite bounce back year for NBA Live after what still stands as one of the worst releases in the series, providing enjoyable gameplay that added several promising new wrinkles, along with solid game modes. It had new content in the form of FIBA teams, and a winning idea in Online Team Play. The disappointment of the prior gen release and the end of PC releases are a part of its legacy too, but in our community at least, that perhaps overshadows the promise that the 360/PS3 version of the game had after a rocky start to the generation. On those platforms, there was hope for the future.

Stay tuned throughout the rest of 2020 for more 25th Anniversary of NBA Live content! Share your thoughts in the comments below, and join in the discussion here in the NLSC Forum!

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