NBA Live 09 (Xbox 360) review
"One thing I especially like about NBA Live 09 is that even without half-court jams and cries of “He's on fire!”, play seldom feels monotonous. Past basketball games tended to make me thankful for the option to limit the length of each quarter just so that my interest wouldn't subside. Here, I actually like 12-minute quarters (though shorter ones are available too, if that's preferred). Not only does it feel more like I'm attending and participating in an actual broadcast event, but it allows me to really care about every second of the game's progression."
Before you read this review, know that I'm writing it primarily for people like me who appreciate basketball and love video games but don't generally obsess over any particular mixture of the two. Maybe you're part of that sizable demographic. You've played a few digital games of roundball over the years--and enjoyed them--but if someone asked you to describe the differences between NBA Live and NBA 2K, you'd run out of things to say within a few seconds. As for televised matches, perhaps you've caught a few of them but you don't follow any one team religiously. If that's you, then NBA Live 09 is quite possibly your game.
First things first: NBA Live 09 is for the most part an extremely accessible affair. You'll be moving around the court like an old pro almost immediately after leaving the title screen. Basketball is about more than just trotting around with sweat-soaked headbands, though, so dunks and layups--at least when your team is in possession of the ball--are seldom any further away than a press of the 'X' button. On-screen, your chosen athlete responds fluidly. If you're stupidly trying to dunk from half court (remember: this isn't NBA Jam), you'll watch him take an ill-advised jump shot. Closer to the hoop, he'll leap into the air and either slam home the ball, get stuffed by aggressive defense or something in between. It's all presented convincingly, with proper attention paid to the finer details like fancy dribbling and last-minute gymnastics that would make even a Harlem Globetrotter proud.
When a drive for the hoop isn't called for, you can use the 'B' button to take more careful shots--usually three-pointers--or you can pass to a teammate who is facing fewer defensive measures than you are. Unless a friend is at your side, the athlete you control in such instances will always be the one holding the ball. Few players will have any difficulty mastering this simple but efficient system, and after that there are more advanced tactics like a flashy alley-oop that often result in an instant replay if the ball isn't picked out of the air by a member of the opposing team. Showboating only gets a person so far.
One thing I especially like about NBA Live 09 is that even without half-court jams and cries of “He's on fire!”, play seldom feels monotonous. Past basketball games tended to make me thankful for the option to limit the length of each quarter just so that my interest wouldn't subside. Here, I actually like 12-minute quarters (though shorter ones are available too, if that's preferred). Not only does it feel more like I'm attending and participating in an actual broadcast event, but it allows me to really care about every second of the game's progression. Suddenly, I have to think about running down the clock when I have the lead and want to keep it, or whether or not I can really afford to make a sloppy three-point attempt with the rival team already leading by 10 points.
If you're not already thinking along such lines as you play, the available commentary will bring you around. While there certainly are some silly comments (like when you're trailing by nearly 10 points with less than 20 seconds in the fourth quarter and the sportscaster says everything could go your way with just a few turnovers), the bulk of what's said makes sense and ties in nicely with the current action.
Sometimes it's almost too good. When I'm playing defense and suddenly take a full-court shot because I don't realize that one of my players stole the ball from the opposing team, I don't need to be chastised for wasting that all-important ball possession. Really, I don't. Similarly, I don't need to hear 50 times that Greg Oden is basically a rookie player at this point despite it being his second year, or that a certain player sure does like to go right because he really does well from that position. That sort of thing can happen a lot if you regularly play as the same team (go, Trailblazers!). Still, such flaws are unavoidable any time you don't have real people commenting on the fly. Given the inherent limitations of the medium, Electronic Arts really did an excellent job.
If you stop right there and consider NBA Live 09 strictly on the merits of the occasional quick game--something many casual fans like myself may very well choose to do, even if they find themselves playing for hours at a time--then there's little reason to complain. You're getting a polished, complete package. Besides that, those of you who can take your console online will be able to enjoy a year's worth of free roster updates (assuming you bought your own copy) and you can also look for online matches.
What if you aren't content to let things end there, though? Well, then there's the dynasty mode where you can take your chosen team through season after season of play, turning the fine young athletes of today into the aging superstars of tomorrow. It's a neat idea, but unfortunately it's too drawn out.
One problem is that simulating games--practically a necessity, given the number you'll encounter over even one season--takes far too long. You're given a blow-by-blow account of every event that's even remotely interesting. Even though you're not watching everything unfold in front of you and can fast-forward the commentary, it sucks time you'd probably prefer to spend elsewhere. Sometimes you'll be given prompts that let you know about special circumstances, like if at the end of the game your team is struggling and might be saved with your direct intervention, only to rule it out when you realize that you'd have to wait through a 30-second load screen just to play the last 20 seconds of a match you hardly care about. Elsewhere, you just have to sit through most of a minute of scrolling commentary before you can play or simulate the next game. It's frustrating.
Another concern is that the other activities aren't presented as clearly as you might hope. Trades are handled especially badly. Some of that owes its complexity to real NBA rules, sure, but a lot of it is due to a clumsy interface that doesn't make clear what you're missing. Even when the computer proposes a trade (by your request or otherwise), just comparing the stats between the key players is a hassle and you might exit out of the deal by mistake as you attempt to educate yourself. I tried several times to orchestrate trades and finally gave up on the effort. I'm sure that I could head online to find assistance from other people who have worked through the system's kinks, but I don't really want to. I'd much rather play another round of basketball and I'm sure there are plenty of others who feel the same way.
In spite of the disappointing dynasty mode, though, this game is still my favorite basketball title to date. There's a lot to love, from first-rate production values to compelling matches that routinely keep me playing well into the early morning hours. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to resist “just one more game,” time after time. I suppose it's possible that someone out there has produced a better digital representation of basketball. I've heard rumblings to that effect from long-time fans of the NBA 2K franchise and I'm not about to argue with them. Just the same, I think I'll stick with NBA Live 09. It meets my needs nicely and it's plenty of fun to boot. Care to meet me online for a quick match or ten?
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 29, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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