VGJ Review: NBA Live 09 (Xbox 360)

Despite dominating sales each year, there are many gameplay and AI issues that have plagued the NBA Live series for a long time. These issues are further magnified by the superb, stiff competition from 2K’s basketball franchise. Key features both new and borrowed from other EA titles have been added to the ’09 entry but it still may be those issues with the basic mechanics of the game that prevent it from reaching the same level of success critically as it has in units sold.

Two key features have been added for this year’s NBA Live: Be a Pro mode and NBA Live 365. The first is the feature which has been added to nearly every non-football title from EA in which, instead of controlling an entire team and switching between players, users control a single player on the field, pitch, ice, etc. This feature creates depth in any single game as users need to focus on the finer details of playing their position rather than leaving things like proper spacing on defense, rebounding and setting screens up to the computer.

The other new feature found in NBA Live 09 is specific to the game and the NBA Live 365 functionality. This marriage between EA and basketball statistics tracking firm Synergy allows for gamer DNA, a breakdown of tendencies for each player, to be constantly updated throughout the season. So, if LeBron James is having an off season or the 12th man on the Los Angeles Clippers is having a breakout year, real world play will be reflected in the game on a daily basis. This takes the idea of roster updates to a new level in that it is automatic and always up-to-date. Live 365 and DNA will also be used to provide the ability to replay games throughout the NBA season. This will certainly create a reason for players to constantly check what game are available for download online as EA will be providing a game of the week for NBA Live 09 owners.

Those features add a lot to NBA Live 09 but EA has, again, overlooked upgrading the core gameplay and AI of the game in favor of a pair of bullet points on the back of the box. This leads to several key issues that are apparent to anyone playing the game. The lack of fluidity that many other sports titles now possess is stunningly obvious from the opening tip-off. Players, especially those with the ball on the perimeter, seem to be doing one canned animation after another rather than procedural moves which seem natural and flow into one another. The game also denies players the ability to play great defense. Blocks and steals, rather than something that can mastered and timed, seem to be something that is more of a rock, paper, scissors match except in situations of gross disparity, such as Dwight Howard blocking Nate Robinson. Then there is the AI or, perhaps, the lack of AI. In NBA Live 09, there is little to nothing in the way of actual intelligence on the part of the computer controlled players. There is simply computer controlled sliders which determine how likely you are to win or lose any particular game. On the default, “pro” setting, the user controlled teams are given the ability to hit nearly any shot and make any pass and blowouts ensue regularly. On the hardest, “superstar” difficulty, the computer is unrealistically perfect and really destroys the idea that the game is anything approximating a simulation.

NBA Live 09 is an average game. The problem is that, in this generation of hardware and sports game software, certain refinements, like procedural action, more intelligent AI and having full control over each aspect of a game, that are expected and simply are not being made in this game. EA would be better served using NBA Live 2010 as the opportunity to refine everything and truly take a step forward rather than adding more features to average core gameplay. That being said, this is NBA Live 09 and the game is not ready to challenge for basketball game supremacy.