NBA Live 10: ReviewShawn Drotar

Posted on October 8th, 2009 in Gaming, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Reviews, Opinion by Shawn Drotar

After a long wait, a commitment to intelligent, realistic play makes NBA Live a championship contender once more

Bring it back. That’s been the mantra of NBA Live 10’s development team. The once-great series suffered a calamitous fall from grace over the years as it lost its way - and its spot atop the video-game basketball world. Finally, it’s on the rise once again; NBA Live 10 is no curiosity - it’s a worthy addition to any basketball fan’s library.

After residing in a hellish limbo of their own design for years in which the game was neither fish nor fowl - a warmed-over “sim” with sloppy arcade sensibilities - EA Sports finally decided to go all-in and make the latest NBA Live the most realistic game in the series’ long history. There’s no question that the design team had their work cut out for them; despite the extraordinary clout that the EA Sports brand represents, gamers had given the series a vote of no-confidence for years; so over the last 36 months, a constant influx of fresh blood and talent set to revitalizing the moribund franchise, eventually realizing that the only thing truly worth keeping from the past was the name.

First and foremost, the gameplay is… basketball. No longer will you perform a little stick waggle and dunk with regularity, no longer will you hurl cross-court passes and alley-oops without considering the consequences, and no more will you bomb away from the three-point line, figuring you’ll make enough of them that you won’t need to concentrate on other parts of the game. No, NBA Live 10 will make you play basketball - smart, fundamental basketball - or you’ll spend a lot of time losing.

This is a good thing. A very good thing. And it’s about time.

Defense wins championships, it’s said, and for the first time in NBA Live history, it matters more in the game as well. After all, in the NBA, anyone can dunk, lay-up or make an open jumper; the key is stopping them from doing so. The AI takes what you give them, so if you crowd the paint, they’ll drop treys and mid-range jumpers on you all day - learning how to play proper man-to-man and zone defense will make the difference between winning and losing on the harder difficulty levels.

Before we go any further, let’s touch upon those difficulty levels. If you’re not a die-hard basketball fan; you don’t know what a 2-3 zone is and don’t care to, that’s OK; the game’s lower settings will suit you just fine. But if you’re a hoops junkie, then the higher settings will likely provide you with a supreme challenge. It’s worth noting that at the default settings, the AI steals the ball far too often. This does discourage careless play, which isn’t bad at all, but if you’re a stickler like me, don’t be surprised if you soon find yourself tweaking the game’s AI sliders to minimize this somewhat. Frankly, I recommend doing so, but if you do, don’t forget to slightly ratchet up the defensive stopping sliders to compensate.

Back to the gameplay. The game’s control scheme is effective and the right-stick dribble controls have been further refined, allowing for smoother and more creative play with the ball. Two major changes are immediately noticeable, however. The left trigger now controls “freestyle passing”; as you hold the left trigger down, flick the right stick in the direction of the player you wish to pass to, and a faster (and often more stylish) dish is instantly thrown. It’s generally an accurate way of passing, and its a lot of fun. Moreover, it’s a real weapon when the ball’s in the hands of elite point guards like Chris Paul or Steve Nash and it makes running the fast break much easier. It takes some getting used to, but it’s a terrific addition. of course, the left trigger used to back down an opponent in the paint. Now, this happens contextually. Again, this takes getting used to (and depending on your style of play, perhaps a great deal of getting used to), but it works well enough and serves to simplify the control scheme somewhat. A recently-announced patch may add a command to manually back opponents down sometime in November. I’m no fan of patching in new controls post-launch, so we’ll all have to see how this comes about. It seems as though clicking the left stick is the only realistic place to add such a command, which could become problematic, unless EA Sports intends on redesigning the entire command scheme, instantly rendering all their manuals obsolete. But these are issues for a different day. At the moment, what’s there works well, once you become accustomed to it.

Your player can now “size up” his opponent while he’s dribbling by holding the right trigger. Holding it for longer means that your right-stick “Quickstrike” dribble move is more likely to be successful, but it eats the clock and leaves you vulnerable to quick double-teams as well. The game’s new shooting mechanic is easily overlooked, but it shouldn’t be; it’s so intuitive that you hardly notice it’s there, but the game plays much better thanks to its addition. One button (X on Xbox 360, square on PlayStation 3) shoots, but there’s more to it than that. You’ll need to release at the top of the shot for best accuracy, of course, and you can easily lean in or fade away while shooting as before, but there’s some added subtlety. Moving the left stick as you release the shot (as opposed to during the shot when you’re trying a fade-away, for example) will attempt a bank shot, which makes a huge difference in the post game. What’s impressive is that you’ll probably start using it without realizing it; the epitome of an excellent command scheme.

On defense, the commands haven’t changed, but the players have gotten smarter. While your “help” defense still isn’t as helpful as you’d hope - if your man beats you off the dribble or pump-fakes you, don’t expect the defense to collapse on the lane - it’s improved, and a slider tweak here and there can do wonders if it’s driving you crazy. The “defensive assist” button is extremely helpful without playing the game for you - it’ll simply square your player up between his man and the basket, and then you’ll have to do the rest - and it helps keep your computer-controlled defensive teammates from getting confused when you lose your man and breaking down.

The vastly improved gameplay is augmented by a silky-smooth animation system that breathes life into the game. The players jostle for position with heft and force and collisions are frequent, although too few fouls are probably called by default, given the level of contact. Oddly, the AI players tend to be far more successful on hitting shots when there’s contact than the human player, and they’ll also dominate on the offensive glass while the human-controlled player will rarely grab any boards there. There are rare times when your players get caught in certain animations, but they’re few and far between. More problematic is the interaction with the court’s boundaries; players will step out of bounds far too often and occasionally even receive inbound passes while standing out of bounds. If a patch is forthcoming, hopefully this issue is number one on the to-do list.

While some AI concerns manifest themselves after a time, other wonders reveal themselves. Whether it’s the game’s Dynamic DNA system that breaks down player tendencies, some clever and diligent programming or (most likely) a combination of the two, every team plays somewhat differently, and much like you’d expect them to. Play against the Denver Nuggets or Golden State Warriors and expect to run and gun all game long, but play the Orlando Magic and watch them feed the ball to star center Dwight Howard in the methodical half-court offense, and then perhaps watch him kick it back out for the open three-pointer. If you’re playing against a superstar like the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, the Cavaliers’ LeBron James or even a team’s best option like the Thunder’s Kevin Durant, expect to get a healthy dose of them early and often; those stars will be featured in the offense all game long. That means you’ll have to approach each game a little bit differently; when a sports game forces you to think as well as react, then you know you’ve found a good one.

Not content on improving only the on-court action, NBA Live 10’s presentation is finally on par with what’s been expected in sports games for some time, and occasionally even exceeds that with some nifty replays and overlays. The game’s commentators, Marv Albert and Steve Kerr, do a solid job with what’s been given them, but some new material would go a long way. The game’s audio package is superb; with hyped-up crowds that change based on the teams involved, whether it’s the regular season or the playoffs, and of course, what’s going on in the game itself. The small details from city to city stand out as well, whether it’s certain players’ pre-game routines or specific audio cues that let you know that the game’s happening in Detroit instead of Los Angeles, and that can go a long way towards keeping any sports game fresh.

While the game’s Dynasty mode hasn’t really changed, a new Dynamic Season mode will allow you to play along with the real NBA season; it’s limited in scope, but it’s an interesting concept that should appeal to the “what-if” types out there. Every team but your own will simply accumulate the same win-loss records, statistics, trades and injuries that happen in real life. With your team, your role will be to change history… daily. This, along with the Dynamic DNA feature, which provides daily roster updates, needs to be activated with a code included on a card packed into the game’s box. If you lose it, or otherwise don’t have that code, there’s a charge to access that service for the season. The corporatespeak surrounding this decision says the card’s to “highlight” their feature, but let’s be honest here - it’s obviously meant purely as a hindrance to used game sales and seems overly punitive to gamers that already have to pay for Xbox Live to access the Dynamic DNA information. It’s an unfortunate double-dip for customers that, at this point, deserve to have their patience in NBA Live rewarded instead of questioned.

Fortunately, the online feature worked very well last year, and although the NBA season hasn’t started yet, there’s little reason to expect that it won’t work well again this time around. NBA Live 10’s new online mode, Live Run (technically, it’s Adidas Live Run, and it’s plastered with that company’s graphics) is terrific fun, with a few caveats. The concept is simple: take 10 human players, split them up into two five-man teams, everybody pick their favorite NBA player at each position and play to 21. It runs very smoothly and plays great. The problem is finding enough quality players. In the pre-release “Community Live Run”, I played quite a few games and usually got stuck at center, where I was often the only player attempting sound defense. Many others were just mashing the steal button and leaving me to contend with players flying in for dunks. On offense, I’d try to set picks to help my teammates, only to have another gamer tell me to stop it over the headset. Then the rest of our team would stand around, watching this fellow try all the dribble moves he could find until the clock ticked down and he weakly attempted an easily blocked lay-up. In other words, expect the basketball equivalent of this. If that was happening in the Community games, I shudder to think what horrors might lurk in those open lobbies. But it’s what you make of it - Live Run’s a terrific idea that works well, and in the right hands, it’s a delightful way to play.

Top to bottom, the improvement in this series in a single year is hard to believe; it’s far more of an evolutionary leap than it is a simple renovation. For the past few years, NBA Live was worse than bad - it was irrelevant. That’s all changed. Like a perennial lottery team that’s finally reached the playoffs, the turnaround’s complete. NBA Live is finally, unquestionably back. We hadn’t realized just how much we missed it.

2 Responses to 'NBA Live 10: Review'

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  1. on October 8th, 2009 at 4:57 pm

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  2. Andrew said,

    on October 9th, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Nice review, Shawn. As someone who’s gotten nerdishly proud of being a “sim” gamer in the past, I have to admit NBA Live 10 has challenged me to put my money where my mouth is and adjust to playing a more strategic game. There are some glitches here and there and it would have been unwise to expect absolute perfection, but I too am impressed by the gameplay.

    If there’s a downer this year, it’s that the game modes have fallen by the wayside with the focus on gameplay. The simulated stats in Dynasty Mode aren’t on the money and with a few modes being removed, there have been some understandable negative reactions to the game (and being a Dynasty geek myself, the stats issue is a disappointment). However, I’m finding it enjoyable to play and if there’s a silver lining here it’s that with the gameplay improving by leaps and bounds, NBA Live 11 can be all about improving the game modes for the total package.

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