I've had the good fortune to be able to check out all three NBA titles this year. First, SCEA's NBA 10: The Inside, then 2K Sports' NBA 2K10, and now, the winner of the most improved NBA game of the year, NBA Live 10 from EA Sports. In recent years, the gap between 2K and Live has been considerable, but this year the choice isn't nearly so obvious with a tremendous effort from the Live team. For those of us that remember the glory days of NBA Live in the 90s and early 2000s, I have two words to say in regards to Live 10: "I'm Back."
Training Hard In the Off Season
Finding all of the nuances and "goods and bads" of a sports game takes a long time, so at only a dozen or so games into a season, I'm still figuring out what I like and dislike about NBA Live 10. In general, it's a very good NBA sim. I haven't played the Live series to even this degree in several years, so this review is more so about what Live 10 is, rather than what it is compared to Live 09.
With Sony's NBA 10, the experience was very similar to NBA 09. 2K10's biggest differences this year was in the presentation. NBA Live 10 on the other hand has focused most of its efforts in its core gameplay -- getting the NBA simulation right on both ends of the court. The effort is definitely notable, and while it's not perfect nor quite as good as 2K's, it's darn close and next year Live may very well take the cake for the best NBA game. But as any good coach or player would say, one game at a time right?
So upon firing up Live 10, I was pleased to see that the shoot around mode is still the first thing you experience. Now I know this isn't a very important feature to the game, but I remember downloading the Live 06 demo back in 2005. I was very impressed with this feature that let you practice with Dwayne Wade to your heart's content and while your selected game was loading up in the background. This simple offering was cool and was one of my first 'next gen' moments. Anyway, with Live 10, multiple star players, including box art athlete Dwight Howard, are available for you to control. It's a nice feature that encourages getting to know the controls and mechanics of game without the pressure of a playing a real game.
Getting a real game started takes just a few seconds and all of the familiar modes are there, including Exhibition, Season, Dynasty, and Playoffs. New this year is the Dynamic DNA Season which expands upon the Dynamic DNA feature of last year. Now, changes in the real world will affect your season, all season long, in several ways, including trades, injuries, streaks, slumps, and so forth. It's similar to 2K's NBA Today, and it will be interesting to see which mode out does the other as the real season gets ready to start.
Players can also jump into the new Adidas Live Run mode that lets you team up with four other friends to compete against other five man teams online. This mode is like 2K's Crews mode and features stat tracking. The CPU can fill unused spots, so you don't literally have to have ten people playing. This is a good new addition to the series that has worked well in my experience thus far.
New modes are appreciated, but what Live needed most was a major boost in gameplay. Great strides have been made, but there is still significant room for improvement. Honestly the first thing I noticed in playing my first game of Live 10 was that it felt about a half step or step behind the pace of 2K10. Player animations are fine for the most part and the framerate is good, but the actual speed of the game was just a tad bit slow.
The pace of the game feeling somewhat slow is one thing, but player reactions at times were harder to understand. I've literally seen players shy away from a loose ball or rebound opportunity. One exhibition game I played with the Celts versus the Suns saw Grant Hill take a back step away from a completely loose ball that only he was near. The ball instead was rebounded two seconds later by me as I rushed towards it. Instant replay confirmed the weirdness; he just stepped back away from the ball that was clearly his to grab. You'll experience some odd player behavior like this from time to time, and while it's not a deal breaker, it is frustrating and concerning to see.
On the other hand, I'm impressed with the 'sizing up' mechanic. With this, players on offense can stare down a defender by holding down the Right Trigger. The longer a player holds down the Right Trigger while facing off against a defender, the better chance that you have to blow by them for a big play. With the right stick, you can manipulate the basketball, like to bounce it in between both hands. The risk with sizing up a player for more than a second or two is that the ball can be swiped away and taken from you, but so goes the game of basketball. I think some kind of meter or gauge to help inform the gamer "how well" he is doing in this mechanic would have been helpful, but it works well as is.
I like the play calling as well. L1 and R1 or the Bumpers on the 360 are used to call plays on the fly. The graphic that appears when you press the call button is great for quickly finding the play you want. Each face button matches to a play that involves a player doing a motion, like Garnett breaking to the paint to get open. It's neat to see a play come together in front of you, and I prefer this play calling style to that of 2K's.
You don't have to just run the scripted plays though, Live 10 allows you to also control movement of a player who doesn't have a ball. This is great for quick pick and roll moves or for getting someone clear for a pass. You can also make the player with the ball move one way, and throw the other. These advanced passing abilities are all initiated with the Left Trigger or L2, and involve face buttons or the right stick (for blind passes) beyond that, so the controls aren't too hard to get down.
Other controls in game are pretty easy to get used to as well, and it's easier to perform some actions than in 2K. I like the ability to call for a double team simply by holding down B or Circle while on defense. As long as you are holding this button, a CPU controlled team mate will come over and help defend. I've already mentioned play calling, but another function I found easier with Live is doing snazzier offensive maneuvers like crossovers. These are done with the right stick. Functions like Turbo, Alley Oop passes, movement, shooting, map out to the sticks and face buttons as you'd expect.
As for presentation, the most annoying aspect is the commentary that features Marv Albert and Steve Kerr. I would love to have Doug Collins in place of Steve Kerr, but we're not likely to ever see (hear?) that. There's nothing wrong with Marv Albert or Steve Kerr doing the call, but their dialogue is repetitive and sometimes flat out wrong and out of sync with the action on court. Now with that said, it works well overall, but you'll definitely notice some odd moments throughout a typical game where dialogue is either repeated too often or the wrong call is made. At one point, in coming back from a lead, Marv said something to the effect that my team was down only X number of points now after a score. The very next play, after being able to stop the CPU from scoring, I managed to score again and Marv said the exact same line, indicating I was still down by the exact same number of points, even though I just chipped two more off the total. This lack of polish isn't something that ruins the game, but you notice it and it makes the overall experience a little less immersive and enjoyable.
Graphically, Live 10 has some great animations including lots of custom animations for star players. I instantly recognized Kevin Garnett's jumper whenever he shot the ball from the top of the key, and you can't help but notice the game mimicking other player tendencies too. It's a nice touch, not something exclusive to the series, but still something you notice and appreciate. Player animations and faces look pretty good, but I have to agree with others who say that the characters themselves look way too vibrant and shiny. It makes them look like wet plastic and it detracts from the overall visual appeal.
As for differences on the consoles, the PS3 version requires a 3.3GB install and tends to look just a little bit worse than the 360 version. Just about everything else is exactly the same though, but if you're struggling to pick between the two systems, you may lean on the 360's slightly better visuals.
With that, let's get to the summary...