While Sony's basketball series has long taken a back seat to its more high-profile competition, the team at SCEA San Diego seems to be reveling in its underdog status. Take the cover of this year's hoops game, NBA 09 The Inside. While other basketball games are focusing on a single star, The Inside has no fewer than six big-time NBA players gracing the cover--Carlos Boozer, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and Paul Pierce. Having spent a few days on NBA 09 this week, it's seems that the outsider approach to NBA basketball is benefiting The Inside.
Before we get to the good stuff, we'll be right up front with NBA 09 on-court play. While progress is evident when compared to previous games in the series, NBA 09 still doesn't feel entirely right. You'll still see the occasional odd pass, with the ball going in crazy directions. The defensive AI seems a bit confused, with players often out of position and hoarding around the ball. And it's still far too easy to get sucked into animations that you can't break out of, especially when D-ing up on a ball handler. That said, the color-coded shot mechanic is as great as always, and the game runs at a quick pace (making fast breaks a lot of fun). Rebounds also seem a little bit easier to grab this year, as long as you're being proactive and always heading toward the net. The default camera angle in NBA 09 has changed to a sideline view, and it's a marked improvement over last year's default vertical baseline cam.
The best news of all is the debut of "The Life" in the PlayStation 3 version of NBA 09. A staple of the PlayStation 2 version for a few years now, The Life is a story-driven game mode that featured dramatic plots and excellent voice work. And it's about time that the developers brought this mode to the PS3 version of the game. While it's nice to see the mode on the PS3, fans of The Life should know that changes are in store, based on what we've seen so far. First of all, instead of one story, you'll play through three storylines in NBA 09, each centering around a specific position on the court. The first story deals with a point guard, the second with a shooting guard or small forward, and the final story with a power forward or center.
The second big change is in the tone of the three stories in NBA 09's version of The Life. Gone are shady agents and the drama of dealing with sick children. These are replaced by a more straitlaced story of an up-and-coming baller trying to find a home on an NBA squad. Each of the three storylines starts at more or less the same position--with your created player playing in the NBA Development League (or D-League) and eventually finding a spot on an NBA roster.
To each story's credit, however, each has a slightly different take on things. For example, in the power forward storyline, you'll have a mentor of sorts in your father, who was also a former player. Early on, you'll take him on in one-on-one play (as well as an amusing hybrid of basketball and golf). In contrast, the shooting guard storyline begins with your created player dancing and celebrating in the locker room. He happens to be surrounded by the likes of Kevin Garnett, King James, and Kobe, who are just enjoying the dancing of a couple of D-Leaguers. It's...odd.
In all of the storylines (and we're admittedly furthest along in the PG story), it won't be along before you find a place on the roster of your favorite NBA franchise. From there, you'll be taken to your typical challenges in between cutscene chapters. Naturally, these challenges are all geared toward your position--so, as a point guard, you'll be looking to pass the ball around, while, at center, you'll be trying to dominate the low post. You'll have basic challenge goals to meet, as well as "extra mile" goals (such as scoring with a certain player or holding the opposing team to a certain number of points). These goals sometimes feel artificial, but they definitely keep you busy. In addition to unlocking new gear and other fun stuff for your players, practically anything you do on the court in NBA 09 will earn you credits you can use to bump up the attributes of your various created players.
Other game modes in NBA 09 include Quickplay and Franchise, but there will also be minigames, as well as online play. Returning minigames include Own the Court, Three-Point Shootout, and the Skills Challenge. You'll also be able to play the aforementioned Blacktop Golf and Rabbit, which is a shooting challenge that is reminiscent of Own the Court. Additionally, there's one-on-one, two-on-two, and three-on-three play. In Franchise mode, you can use your created players, but, as the game points out, you'll want to spend some time building up these players before they enter your NBA franchise. That is, unless you're interested in knowing what it felt like to head the Miami Heat last season.
The NBA Replay feature returns this year, which features challenges based on actual team and player achievements from the 2007/08 season, as well as weekly challenges that will be available to try out once the 2008/09 season is underway. These challenges feel much like those found in The Life, in that you'll have very specific goals to accomplish with your players, and, at the very least, they'll add to the game's replay value once the NBA season tips off.
With a feel all its own, NBA 09 The Inside looks to be aimed at folks who are looking for something different from their hoops game. Because the on-court play still has its issues, the addition of The Life is probably the biggest improvement to the game, but we look forward to seeing more from this game in the future. Look for your ticket to The Inside when the game is released on October 7.