It's no secret that expectations are high for EA Sports' upcoming basketball game, NBA Live 08. Ever since the game first debuted back in May, we've heard that the focus has been on five-on-five gameplay and that the series is taking a back-to-basics approach, aimed at getting the fundamentals of on-court play before piling on extras. After spending some extended time with a preview build of Live 08, it's clear that the developers are working on improving the caliber of the Live series' gameplay while still tossing in new features at the same time.
In terms of additions to the game, the biggest news of all for NBA Live 08 comes in the form of online tournaments. Here, up to 32 players can compete in leagues that, according to producers, are based on online presence. In other words, EA does not handle the scheduling of tournament games; instead, the game merely handles the results and statistics then declares a winner when all games in the tournament are complete. Setting up a league is as simple as going to the appropriate menu and selecting "create online league."
The person who creates the league is the default commissioner and he or she has the option to set league rules. These league options include the following: league name, abbreviation, description, password, maximum number of users (from 2 to 32), games (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11), maximum DNF percentage (any or increments from five percent up to 95 percent); reputation (Xbox 360 only; 2+ stars, 3+ stars, 4+ stars); quarter length (2-12 minutes), and fatigue (on or off). In order to keep leagues open, there can be overlap within the same league, so you can have multiple 76ers or Celtics (or any other, team for that matter) in the same league. Players will be able to keep track of their progress in the league via the "league standings" screen, which will keep track of things like recent game results, as well as the number of games each participant has remaining against every other player in the league. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be Web site or e-mail support for your league, but our fingers are crossed that this kind of thing is implemented in the future.
Other noteworthy online options in the game include a versus mode, which pits you and up to three friends on the same console against an online foe (also with up to three friends), as well as and online quick pick play, which lets you play a game after building your team from scratch from various NBA stars. There's also plenty of ESPN-related content in the game, such as ESPN videos playing in the newly refurbished practice gym (where you can horse around with your favorite NBA star), as well as live stats, results, and stories that you can filter by league or team.
Other new game modes in NBA Live 08 include the FIBA World Championship, which will let you compete in an eight-team tournament using either top international or NBA teams. Want to see how far your beloved Atlanta Hawks match up against such international teams as China or Spain? This is the mode for you. Quick pick play is a new feature that plays similarly to the online quick play: You draft 10 players on any NBA team and then hit the court against your opponent's 10-man team. The new scenario play mode lets you either create scenarios of your own or go up against randomly generated challenges that will put your basketball skills to the test. Variables you can set in a scenario include home and away team, home and away scores, quarter, quarter length, time remaining, time remaining on the shot clock, home fouls, away fouls, team with the ball, timeouts remaining on both sides, and game situation (jump ball, inbound - sideline back, inbound - baseline front, and so on.) All of these modes are in addition to the standard game modes that were in last year's game, including quick play, dynasty mode, and the NBA all-star weekend, as well as all of its associated minigames.
When it comes to on-court play, Live 08 has its moments where improvement is obvious. Namely, the so-called "own the paint" moves give you a good deal of control when attempting to back down your opponent near the rim. By pressing the L2 button on the PlayStation 3 controller, you put your opponents back to the basket and lean into the defender. From here, you have a number of options. Tapping the shot button will let you fake a shot, while pressing it will let you take a jumper. If you first tap the shot button, then press it again while the fake animation is playing, your player will attempt a counter shot. If you mix in the analog stick, you've got a multitude of spins and other moves at your disposal. Of all the new gameplay features, it's probably the most responsive--and more importantly, consistently successful--control feature in the game. It also adds a new dimension of fun to playing underneath the basket.
When you aren't owning the paint in Live 08, you'll be taking advantage of the quick strike ball-handling moves, which will let you easily string together moves, such as stutter steps, crossovers, and spins as you make your way through your opponent's offensive zone. Moves are tied to the right stick, and it's easy to string together multiple moves to truly make your opponents look silly. Well, we should say, it's easy to put together move combos provided the player you're controlling has the skills. You may be able to dazzle your fans--and maybe even break an ankle or two--when using quick strike moves with someone like Tracy McGrady or LeBron James. But if you try the same thing with Adonal Foyle, you're on a one-way road to Turnover Street. In all, unless you're in control of a bona fide NBA superstar, you're better off simply passing the ball around and looking for an opening to the basket. In addition, certain NBA stars have moves available to them that can't be pulled off by anyone else; fadeaway shots, for example, executed by pulling back on the stick while shooting, can only be used with a handful of players including Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen, and Kobe Bryant.
If you have trouble playing defense in hoops games, the new defensive help system in Live 08 might be of some use to you. By pressing the L2 button, you can shadow the player with the ball, letting you more easily match his moves. It's an easy way to force a guy to the outside, but it's not foolproof. Depending on the offensive and defensive ratings of both players involved, it's quite possible that you could get burned with a slick move. Interestingly, if the opposing team passes the ball, Live 08 will automatically switch your player control to the player closest to the ball. Although there's no option to turn this feature off that we could find, you can go into the menu system and choose to control one position for the entire game if you like. For example, if you like playing the point guard position, you can lock your player control accordingly. While you won't have control of where the other players on your team will move, you will be able to call for a pass or force a player to shoot by pressing the appropriate buttons.
When it comes to NBA Live 08's visuals and gameplay, the good news is that new animations can be seen in the own the paint move, as well as the quick strike moves. They can also be seen in the games relatively quick pace (at least when compared to previous games in the series), and better yet, all of these moves flow nicely into one another. That said, it seems that there's still some work to be done. While the publisher has been touting the branching animations in other EA Sports games, such as Madden and NCAA, it's still very easy to get sucked into animations, some of which are difficult to branch out of--if not impossible. During our time with the game, we had several occasions where we were pushed out of bounds after being drawn into these pre-scripted animations.
With games like NHL 08 and now NBA Live 08, it seems like EA Sports is finally getting behind the notion that sports gamers have held for a long time--online leagues are fun. Here's hoping the idea spreads beyond hockey and basketball and continues through every game on the publisher's roster (Madden NFL 09 anyone?) NBA Live 08 is due for release in early October so stay tuned for more coverage on the game in the coming weeks.
[UPDATE] After spending some more time with the game today, it seems that, while on defense, the auto-player select option described above only happens when you are holding down the defensive assist button (left trigger on Xbox 360, L2 on PS3). If you aren't using the defensive assist controls, the game will not automatically switch to the player closest to the ball; instead, you can choose to switch to any player you wish either by pressing the A button (X on PS3) or by choosing your player via icon switching by first pressing the right button (R1 on PS3) and selecting the icon of the player you want to control.