NBA Live 09 Updated Hands-On

EA Sports shows off the science of hoops, and we get a hands-on look.

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While EA Sports' upcoming NBA Live 09 is going to be full of new features, the recently announced Dynamic DNA feature seems to be the big one on the list, if only judged by the developer's recent press events. The new feature--which keeps the virtual players in the game playing just like their real-life counterparts thanks to complex scouting data and downloadable updates for the game--was first introduced at E3 2008 during EA's press conference. Yesterday, EA threw its annual summer press event, where once again NBA Live 09 and Dynamic DNA took center stage, and we had a chance to play the game to see how the feature is coming along.

Tony Parker's real life tendencies make him a great floor general and a scoring threat up close.
Tony Parker's real life tendencies make him a great floor general and a scoring threat up close.

Along with presenting five real-life NBA stars (Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay, Brandon Roy, Andrea Bargnani, and Live 09 cover athlete Tony Parker), on hand to check out the game, record some motion capture, and chat with the media, EA once again gave a quick presentation of the DNA feature, which looks to capture the real-life tendencies of both individual players and entire teams. Players are broken down not just by their hot spots on the floor, but by their tendency to move left or right on a defender at any spot on the court, as well as their propensity to shoot.

In addition, the DNA data will record what kind of play a particular player prefers to run--everything from isolation, to pick and roll, to off-ball screens. Combine all these tendencies and you'll have a pretty complete picture of how a player competes. For example, in NBA Live 09, Tony Parker is noted as a pick and roll ball handler, one who rarely shoots from outside, instead preferring to shoot from the left side of the baseline and who likes to move left at the top of the key. Like Parker, Brandon Roy's DNA pegs him as a pick and roll ball handler; unlike Tony, however, Roy is more dangerous on the right side of the baseline, but is liable to go left or right on a defender when playing on the left side of the hoop down low.

What does this kind of information do for you as a player of NBA Live 09? Well, perhaps most obviously, careful study of a team's players will let you better understand how to be effective with them. There's no point in trying to take three-point shots with Iguodala on the right side--he's pretty ineffective there. However, he's got a hot spot beyond the three-point line on the right that you can exploit. Understanding your team will help you better call smarter plays on the court. If you know Brandon Roy likes to run the pick and roll, you can get him in position to make the most of his talent.

For the truly serious, the DNA feature will be an ideal way to scout opponent teams controlled by the Live 09 AI. After all, unlike a human opponent (especially a skilled one), who can't be as easily predicted, the Live 09 AI players will play as their tendencies compel them. So if you've got a crucial division game with a playoff spot on the line, a little time scouting your opponent's tendencies is time well spent.

In terms of gameplay, NBA Live 09 feels much like the Live you've come to be used to. Live 09 is still not a very fast game, and players don't always get downcourt as quickly as you might expect them to. In addition, the ball still tends to feel a bit floaty at times, especially during long passes that don't always go in the direction you might have intended (if you're not familiar with it yet, you'll do well to acclimate to icon passing as soon as possible). You can see the work the development team has put into branching animations in the game--it's now easier to interrupt animations, such as passing out of an ill-advised shot attempt--and while there's still more work to be done, development is indeed progressing.

Live 09 also has some new control wrinkles to note. First is a new free throw mechanic. The last few games in the series have used the right stick for free throws. That's been replaced this year with button shooting. When you take your free throw, a small horizontal meter appears on the backboard. To start your shot, hold down the shoot button. The meter begins to move left to right and, to make your shot, you have to let go of the shoot button when the meter reaches the green zone. Depending on a player's shooting ability, that green zone will be smaller or larger. To add to the challenge, your multiplayer opponent can choose to rattle you by "buzzing" your controller with the rumble feature. We're not 100 percent sold on the new system--free throws seem more automatic for real NBA players (Shaq excluded) than they are in the game--but at the very least it seems a bit better than the old system. Another new shooting wrinkle is the return of timed shooting; you now need to release the shot button at the top of a player's arc to maximize your chance of making a shot.

You can call plays by pressing the left bumper and choosing the play you wish to run from a pop-up menu that appears. A faster play call option is the Y button (on the Xbox 360 controller); pressing it will automatically call the "best" play for that situation based on your team's DNA data. You can also bring up a player's hot zones by clicking on the left stick (though we wish the information would come up a bit quicker than it did in the version we played; the slight lag between the press of the button and the appearance of the hot zones was frustrating).

Know your players' tendencies and your playbook, and you'll be that much closer to a win.
Know your players' tendencies and your playbook, and you'll be that much closer to a win.

After a game is done, you'll get a complete breakdown of your player stats, as well as a thorough DNA report of every player on the floor--though it occurs to us that this is really a breakdown of how you played the game, not necessarily a reflection of the actual player's tendencies. Then again, learning your own tendencies probably isn't all that bad a thing, especially if it makes you a better player in the end.

We've seen a lot of the Dynamic DNA feature and, while it seems like a neat addition to the series, we're ready to see what the rest of the game has to offer. After all, NBA Live 09 will also feature a hoops version of the suddenly ubiquitous Be a Pro mode; and we hope to see how the online play has progressed since last year's promising postrelease addition of online team play. Stay tuned for more on these and other features as we continue to follow NBA Live 09's progress in the coming weeks.

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