The best thing the PlayStation 2 version of Sony's NBA series has had going for it during the past few years has been The Life. The gameplay has never been great, but the well-written storylines of The Life have made a strong foundation for a franchise in sore need of an identity. It's too bad that SCEA has been unable to build upon that foundation with solid gameplay. That was the problem last year and is once again the problem this year. In fact, other than a different storyline, 07 and 08 are virtually indistinguishable for one another.
As usual, the best feature here is The Life v3. Rather than focusing on one or two players, it's more team-oriented and you'll be placed in the role of a number of players. If you played last year's game, you know exactly what to expect this year. You'll see a short, well-acted cutscene that loosely serves to set up a gameplay scenario. To get acclimated to the controls, you'll start off performing shooting, passing, and low-post drills. This is a good way of teaching you the basics while advancing the story. Eventually, you'll start playing bits of scrimmages, then preseason games, and then the regular season. When you're playing a scrimmage or a game, you'll be given a list of tasks you must perform. You have a limited amount of time to do such things as score or dish assists with a specific player, make certain shots, and win games. You also must try to limit opposing players and teams from scoring.
The Life is a neat way of progressing through a season, but it's not without problems, many of which return from last year. You still have no easy way of determining what defender you need to cover unless you are able to hustle down court and discern what's on his jersey. This is super frustrating when you're supposed to keep a player from scoring. It's odd how no matter what you do on the court, the story unfolds in the same way. You'll get a perfect rating in a scenario, but the next cutscene will feature the coach yelling at you, questioning whether or not you should even be on the team. The Life is still entertaining, but it just isn't as good as it has been in the past. You're stuck doing about two-dozen drills before you even get to your first scrimmage and the story takes a long time to get going.
There are a few good things worth noting about the gameplay. The controls are easy to learn and the low-post controls work especially well. It's rewarding to work the ball down low and then break down a defender with your back to the basket. The tricolored shot meter that gives you a visual representation of how difficult a shot is, as well as the timing required to hit it, works well. However, its effectiveness is limited by the choppy frame rate.
Passing is once again lousy, especially if you're not using icon passing. Any long pass stands a good chance of being intercepted or rolling out of bounds while the intended recipient just stands and watches it go by. Sometimes the ball doesn't go where you want it to and sometimes it goes really slowly for no good reason. Playing defense is a nightmare because there's no way to stay in front of most players. The computer-controlled teams aren't at the same disadvantage because they're somehow able to keep ballhandlers suctioned to their hips. You can lose them if you call for a pick or jerk the analog stick around doing spins and crossovers, but it doesn't feel very realistic. The games are typically pretty close and the action is fast-paced, but at best, the game plays the same as last year. At worst, it's a step back.
Hopefully, you enjoy the new Life because everything else is the same as last year. There's a bare-bones single-season mode and then a bunch of minigames. Own the court is a timed head-to-head shooting challenge that's pretty fun and the three-point contest is entertaining against friends for a few rounds. Skills challenge, where you dribble, pass, and shoot on an obstacle course, is just as uninteresting as it was last year. You can participate in a two-on-two game on the playground or take part in a number of useful drills to perfect your moves. You'll have already done these in a more enjoyable setting if you've played The Life, but it's always good to have a way to practice. Online play is part of the package, but as of this writing, we were unable to find anyone to play against.
NBA 08's presentation is stuck in neutral. Once again the motion-capture work done during The Life's cutscenes is of a high quality. A lot of work went into making the cutscenes look believable and it shows. But it's too bad the rest of the game looks so poor. The frame rate is slow and choppy. It's not so bad during drills, but when you start running full-court, it's erratic to the point where it's sometimes difficult to tell what's going on. Arenas haven't seen any noticeable improvement either--they're really dark and all look the same. Last year's game was missing play-by-play, but NBA 08 fixes this with the addition of Kevin Calabro and Mark Jackson as announcers. They're passable, but they don't have a lot to say and frequently ignore big plays. This is mostly an issue on unexpected plays, like when a player misses a free throw but a teammate comes flying in for a dunk--Calabro won't even mention the dunk but will instead talk about the miss. Voice acting isn't up to last year's standards, but it's not bad by any means. There's just a little too much mumbling this time around.
Because the PS2 is on its way out, you wouldn't expect Sony to put a lot of new features into NBA 08, but it certainly wouldn't have been unreasonable to expect a bit more effort cleaning up some of 07's flaws. Still, if you've previously found yourself enjoying The Life or you're tired of the bland franchise options of other games, NBA 08 is worth a cautious look.