NBA Live's transition from the last generation of consoles to the current generation has been fraught with problems--too many to list here. Nevertheless, the team at EA has kept plugging away, and it seems the third time is the charm. There aren't really any new features to speak of in NBA Live 08, but the gameplay has seen vast improvements on both sides of the ball. You'd never think it was possible after the last few years, but NBA Live 08 is much-improved and actually…good.
Forget how last year's game played; it's a whole new ballgame in Live 08. For starters, the default camera angle has been changed to a dynamic broadcast-style perspective. It's easier to see what's going on and also cuts down on the number of shots you'll put up from behind the backboard, though that still happens far too often. The controls are where the game really shows improvement. The basic scheme is mostly unchanged, but it's a lot more responsive this year. It's a piece of cake to perform a crossover, pass the ball, perform a hop-step, and then decide whether to dunk with the square (or X) button or shoot with circle (or B). This results in a fast-paced game with lots of sharp passing and great finishes. Some people might find the game to be a little to run-and-gun, but there's no denying that the gameplay is exciting. It would be even more fast-paced, but players tend to stop to receive passes on the fast break, and ball handlers will sometimes inexplicably slow the break with a lob pass. There are a few other things that are in need of improvement. Players miss some absurdly easy shots down low, and the officials call the games too tight (especially charging). Furthermore, defense is haphazard, and outside of fast breaks, players tend to stand around a lot and don't do much to get open. Regardless, the game plays much better than it did previously.
The whole "superstar icon" bit from 07 is gone, but there are still ways to differentiate the stars from the scrubs. Top players such as Kobe, LeBron, Arenas, Wade, and Dirk each have a special go-to move that makes them really valuable when the game is on the line. With the exception of some of the big men, the move is generally some sort of side step or step back that leads to a nearly unstoppable jumper. They're a bit overpowered, but it is nice to be able to count on your star player in crunch time. The other way to tell the great from the merely good is to press the left bumper or L1 button. This brings up your player's hot spots, a color-coded overlay that shows what part of the floor that particular player is most successful shooting from. This may not sound like a significant feature, but there's a huge difference between a player's shooting percentage in a hot zone versus a cold zone. As a result, you'll find yourself working to get players open in specific parts of the floor. You'll even pass up open shots because you know a player isn't good from that area and there's another player with a better shot. Both of these features are quite useable, even if they are poorly explained in the pitiful instruction manual.
It seems as if the developer's resources were focused entirely on making the game play better, because otherwise there aren't any significant new modes this year. You can take part in the slam-dunk contest and three-point shootout. You can also participate in the rookie challenge as well as the FIBA tournament, neither of which anybody really cares about. Online play has been upgraded and now includes online leagues, which means that things have finally caught up to the 2K series in that regard. Our online experience was slightly smoother on the Xbox 360, but both versions played reasonably well. It was frustrating that there seemed to be some rubber-band artificial intelligence that made the games closer than they probably should have been. Sure, the games were more exciting, but it's obnoxious to suddenly not be able to hit wide-open layups. Dynasty mode has seen some subtle improvements, but is largely unchanged. It's nice to be able to jump into a game mid-sim and save your team from defeat, though. The stats and results seem to be fairly accurate too; however, it was surprising to see Shaq retire after the 2007-08 season.
There's very little visual difference between the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game. The 360 version appears to have slightly less aliasing and runs a tad smoother. Player models look great, and although they don't look as smooth as 2K8 when in motion, they're vastly improved over last year. There's far less ball warping, and the transition from one move to the next is better, though there's still a lot of room for improvement. The floors, which show off real-time reflections, are attractive. Likewise, the arenas are equipped with working scoreboards and filled with excited fans.
Considering that Steve Kerr has left the broadcast booth to run the Phoenix Suns, there was some question as to who would fill his shoes in NBA Live. The good news is that it's...Steve Kerr. In addition to dealing with Shawn Marion's trade demands in real life, he's back alongside Marv Albert in the game. Once again the duo is nearly as good in video game form as they are on television. They do a fine job of keeping up with the action, and they mix in a nice bit of analysis and banter in-between. Ernie Johnson and Greg Anthony do a great job calling the All-Star Weekend events. They're always good, but they're at their best when the competitors are at their worst--they'll really let you hear it if you stink.
If you're just doing a rundown of what features and modes are new in NBA Live 08, you might think the game's not all that different from 07. That couldn't be further from the truth. It still has a long way to go before it catches up with the outstanding 2K series, but all of the little tweaks, changes, and enhancements add up to one vastly improved basketball game. NBA Live 08 is worth a look, especially if you like your hoops games with a bit of arcade-style flair to them.