Over the past few years, the NBA Live series has really taken a backseat to the 2K Sports series. Since the game hit next-gen consoles, it has been somewhat of a disappointment, both in gameplay and in depth of features. For NBA Live 08, however, EA Sports has gone back to basics. This year, they've rebuilt the gameplay from the ground up, making it smoother and more playable. They've also made a solid effort to assemble a strong feature set that manages to compare with 2K's offering this year. It's far from perfect, but it's definitely the best entry to the series since it hit the next generation.
In the last couple of installments, the gameplay has been the biggest disappointment. The ball-handling was jerky, the passing made no sense, and there was no inside game to speak of. The whole game had gotten pretty dull. This year, EA has smoothed over a lot of these issues, and this year we have a game that improves over its predecessors in every way.
There are several areas in which these gameplay improvements have happened. The most significant in my opinion is the new "Own the Paint" feature. The post play in this game is the best I've ever seen. Holding the left bumper, you will back down and have a number of moves at your disposal. You can shoot a simple turnaround, fade-away, spin around the guy, or pull an up-and-under. It feels smooth and accessible, and it's extremely fun to execute. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be hard to stop with a good big man at your fingertips. The passing also seems to have been tweaked a bit, for the better. There is no longer that magnetic looking field that sucks the ball into the hands. You actually have to watch where you're passing, because if a defender is in the lane, he just might pick it off. This is the way it should be, and it's good to see.
The ball handling has also been significantly improved. Last year, the ball looked like it was attached to the players' hands with a rubber band. Thankfully, it is much more fluid this year. You're able to string different moves together to get a defender off his balance, and then blow by him with a smooth change of direction. You'll have to pick your opportunities, though, because if you try to break someone's ankle with a sub-par ball-handler, you're in danger of losing the ball. Get a star isolated on the dribble, however, and you're in business.
Although these issues have been vastly improved, it still doesn't feel like the smooth basketball game that 2K8 is. There are still a number of flaws that rear their ugly heads from time to time. Some of the shots that go up will leave you scratching your head. Players will still shoot the ball right into the back or side of the backboard if you are on the baseline, which is very frustrating. Also, there is seemingly no aspect of skill to layups or shots. Sometimes you'll go up and biff a lay up off the bottom of the rim, and there is nothing you can do about it. The AI could also use some work too, as sometimes your team defenders will either totally take themselves out of the play, or run away from the scoring threat.
As far as the graphics go, this game looks great, and is a step up from last year. This is one area in which it beats NBA 2K8. The framerate has been bumped up to 60 fps, and it runs very smoothly. The player models are the best we've seen in a basketball game to date, with accurate faces and bodies, and smooth movement. The arenas and crowds are not breathtaking, but they are impressive for a basketball game. The animations slow down sometimes and get jerky, but overall it moves very well.
The sound is nothing special, but it does a good job. The game effects are realistic and believable, and the arenas sound alive and breathing. The soundtrack is what we've all come to expect from EA Sports games, with a mix of hip-hop and upbeat tracks. The commentary, though it can get a bit annoying, is on par with what is expected in the genre.
There is a decent amount of substance to keep you busy in NBA Live 08. All the features from last year, such as All-Star Weekend and Dynasty mode, are back and more fleshed out. Those are basically the same, don't expect much of anything new there. However, there are also some nice new additions. The FIBA world championship mode is a great addition, allowing you to play as one of a number of countries in a world tournament. It is a nice change to be able to play international ball, and a great distraction from the NBA grind. My personal favorite new addition is the Quick Pick mode, where you'll get to choose any 12 players from the NBA and take them on the court against another team that does the same. This is a great mode for playing against a friend. It's like an All-Star game with more control.
The online play is improved this year as well. Along with your quick matches, now you've got online leagues as well. The leagues have rankings, stats, standings, and other settings that allow you to be in complete control. It's the best basketball online feature to date.
NBA Live 08 is a good game. It's not a great game yet. It has plenty of problems, and I must say it's still not quite on par with the impressive basketball simulation that is NBA 2K8. But the gap has closed this year. It plays, looks, and feels better than last year, and if it keeps improving, we'll have the great NBA Live series of old. If you're a fan of NBA Live, I recommend picking this one up, because it's on the rise.