While the EA Sports brand is not exactly known for being in a position of weakness, its basketball offerings during the previous four years have been more uneven than Ben Wallace's hairdo. Yet the stiff competition has been a good thing. If nothing else, it provided the developers of NBA Live 10 with a clear target to shoot for: the NBA 2K series. The end-result is the closest this series has come to retaking the elusive brass ring.
With so much of the attention spent on revamping the core gameplay, there are few surprises with NBA Live 10's game types. Most are carried over from previous installments, including the FIBA world championship, which has you challenging 24 international teams, and the dynasty mode, where you'll guide your favorite NBA team through multiple seasons. New options include jumping straight to the playoffs, selecting one of three crowd noises during exhibition games, and engaging in a dynamic season. The latter incorporates expanded data of real-life player tendencies to coincide with actual NBA game results, allowing for more synergy between the video game and professional sport.
The other key addition is the Adidas live run, an online only feature that has you creating a custom team with four other friends and playing a series of 21-point pick-up games against rivals. While it's certainly a welcome feature, it would have been more interesting if it involved a deeper, career-type progression system similar to what was offered in EA's own NBA Street series. Of course, you also can create or join online leagues, form a 10-player fantasy team, and participate in both quick and custom matches.
NBA Live earns high marks for significantly improving its gameplay from last year's title. Gone are the days when you could just run up the score by making a beeline to the basket. On the higher difficulty settings, the computer AI will effectively guard, follow team-specific playbooks, and reach out to intercept passes. If you try to get cute with the computer and chain together spins and other elaborate moves, you may find yourself coughing up the ball with a collision or steal.
The developers deserve credit for vastly improving the on-court controls, particularly on offense. Dribbling is accomplished with the left analog stick, while the right analog stick is for passing, double crosses, step-throughs, and more. Both shoulder buttons act as modifiers to the core controls, and you're able to perform bank shots, spin layups, size-up moves, and dunks simply by holding a trigger and nudging one of the analog sticks in a particular direction. Shooting is now mapped to a single button and relies on timing your release to improve your chances of making a basket.
Another nice touch is that your athletes have momentum, so if you burst forward with a surge of turbo, you won't be able to suddenly stop and turn on a dime. Your athlete will keep moving forward, taking extra steps that will result in off-balance throws if you try to quickly shoot before your player is set. There is, of course, still room for improvement in some areas. Your teammates aren't always paying attention to where the ball is, for example, so rebounding can be frustrating. The computer can also be easily forced out of bounds near the sidelines. Yet you'll find that teams play like they do in real life, as do the stars. There are also 28 different sliders to help tweak the action to your liking on both sides of the ball.
Smoother player models, lifelike animations, and better stadium lighting are just a few of the refinements to NBA Live's presentation this year. There's a pronounced emphasis on making players move as realistically as possible. From stumbles and off-balance shots to double crosses and jab steps, the on-court action is more believable than in any previous NBA Live game. The atmosphere is also enhanced by some truly energetic, vocal crowds and constant sideline activity, with the excitement intensifying during rivalry and post-season games. While you will notice some looped sequences, like the same people endlessly shuffling back and forth across aisles, the constant commotion makes it feel like you are at a live game.
Where the presentation falters is in the two-man commentary by Marv Albert and Steve Kerr. Albert is as spirited as you'd expect while making the calls, but Kerr's subdued analysis quickly grows tiresome once you realize he's spitting out the same exact lines over and over again. If your team starts building a lead, Kerr will say something like, "Things are spiraling out of control. The coach should have taken a timeout six to eight minutes ago." The problem is that the computer did take a timeout, and it was a mere two minutes ago. Neither Albert nor Kerr react to what's actually happening in the game, other than scoring-related updates.
They never mention if you are about to break an NBA or team record, for instance, nor will you hear much in the way of anecdotes, trivia, or other interesting factoids about players. Everything sounds generic, but you can always turn the broadcasters off and listen to the otherwise excellent arena and crowd noise.
NBA Live 10 is a vastly improved game, making key strides in the areas of AI, controls, and atmosphere. While there are a few stumbles here and there, hoops fans sour on the franchise will be pleasantly surprised with what the developers were able to accomplish. It may not be the complete NBA experience that the back of the box would lead you to believe, but it's definitely got game.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.