EA Sports continues its full-court press into the mobile games space with NBA Live. Madden and FIFA delivered enjoyable football and soccer experiences, can the iPhone and iPod Touch hope to contain five-on-five basketball?
Under control: Honestly thought I'd hate the controls, considering this is five-on-five basketball with not a joystick in sight. But getting the hang of them - specifically knowing how much space your juke moves take up, so you can finish a dunk or pull-up jumper - you can run some entertaining, mostly arcade ball with occasional flourishes of realism. (Though, dunks and drives to the basic seemed to be a little too easy, allowing you to brute-force your way out of trouble most of the time.) A blue ball button controls both quick passing and your jukes (by flicking it in one of four directions) and so sometimes, you'll make a crossover when you want to kick out to the nearest man. But the offensive setup capably handles the most difficult part of video game basketball - ball distribution. Pressing and holding the blue button allows you to select a player to receive a pass, in case you have a man free on the wing and the AI isn't highlighting him. And a clipboard icon allows you to call basic plays, like a pick-and-roll or isolation. Defense, I didn't like how your man instantly became a step slower as soon as you switched over to control him. It made defending in transition - and the computer is much better running and gunning than running set plays - a total crapshoot. After a while you learn how to play a guy off the ball, get him in position, and pick up easy steals and blocks, which are your main forms of active defense as the rest is handled by AI.
The Full Package: Like Madden, EA Sports shoehorns as much of its full console experience into this device as possible. You have a season, playoffs and a quick game mode at three levels of difficulty, for both AI and how fouls and penalties are called. At the easy level, backcourt violations, going out of bounds and three-second violations are nonexistent, and they give you breathing room to run your game without turning your learning process into nonstop punishment. In season mode you can go right up to 12 minute quarters and 82 games if your commute is that long. Trades and roster management are enabled, but the former is more like "move players as you wish," because there is no trade AI. (Hello, Dwight Howard-for-Nene trade!) Three-minute quarters for me produced enough results in the 30-40 point range to be satisfying.
Some Inconsistencies: My wi-fi access is on by default, and I was struggling with some bad framerate drops until I switched it off on a hunch. That seemed to help but there are still some inexplicable lags that make this finesse game feel a little clumsy. Although this is a device and not a game limitation, it feels very cramped playing on an NBA halfcourt with 10 guys on this size of a screen, from the broadcast angle. You can switch to a baseline view that magnifies things but I found the constant camera zooming and movement to be a little dizzying. Contesting shots and going for rebounds, especially in traffic, left me wondering whether I'd grabbed the miss or recovered the ball after a block. Marv Albert's commentary isn't helpful in telling me, either, as misses are either "Comes up short!" or "Off the mark!" or "Rejected emphatically!" His presence lends authenticity but is very, very repetitive. And finally, there were some puzzling AI sequences at the lower difficulties, especially in the final possessions of a quarter, where the opposing team would do things like pass the ball between two guys, repeatedly, or hold the ball until a 24-second violation sounded the horn.
NBA Live has enough of a learning curve, and a large enough price, to be a serious purchase and not an impulse buy. Those who enjoy video game basketball can pick it up easy enough. But you should have a lot of time or desire to play it on your mobile for you to see value in the title, because it requires exploration. It's clear NBA Live on the iPhone is also meant as an entry product to get you to think about its larger sibling. Ultimately, it succeeds, and does so without resorting to fun-size cop-outs like three-on-three, or dumbed-down controls.
NBA Live by EA Sports was developed by EA Mobile published by Electronic Arts for the iPhone and iPod Touch on Oct. 23. Retails for $9.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types and difficulties.)
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