NBA Live 10 opens with Dwight Howard and a dramatic reading about the meaning of revival. Of course it refers to Howard and his team, the Orlando Magic. It also clearly speaks of EA Sports' hopes for its own game.
Last year's version of NBA Live finally helped the franchise pick itself off the mat in the next generation of consoles, where barely acceptable offerings had trailed NBA 2K10's best-in-class effort for years. This year EA Sports Vancouver pushed the focus to team play rather than flashy individual performances and animations. The product is a clean, accessible game with a strong underpinning of realism, and a level of player control that sets it apart.
Edit: In the interest of accuracy, the opening sequence does not use the word "revival." Instead it's "arrival." However, the sentiment stands. It's a revival of the franchise.
Everyone's under control: Whatever your style of play, the ability to custom-move off-ball player with a trigger-button-stick combination is a strong positive. This isn't a command to an AI, this is you physically moving one player while another has the ball. It creates lots of catch-and-shoot opportunities at the perimeter and do-it-yourself plays that are more technically satisfying than run-and-gun basketball. They're also more efficient - sometimes a little too efficient - than some of the set plays you draw up. You also have the "dynamic quick play" button which basically tells your hottest (or nearest) scorer at the moment "get open." These wielded in combination with the quick pick-and-roll's improved control, give you an impressive sense of power getting the ball in the basket, without ever beating your man off the dribble or going one-on-one. It rebalances the focus on team play and easily does the most to recommend this game.
Fancy passing is no passing fancy: In addition to the above, freestyle passing allows you greater directional control over where you whip the ball, even in traffic, rather than hoping the game AI doesn't send it to an unintended man covered up on the play. With this and the trigger/button direct-pass mechanism, there's almost never a reason to flick A/X unless you're just bringing the ball up. Like Magic and Bird, the controls make the assist cool again. Hell, it makes the outlet pass cool. More importantly, with a clampdown on speed and what you can get away with taking the ball to the hole, NBA 10 places a greater premium on spacing and open shots, and with the passing controls, it gives you the tools to create those opportunities.
Dynamic DNA: It's back again with another layer of fine-tuning and a year's worth of data to build upon. Not only do you get players whose performance is broken down by attribute score and tendency, you're presented with a thumbnail scouting report of your AI opponent in every game and the means to go much deeper in your franchise mode. By no means do I study player or team tendencies of the NBA, but I could sense that, in certain game situations, bad teams defaulted to type, superstars tried to take over (sometimes succeeding), and many other AI choices that seemed to be based on the game's breakdown of players, and not a coaching directive. You get the Lakers down by eight late in the game and Kobe's going to start bombing away, I assure you. Yeah, that's an easy call for any AI to make, but I swear that players who would prefer drives to one direction would hit a point in the game where they would take whatever was in front of them, suddenly defense got a lot easier, and that point at which every team in the NBA makes its run had passed.
Dynamic Season: This is fast becoming all the rage in games, and I don't know who exactly innovated it. But once the season gets going NBA Live 10 will allow you to drop back in time and replay any game on the schedule. That's different and that's a plus. Right out of the box you can pick key moments from the 2008-2009 regular and postseason, and almost immediately I started playing the epic Bulls-Celtics opening round series from the playoffs. It's not integrated into Dynasty Mode; but diehards can play along with their favorite team and change history for any disappointing result in real life.
Tone-deaf defense: Compared to 2K10, there's less subtlety in the distance your player covers when you move the stick even minutely, and playing man-to-man defense really exposes this. I overran a lot of plays and couldn't quite find the touch necessary to keep from being beaten off the dribble constantly. The standard ball-you-man fundamental, to cut off passing lanes, is hampered by an imprecise way to engage and stick to your man. In defending a shot, getting your hands up seems to have no effect, unless you keep them down, in which case you can count that bucket. It's the cross borne by defense in a game style that largely entertains with scoring, but the defensive controls doesn't feel as responsive as the offense. As such, it is more work and less fun in NBA Live 10.
Setting boundaries:: Again, pointing to the lack of finesse in player motion, there seemed to be some real AI issues with the boundary lines. Passes to the corner can be a faith-based affair, because your man will sometimes set up with a foot over the line and sit there. It does not happen all the time, but it's often enough to be unacceptable. There were also some backcourt violations that defied reality - I had a player run back across the timeline to take a pass in a kind of reset-the-offense way, even though we'd already inbounded the ball to that side of the court. The upside, I guess, is you can work this to your advantage. Sideline traps work often enough to feel like an exploit. Just call a double team, get the hands up and wait for the opposing ballhandler to step out of bounds. I got to the point where I did it on three straight possessions in a Finals game.
Who's (play) calling?: If you're not familiar with what basketball looks like beyond screens, picks, and drive-and-kick, calling set plays in this game will still be a puzzle for you. I'd order a play that had Nene posting up and he'd stand there, facing the basket, while Chris Andersen was backing down his guy and everyone had a full-color pass icon overhead. So I'd wonder if I was supposed to start the play by passing to someone else first and if so, who. Some icons are grayed, some are not. Pretty sure this exposes my lack of proficiency and familiarity with the game, but hey, I don't study the triangle-and-two in my spare time. The game touts playcalling that was advised by NBA scouts for added realism, but the execution was nowhere near as intuitive as NBA 2K10's, where icons on the floor direct you every step of the way. Plus, there's no practice mode in Live to try this out. Your games are your practice.
Postal Disservice: Down on the blocks you are on your own this year, big fella. The trigger/right-stick combos that formed your post-up offense are gone and replaced by ... nothing actually, which is a curious choice for a game featuring Dwight Howard on the cover. It's now entirely handled by the CPU whether your player posts up or not, and much like defensive engagement, I never got a feel for what automatically got me backing my guy down, ass to the basket. My advice is to wait for your swingman to do it on his own and then pass to him, maybe even direct him there with the off-ball control. But taking away post-up is going to leave some feeling really exposed, especially since the game's tightened up on what you can get away with in the lane and in traffic this year. Without the assuredness that you will actually stick your big ass into the defender and not face him head on and start running, interior play feels arbitrary and can make you look silly at times.
Sure, that's a lot of red ink up there, but on the whole, these are problems you can overcome or work through. NBA Live 10 is still a very inviting game. The crowd reaction is exceptional and the atmospheric difference between a regular season tilt - even a tight one - and the drama of the playoffs or the Finals, is quite palpable. To motion your man to the top of the key, shedding his defender as if you'd called for a screen, and then bury an overtime jumper provides a cathartic feeling of satisfaction. And the ability to order up this emotion in a quick play game is a definite plus, indulging the prototypical hoop dream of playing for the title, even when all you want to do is just play one game.
NBA Live 10 will deliver great moments and, especially with Dynamic Season, the individual games you want to play. The long haul of a season's worth of play is a different measure. With a direct competitor in 2K10 the first, if not only question for many is simply which one wins this year. But it is not a zero-sum proposition. I do consider NBA 2K10 to be the better package of the two, but NBA Live 10 is no less a worthy and enjoyable game in the presence of competition than it would be in the absence of it. It may not be a triumph over its rival. But in delivering a strong game for a second straight year, NBA Live is seeing the revival EA Sports wants it to be.
NBA Live 10 was developed by EA Vancouver and published by Electronic Arts for Xbox 360 and PS3 on Oct. 6. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types in singleplayer mode and tested online multiplayer.
Confused by our reviews? Read our review FAQ.