Review: Electronic Arts NBA Live by EA Sports
Up until now, iPod touch and iPhone gamers have enjoyed basketball-inspired mini-games -- actually, a couple of really impressive ones in Freeverse's Flick NBA Basketball and Red Knight's Hoopster -- but there hasn't been a proper, full-fledged five-on-five title in the App Store. Electronic Arts has changed that with NBA Live by EA Sports ($10), which is interestingly missing the sort of "2010" or "10" labeling found on its other sports releases, but otherwise containing most of the content fans would expect from the company's annual franchises: real teams, real players -- including unlockable legends -- an 82-game season mode, a shorter playoff mode, and light managerial options. Given that it's breaking new ground on the iPhone OS platform, NBA Live gets more right than wrong, but it's not hard to see where a sequel or competitor could improve on its formula.
EA starts NBA Live on a high note. Soon after launching the game, you’ll hear one of fifteen different and legitimately good to great licensed audio tracks taken from major-league rap artists including Snoop Dogg, David Banner, and De La Soul, and though the tracks don’t play within the game, they’re an early sign that better than average attention has been paid to the sound of the title. Right before the tipoff, Marv Albert’s sampled voice starts offering nice, if sometimes quality-inconsistent and repetitive voice commentary, which mixes with shoe squeals, dribble noises, and plenty of crowd noise to keep the game’s audio exciting. You can also create your own iPod music playlists, and listen to them within the game if you choose.
Though we feel conflicted in summarizing it this way, NBA Live’s graphics engine is also pretty good. On one hand, EA has done an outstanding job with a non-trivial task, namely getting 10 people and a court to appear on screen at once with a fluid frame rate and a satisfactory level of player detail. They’re small due to the size of the display, but the animations for key moves—dunks in particular—are smooth for a handheld device, and occasionally done greater justice by close-up instant replays that show off additional detail; the camera always had the right focus and pans for shots, and though there are some collision detection issues, the flash in and out effects that accompany the replays do a great job of evoking television-style presentation of a game. That said, those expecting to see more than Lebron’s headband or Shaq’s especially monstrous frame might be disappointed by Live’s models; proper player numbers and other texture details are basically only visible during close-ups.
Another close-up opportunity is when NBA Live switches to a different third-person foul shot angle, which provides a behind-the-back view of one player and the net, instructing you to tilt and flick the iPhone or iPod touch to position your arms and release the ball. In addition to looking good, the flick-to-shoot control is a cool idea here—wisely not used otherwise in the game—and EA sates those who might dislike its lack of precision by offering an alternative touch-and-meter scheme if accelerometer control is turned off. Freeverse’s Flick NBA Basketball renders the same free-throw scenes with more player detail, but as it consists only of this and other mini-games, it has fewer players to render at once.
We weren’t as taken with NBA Live’s default “broadcast” camera angle; as one of only two ways to play this game, this shifting but largely horizontal court angle often lead to such visual congestion near the hoops that it’s often difficult to sort out whatever’s happening on offense. At times, the players look almost like they’re overlapping each other in 2-D, and when the game turns on large, colored icons to indicate potential pass recipients, the presentation gets even messier. Switching to the other angle, “baseline,” provides a vertical view of the court and effectively spreads out the players so that you can better judge what’s going on; we found NBA Live to be a lot more fun and straightforward to play with this camera.
Control in NBA Live is in the “close, but not quite perfect” category. EA has wisely sought to simplify the four- to six-button-based controls of console and handheld basketball games by using a virtual on-screen D-pad and two context-sensitive buttons, and though it works much of the time, some specifics in the implementation are a little bit off. Rather than staying in the bottom left corner of the screen, the D-pad appears almost anywhere on the left side of the screen that you touch, making determinations about your preferred direction based on the vector your finger takes thereafter. Unless you’re willing to keep your finger glued to the screen, this sometimes leads to situations where your players start out walking rather than running, because your first contact with the screen sets “center.”
Additionally, and as is the case with other sports titles, EA automatically switches the two buttons from pass and shoot on offense to steal and rebound on defense, then makes contextual judgments that further expand their features. On offense, the game automatically picks the nearest pass recipient unless you hold the pass button and select someone—this, as noted above, calls up a bunch of opaque, screen-cluttering icons, which could really use some toning-down. During defense, the steal button switches to “change defender” based on the context of where you are and which direction you’re pushing the D-pad in. Most of the time, these context shifts technically do what they’re supposed to do, but we did find ourselves avoiding use of the hold-to-pass feature, and missing fairly easy steals because of the way the game handled the control changes. We tend to blame the iPhone and iPod touch for necessitating virtual controls in the first place, but the game could handle both of these features a little better.
There are other signs that NBA Live could have used some extra polish. For some, a big one will be the lack of a multi-player mode; the title is for one player only, with no wireless or online play modes. A smaller one is its user interface. On-screen text uses a clean but all-caps and oddly spaced font that makes tutorials and stats unpleasant to read; doing trades, substitutions, and other managerial tasks turns out to be simple—select and hold a player, then drag and drop—but isn’t explained on your first run through the menus, and initially confounds with a lack of obvious on-screen controls, so you’re tapping on names and seeing stats but not knowing what to do next. More surprising were some game-ending bugs that we came across: in one case, when resuming a saved game, the ball just appeared to be hanging in the air, and no player could interact with it; this stopped our season play dead in its tracks. In another game, players started the third quarter with a throw-in without any ball. Serious players will be less than thrilled the first time they see a season or playoff game interrupted by a problem like this. We’d also rate the game’s difficulty as being lower than we’d expected; on easy, NBA Live is a pushover, and even on All-Star level, the artificial intelligence isn’t nearly as aggressive as it could be. Sometimes, as you’ll notice in the close-up shots here, you’ll see players jumping for non-existent rebounds and otherwise doing things that aren’t so much really playing the game as giving off the appearance of being busy on the court.
Overall, NBA Live is a good but not great start for full-fledged basketball gaming on the iPod touch and iPhone, offering great audio, good graphics, and a fine first attempt to replicate a dedicated controller with a virtual D-pad and buttons. Fans will initially be impressed by the NBA team and player licensing, but between the bugs and the rough edges in control and camera presentation, it’s obvious that this title needs a bit more behind-the-scenes work in order to be more than just a sub-PlayStation Portable-level occasional distraction. In its current form, it’s the App Store’s most ambitious basketball game, though also its most expensive, and certainly not its best-polished.