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Nintendo Wii Review: NBA Live 09 All Play

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NBA LIVE 09 All-Play is the first basketball game in EA’s Wii All-Play series of games.  With the All-Play series, EA is trying to make sports games accessible to those who have never played a sports game before.  So far these games have not been very successful in my opinion. They are too shallow for the hardcore crowd but still too complex for a beginner. 2007’s NBA Live 08 was not only the first major basketball release on Wii, it was one of the first EA games to use the “Family Mode” control scheme.  Family Mode later evolved into All-Play.  The 2007 game also happens to be one of the worst sports games ever made.  NBA LIVE 09 All-Play expands on its predecessor’s game modes and refines the controls a bit. However, the improvements are not nearly enough to make this a worthwhile game.

When you first boot up the game you are offered three different options: Play Now, Game Modes, or Party. The Play Now selection is a simple one-off game of 2 on 2 or 5 on 5.  In 2 on 2 you choose two stars and play a half-court game against two others. Playground rules apply and powerups can also be turned on. Picking them up will do things like make you run faster, give your shooter more accuracy, or take a point away from your opponents when you make a basket.

In 5 on 5 you choose an NBA or International team and face off against another team.  This is indoor, NBA-rules basketball. There is some cartoony presentation in this mode that will tell you if you had a late release on a shot or made a great steal.

The Party modes use only the Wii-Remote and support up to four players.  You can choose Slam Dunk Contest, 3-Point Challenge, 21, or 2 on 2.  They are all exactly what they sound like. Using only the Wii-Remote to perform trick dunk or play 21 works out all right, since not a lot of control is necessary. None of the modes are particularly fun. The Slam Dunk contest is the most entertaining, but better Slam Dunk contests have been in other video games.

Game Modes is where the majority of game play options are and the bulk of the single player experience.  You can play Season, Playoffs, Superstar Challenge, All-Star Game, Rookie Challenge, or Online. 

Season is the extent of a franchise mode for the game. You choose a NBA team and take it through the current NBA Season with the goal of winning the Finals. You can play through all the games manually or simulate them. You are in charge of the Coach and GM decisions for your team.  But it is not much fun to make those decisions for only one season.  Your executive decisions are limited to dealing with injuries and setting lineups. You can still sign free agents and trade players but they mean less in a one year setting.  Serious hoops fans will be very disappointed in Season mode's limitations.  Sports fans enjoy franchise modes for things like scouting, player development, cap management, and year to year improvement. These are all missing.

In Superstar Challenge you play through a number of game scenarios. In each one you are given a goal with a certain player. For example you may have to score X amount of points with LeBron James. Your team also has to win. If you win and meet the criteria you receive a gold, silver, or bronze medal.  This mode is not very fun. It is arranged in tiers. Beating all the scenarios in one tier unlocks the next, but that is the only reward you get other than the medals. In later tiers almost all of the players goals require x amount of points and X amount of rebounds. It impossible to control how many rebounds your player gets. This, along with the lack of any real reward makes the entire Superstar Challenge a giant frustration.

The Playoffs mode is simply Season shortened to only Playoffs. All-Star Game is a one-off East versus West All-Star game. The Rookie Challenge title is misleading – it is just the Rookies versus Sophomores game from All-Star Weekend.

Online is the other big single player feature. EA has actually put together quite an impressive infrastructure for online play. After signing in to EA Nation you can Play with Friends, Play with Anyone, or Join a Lobby.  Playing with Friends allows you to play against either EA buddies or Wii console buddies. If you play with Anyone you can choose to quick start a ranked or unranked game. The lobbies are split into Social, Casual, and Competitive. After you join the lobbies you can see who else is in it and challenge others. You can also see the signal strength of others.

While I appreciate all the effort put into the infrastructure it is ultimately meaningless. The peak amount of players I have ever seen online was twenty-two. No one is ever in any lobbies, so you can never choose a game based on signal strength.  I have played through about six games online and only one did not have significant lag issues.  I have been dropped from about twice as many games  that were all extremely laggy. Once three games in a row dropped.  The lag greatly affects game play; you often have a pass intercepted or a ball stolen and not see it. Your opponent just has the ball a moment later. The delay also affects your shooting motion and your defensive blocking and positioning.  Most of the players online seemed to have a found away to exploit the online delay to their advantage. In a nutshell, the game looks and runs terrible online.

The biggest problem with the game however, has to be the controls. The game offers three control schemes: All-Play, Classic, and Advanced. None of them work that well. All of them use a mixture of button presses and gesture movements.  The All-Play control scheme does not give you enough control over your players. The Classic Control scheme uses just the Wii-Remote on its side and does not have enough buttons to control a modern basketball game.  The Advanced controls work best, it is essentially the two other methods combined.  In addition to the bevy of control schemes you can turn on or off the Point and Pass Technique. With it on you use the Wii-Remote cursor to mouse over who you want to pass to. Without it you cycle through your targets with the control stick. Neither is satisfactory, both are too slow to respond. Your passes are frequently intercepted. 

No matter what configuration you ultimately settle on the controls are infuriatingly unresponsive. You will often blow a wide open shot because your shot motion is jerky. You will even miss them using the Classic scheme because the shot button press does not always register. On all the schemes the steal and block moves are frequently mixed up. The rebound move never seems to work at all.

To add insult to injury the game also has bad A.I. Players will often stand there watching a loose ball or rebound go right past them. Sometimes you will have to force your player to stay on offense; they will automatically backtrack to defense after a missed shot. On defense your players will often go for an impossible steal that leaves your opponent open for an easy layup. Sometimes you will steal the ball near half court and be called for a bogus backcourt violation.

The graphics are mediocre at best. Models are blurry, lines are fuzzy, and nothing has much detail. While slightly better than GameCube graphics, the game pales in comparison to other current gen sports games.  With the exception of Mii integration for referees and some nice colorful fonts there is absolutely zero visual polish.

The sound is the one thing about this game that approaches average. The menu music is all light hip-hop and techno. It is the perfect match for the game’s mood. Unfortunately there are only a few tracks of it. Steve Kerr and Marv Albert are the in-game commentators. Their commentary can be insightful and includes a few nice details. The commentary programming is atrocious; Kerr and Albert will often repeat the same lines over and over. For instance, one time I had three inbound plays in quick succession. Each one had the exact same comment from Kerr. There is no in-stadium music or player chatter.  The crowd noise is not impressive or dynamic.

It seems like someone at EA had a lot of good ideas for this game. The amount of modes is good, the online has a nice setup, and the new casual modes could be enticing to franchise newcomers. Unfortunately, the game’s execution is horrible. The terrible A.I. and control scheme makes the game not fun and unplayable.  The online is hampered by awful connections. Both casual players and serious basketball fans should avoid playing this game at all costs. I hope that NBA Live 10 All-Play will actually follow through on all of this game’s potential.

NBA Live 09 All-Play is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB. This game can also be found on:PS2, PS3, PSP, Wii, Xbox, Xbox 360.


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About Mark Kalriess