As one of the few remaining sports game franchises that hasn't yet brutally eliminated its competitors, the NBA Live series has gone neck and neck with the NBA 2K series in recent years on terms of quality. For fans of both basketball and free market economics, the resulting competition in incremental upgrade one-upmanship has definitely been beneficial.
With NBA Live 10, developer EA Canada brings lots of considerable improvements to the genre formula — not all of them are perfect, but there's enough that works here to appeal to both casual and hardcore fans.
NBA Live 10 improves on its predecessor's presentation considerably. Visually, the game looks as solid as its previous iterations — player models are sharply animated and, occasional clipping or graphical hiccups aside, everything on the court runs equally smoothly. Also gone are the awkward cardboard cutout crowds and statically rendered backgrounds of NBA Live 09 — the audience cheers and moves in their seats along with the action on the court and the look of the actual stadiums varies by team.
Admittedly, these are minor touches, but combined with the rest of the game's presentation — along with the return of Marv Albert and Steve Kerr on the play-by-play, the incidental music in between quarters borrows from the NBA's live broadcasts — it makes the whole experience feel much more like an actual basketball game.
Likewise, NBA Live 10's audio is solid — Albert and Kerr tend to repeat themselves after a while, but the action on the court sounds great, with the crowd roaring and jeering after every shot. The obligatory EA soundtrack backs all of this up — unlike in NBA Live 09, the soundtrack is mostly for background dressing, but the selection is decent enough that it's not a distraction.
Gameplay stays mostly identical from NBA Live 09, some minor adjustments notwithstanding. Players can call plays on the fly, there's still direct passing to players via icon passing and most of the basic foundation carries over relatively intact — the controls are also well tuned by this point, making it as easy to shoot as it is to juke past an opponent.
Players can also call quick plays, which will automatically make the best-situated player try to get open for a shot. It's surprisingly well implemented — the feature comes short of making it too easy for players and with the increased flexibility on defensive play, it keeps the difficulty well paced.
One of the biggest improvements, though, comes from the Defensive Lockdown system. When defending an opponent, players can hold down the Left Button on the Xbox 360 to stay on them. In NBA Live 10, though, players can also use the right analog stick to control their player's movement to try and anticipate where the opposing player moves — the improvements add another layer of control to defensive play and it contributes considerably to the whole experience.
Ball control has also been improved similarly — blocking shots no longer feels like an arbitrary process, as players swat down shots with a satisfying smack, and players will run and dive for loose balls. It's not perfect, though — turnovers and dropped balls happen surprisingly often, with the ball slipping out of players' hands like it's covered in Crisco.
Alley-oops have also been tweaked, adding analog stick control to the button press. Considering how easy it was to wrack up alley-oop after alley-oop in NBA Live 09, the statistical nerfing was definitely overdue, but the game goes a bit too far in the other direction. The margin of error to land an alley-oop is so small that, more often than not, the ball flies past the hoop — that the game goes into bullet time during alley-oops adds an extra layer of embarrassment to the whole thing.
Similarly, the artificial intelligence is a mixed bag — it's usually pretty consistent, but sometimes, players will step out of bounds or commit backcourt violations at odd moments. The AI also occasionally rubber bands, as players can occasionally hit some ridiculous half-court buzzer beaters.
Feature-wise, NBA Live 10 covers most of the basics. "Dynamic DNA" — which syncs up in-game player statistics to how the players actually perform — returns from NBA Live 09 and it's the centerpiece in one of the few major new additions, Dynamic Season. The mode lets players play in games from the current season, complete with accurate player statistics in each game. There's enough meat to the mode to make it feel like more than an afterthought — players can also play past games, with statistics synced to the team during whatever week the actual game was — but the mode's narrow scope limits its potential depth relative to the rest of the game.
There's also the Adidas Live Run, which lets ten players play a five-on-five game as an NBA player, complete with stats and record keeping. Like in NBA Live 09, the performance leaves something to be desired, with occasional lag-induced stuttering, but the mode functions well enough as a variation on standard multiplayer.
Besides all of this, Dynasty Mode also returns — it's the closest thing the game has to a single player campaign, giving players the chance to manage their own team during and in between games. The degree of control the mode gives players helps bolster its replayability greatly, but inexplicably, NBA Live 10 hides its meager tutorials inside Dynasty Mode. The game's ease in control doesn't make it too glaring, but considering how necessary learning advanced maneuvers are to racking up the wins on higher difficulties, it's still a nuisance.
But putting all of this into context, where does it place NBA Live 10? After all, even with the incremental upgrades that the NBA Live series has been pushing out year after year, the 2K series has tended to grab most of the critical consensus. Despite this, though, NBA Live 10 is still a solid title, considerably improving on the problems of its predecessor. It's not without its quirks and imperfections, but NBA Live 10 gets enough of the fundamentals right that it's hard not to be excited about EA has in store for next season.