I’m a big fan of San Diego Studio’s MLB games. They’re fun and offer some great unique features for a baseball game. It’s just too bad that NBA 09: The Inside is such a disappointing basketball game plagued by animation and gameplay problems.
I’ll start with some of the good stuff that San Diego Studios has done with the game. Graphics wise, the game players look OK but the crowd is really well done. Normally you’d get a few carbon copy animations from same folks scattered about in the arena or ball park like in their MLB game but this time around, there’s some nice variety to the animation. It seems each individual is modeled and when brought together, the visual created is one of the nicest looking crowds in a sports game.
When playing the game, you have to be a little more careful passing the ball. In other basketball games, I usually dished the rock without much hesitation. Here, the defensive guys will make you pay if your man is guarded or you try too many of those threading the needle type passes. Shooting the ball produces a radial indicator that shows you when you should release the button to obtain the greatest chance of sinking the shot. What’s nice is that depending on the situation, the green sweet spot can grow or shrink even if you are in the exact same spot. It’s a nice way to let you know when you’re trying a tough shot or when you are wide open. To help with rebounding, there’s a flashing indicator on the ground to let you know where the ball is going to fall. It’s your job to get into position and time your jump right. It’s better than trying to judge the ball in other games as it’s hard to judge how the ball is going to bounce in most games.
NBA 09: The Inside includes a few mini games that are actually fun to play. The standard 3 pt shooting contest is there but some unique ones appear as well. Mimic the All-Star Skills Competition by doing various drills such as passing, shooting, and dribbling between players. The blacktop golf gives you various areas where garbage cans are placed. You have to shoot into the garbage cans making your way closer to the basket whereby then you can try a jump shot. Like golf, the least amount of shots needed wins and knocking over the garbage can will incur a greater penalty. What makes it a little more challenging is that if you do hit the garbage cans without sinking the ball inside, the garbage can can move thus altering the course as you make your way to the basket. Owning the court pits you against another competitor where spots are marked on the ground with various points assigned to it. As you sink shots from those positions you rack up your score. What’s interesting is that your opponent can steal the spot by making the shot at the same spot and upping his score while subtracting from yours. The player with the most points wins. You may have the most spots but your opponent might control the higher scoring spots. There are a few others but I found the three I mentioned to be fun and a great diversion from the real game.
The big addition to this year’s version is the Life whereby you take part in three different story lines with your created player. It tells the story of a street ball player who makes his way up from the D-League to the NBA. In between various challenges, you’ll get a little bit of the story line told in a cut scene using the game’s engine. You won’t be playing full games though as you’ll have to achieve various goals in a certain time frame. It might be picking up 4 assists or out scoring your opponent by 5 points. The problem is though if you don’t achieve the main goals to go to the next part in the story, you’re stuck. There were a few scenarios where I had to redo many times with one taking me an hour to accomplish even though the entire event lasts three minutes. There’s no way to skip it and it made the Life portion unnecessary long. I guess they had to do this as the Life portion is really short and you can get by all three of them in relatively short amount of time provided you achieve all the goals outlined in a timely manner. Also, there’s no way to skip the cut scenes so if you decide to walk away from failing an event and come back you have to sit through the latest one again and some can be pretty long. The Life is a short and not too compelling so while San Diego Studios is pushing this part of the game, it’s really not a strong suite of the game.
What really makes this game disappointing is the basketball action itself. There are some nice qualities such as seeing players move around, setting screens, using motion to get open. But, many problems appear when you are playing the game itself. For starters there’s just an unbelievable amount of blocks called. When I mean unbelievable I’m talking in the high teens to twenties in the amount of blocks that are whistled. I was even called for a blocking foul jumping straight up to grab a rebound. I’m pretty sure you can’t be called for a block fighting for a rebound but I’ve had it happen to me a few times.
I’ve played plenty of basketball games with rebounding issues and NBA 09: The Inside also has some problems as well. On free throws, don’t expect one of the two players in the box out position to box out. On almost every single free throw, you’ll see one of the players from the shooting team slip around and stand in the middle ready to rebound a miss free throw while the box out player just stands there. It’s pretty frustrating and I sometimes missed the second one on purpose because I had a good chance of getting a rebound and dropping it back in for a three point play. During games, it’s not uncommon to see a ball just roll down a player instead of having it grabbed. It looks pretty awkward and it’s also not common to have it picked up by the opposing team when it happens to you. You'll also see plenty of times where the player looks like he's blocking out but the opponent just walks around him and gets into a better position to steal the rebound away.How turnovers happen are pretty straight forward in basketball but not in NBA 09: The Life. While dribbling past the half court line, I decided to pass the ball to my shooting guard near the three point line of our basket. It seemed the game thought it was over and back when I passed and I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t until after multiple replays that I think I know what happened. My player was right at the half-court line and was in the animation of passing the ball. The ball was already passed mid court by a hair and the animation had the player doing a chest pass where he brought the ball back and threw it forward. The action of bring the ball back caused the over and back violation. I’ve never had it happen in any other game nor have I ever saw it called in all my years of watching basketball but it the event really boggled my mind at the time.
My favorite one though has to be when I was playing against the Charlotte Bobcats. Sean May had the ball up high and was being fronted by Cleveland Cavalier’s Daniel Gibson. The normal animation of Sean pivoting and trying to find the open man was taking place with Sean trying to create some room. All of a sudden, Sean stumbled a little, was falling to the ground, and used the ball to keep himself up. So the ball’s touching the ground with Sean May holding it and he stumbles a few steps forward. No traveling was called mind you. Then as he’s getting he steps on the half-court line but no over and back is called. I’ve never seen a player commit three-plus violations in one play and get away with it but it happened to me in only my second game.
The game also is inconsistent in calling when a player is out of bounds. I had one pass where it went to LeBron James who was on the far end of the court near the baseline. As he receives the pass, the animation causes his left foot to be on the line so he should have been called for out of bounds. Nothing happened as I stood there for a good three seconds. It wasn’t until I started to dribble did the referee call me for stepping out of bounds. I’ve also had a few shots hit the room and bounce on top of the backboard or one of the supports without having any whistle blow. Sometimes when I pass the ball he will be called out when he steps out of bounds when he receives it and other times it goes unnoticed.
I know a lot of NBA players get away with four steps which I think is a travesty but NBA 09: The Life takes it to another level. I wonder if it’s the problem with how the game strings together animations because I’ve seen many players take five steps on the way to dunk or layup the ball. The most prominent one I saw as seeing Gerald Wallace on one side near the three point arc. He moves and doesn’t dribble but takes a whopping six steps before slamming it home. I replayed that one about a dozen times counting the steps and I’m sure even the worse referee in the NBA would have called that one.
Palming is another thing I’ve seen players do and another problem that I’m attributing to the engine handling of the animation. It’s not uncommon to see various players dribble and when changing direction palm the ball and move it unnaturally another way. Some are very blatant while others are more subtle but I’ve seen many players move their hand to the side over and then to the other side and then back again before taking one dribble.
You'd think having the ball go into the hoop would definitely count for points but not so. On a play where my center was going in for the dunk, the ball was partially blocked by Dirk Nowitski sticking his hand from under the hoop and through the net. The ball still falls through the hoop but for some reason Nowitski comes up with the rebound and the play runs the other way. Stopping the game, I watched the replay and see the ball indeed goes through the hoop and through the net which should be accounted for 2 points. Also, you can't stick your hand from underneath the net to block the ball so there's another violation that went without being called. No foul and two points missing, I shook my head in disbelief.
One of the simple rules in basketball is the three second rule whereby a defender cannot stand in the free throw lane for three seconds. To test this, I parked LeBron James down in that area completely underneath the basket. To my surprise, it took a good six seconds before the whistle blew. I was ready go give up and walk out thinking there wasn't one in place but the game looks like it gives you plenty of time to sit there and not be called.
So as you can see from above, there are many problems to the core of the game. It’s a run and gun type of basketball where it can be guard heavy as the post game’s pretty non-existent. One thing I do like is that if you do leave guys open they will make you pay by draining the jumper. Other than that, there’s just too many issues that crop up that take you out of the game and cause you to get frustrated with how it’s handled.
The announcing team of Kenny Smith and Kevin Calabro are OK as well. The flow though doesn’t seem as good as other games and it doesn’t sound as natural as other games. Kenny Smith seems a little wooden on some of his comments as well at times. Overall, I would consider the commentary to be average but not as annoying as some other games I’ve played.
There are the usual features such as Franchise mode, create a player and online play but if you don’t have the basic game correct the rest of the features don’t matter. Player graphics are OK and the models range from being decent to nowhere looking like the real person. Court recreations are done pretty well and as I touched on it earlier, the crowd looks pretty good. The game does play at 1080P so if you have a TV that supports that you’ll get a nice crisp clear picture and I didn’t experience any slowdowns when I was playing it that way. Like I said, I love San Diego Studio’s baseball games but their basketball games need a good deal more work and right now I would rate this as the D-League product among the options out there. NBA 09: The Inside has some fun and unique gameplay modes but the rest of the game falls apart in execution, much like the Memphis Grizzlies offense.