-- It's time to separate the All-Stars from the bench warmers as gaming's trio of National Basketball Association franchises return. Here's how each game stacks up:
NBA 2K9 (2K Sports) (4.5 out of 5)
Their competitors boast innovative features, but NBA 2K9 once again excels where it counts most: On the court.
Veterans will discover a very familiar game. Controls dating as far back as 2K7 remain intact. The biggest difference is the ability to change your shot in mid-air with the Shot Stick. That means players use the right analog stick instead of a button to shoot.
Overall, the game feels smooth and balanced. You can just as easily slow the tempo and run a half-court offense as you can run a fast break. The seamless animations create a very natural looking hoops experience.
Designers have made major improvements with the visuals. Graphics are very crisp. Player models, a weak point in previous seasons, show greater detail. As fatigue sets in, you'll notice players grimace and form beads of sweat.
The other big addition: Living Rosters. Every time you boot up during the NBA season, an online update automatically adds the latest player ratings, injuries and trades. If Carmelo Anthony is on a hot streak, it will reflect in his ratings. An NBA Insider will also take commentary from players to ensure accuracy.
Online expands to add 10-player games and a ranking system to judge your skills. Your most memorable dunks and buzzer beaters can be recorded and uploaded for friends using the 2K Share feature.
One minor drawback might be accessibility to newcomers. Between on-the-fly coach options and mastering your dribbling skills, the controls can look daunting to novices. Also, it's surprising the innovation in control hasn't stretched out to game modes.
It's hard to blame NBA 2K9 for sticking with what's familiar. They've set the rim pretty high.
NBA Live 09 (Electronic Arts) (4 out of 5)
For a time, EA owned the NBA gaming space. Then Live 07 came out. Two years later, the franchise is nipping at 2K's heels with NBA Live 09, an imaginative simulation in need of some on-court tweaking.
The star this season is Dynamic DNA. Using a colorful guide that looks like a DNA strand, player tendencies are sorted based on offensive skills like post-up and off-ball screens. Hornets guard Chris Paul's DNA, for example, leans heavily toward the pick and roll. The DNA extends to teams as well. The clever presentation simplifies the process of breaking down your opponents' strategies.
The tendencies, player ratings, injuries and trades are updated online daily with NBA Live 365. One important caveat: To use the 365 feature, players must type a single use code to participate. So if you buy the game used and that box code is no longer available, you must pay for access.
A wealth of new modes debut in Live 09, like a scaled-down Be a Pro and a FIBA World Championship mode for international tournaments.
In terms of accessibility, Live 09 is friendlier to newcomers. The NBA Live Academy takes you step by step through challenges and techniques to help you learn the game. Controls are simpler as well. Playcalling is now available through the shoulder buttons. Bring up plays with the left, while cycling with the right. Each play is also specially designed for your superstar players.
The on-court highlight is easily the revamped pick-and-roll mechanics. It's easier and allows for better management of the play. You'll press and hold the left trigger to call the pick. Once you're ready, release to let your teammate streak toward the basket or behind the three-point arc for an open shot.
Two elements ultimately hold this series back: Smoothness and tempo. Player transitions between moves is rough. Some guys go from standing straight to suddenly soaring off one leg for a tomahawk jam.
The pace tends to be slower, mostly because of teammate behavior. In NBA 2K9, your teammates streak to the basket when a fast break materializes. With Live 09, your shooting guard and small forward gradually jog up court then park on the wings. Unless a big man is running the break, you're usually forced to pull back and set up your half-court offense.
Right now, EA has the advantage in creative features. But it won't supplant 2K9 unless its on-court skills are polished a bit more.
NBA 09: The Inside (Sony Computer Entertainment) (2.5 out of 5)
If 2K9 and Live 09 are the pros, then NBA 09: The Inside is the developmental league. Everything the PlayStation 3 exclusive offers is executed far better in the other two titles.
The key difference is a story mode dubbed The Life. You'll lead a created player through the NBDL and, eventually, the NBA. Each game you play consists of a series of challenges you must complete within a period of time. Objectives range from "dish 4 assists with your point guard" to "hold an opposing players to zero points."
The Life is an intriguing concept overshadowed by an antiquated hoops game. Weekly roster updates were great last season. This year, it's hard to perk up when you've got Living Rosters and Dynamic DNA.
On-the-court activity is about as frightening as a New York Knicks game. Teammate intelligence is wretched. Players enjoy running out of bounds. Offensive rebounds are rampant because nobody feels like jumping. Playcalling is oversimplified. One defensive play in particular is simply called "Tight Defense."
The turbo button is easy to abuse, since you move at warp speed compared to everyone else. It's also impossible to block shots.
In general, NBA 09 feels unnatural. During one sequence where I was defending an opposing center, the player ran around in circles under the basket about four times before finally hoisting a shot. So much for that low-post game.
With two quality NBA titles sitting atop the heap, it's best to keep NBA 09 on the bench.