NBA Live 15 review: the rebound

NBA Live 15 isn't bad, but it's hard to love

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform PS4, Xbox One
Publisher EA Sports
Developer EA Tiburon
Release Date Oct 28, 2014

Finding a fair standard by which NBA Live 15 can be judged is difficult. Holding this game to the standard of NBA 2K15 — which left it behind years ago — seems just as unfair as setting for it the low bar of NBA Live 14, which finally succeeded at simply getting something on shelves, but not by much.

The series has been so badly mismanaged and EA Sports has broken so much trust that it makes calling NBA Live 15 a good game an uncomfortable statement. I went out on that limb two years ago after getting an early look at something that did appear intriguing; then we learned it was supposed to be a half-price downloadable title, and then it never even launched.

NBA Live 15 is an understandable game with every mode of play I expect in a sports title, and nothing is broken. NBA Live 14 was a glitch-filled mess at its launch, so that may sound like faint praise, but considering how even NBA 2K15 has problems plaguing its online modes, this is more of an achievement than it appears to be. NBA Live 15's gameplay isn't as rigorous or realistic as NBA 2K15's, but newcomers and casually interested fans can experience more of basketball's free-flowing variety, even if it serves up a razzle-dazzle pass with the occasional jerky or weird-looking animation.

Nothing is broken

There is no genius to NBA Live 15, though; nothing truly sets it apart from other basketball games or the sports genre at large. Player models do look more lifelike and even expressive, thanks to head-scanning most of the league's starting players. They move more realistically than in last year's game, thanks to a lot of work done on animations (that greatly improves passing on a fast break, too). But it's still rather standard fare for a sports title. A lot of repetitive animations remain, plus a tendency to warp or "roller skate" (move faster than the player is appearing to run) that often frustrates NBA Live's tentative attempts at immersion.

Even NBA Live 15's improved gameplay is rooted in two reconditioned features that hearken back to EA's better days in basketball. Freestyle passing has returned. That's where the player holds down the R1 button/right bumper and then whips the right stick in the direction of a teammate. It's easy and enjoyable and surprisingly more accurate than hitting X/A for a standard pass, given the jittery way the AI auto-selects the nearest teammate (especially if two or more are running in a line on the fast break). Another command, stolen from the old NCAA Basketball series EA once published, sends all of your teammates in motion with the press of L1/left bumper. This can get them free for catch-and-release jump shots and even alley-oop dunks, which is a single button press (circle/B).

nba live al jefferson EA Tiburon/EA Sports

Unfortunately, you see the need for the quick-action button when you play as a point guard — the guy who runs the offense — in Rising Star, the career mode when you control one player and everyone else is run by the CPU. AI teammates are dreadfully slow to act, which robs you not only of statistical contributions you need to advance, but also points that are ripe for the taking. For example, I hit my center with a perfect freestyle pass, finding him wide open 12 feet from the basket. He hesitated for a long second, then moved closer to a defender, and clanged the shot off the rim.

That also calls out the often inscrutable accuracy (or inaccuracy) of shooting, which carries a huge spike at more advanced difficulty settings. NBA Live 15 judges a shot by the usual standards of ratings (the player being controlled) and user accuracy (their timing in releasing the shot). But it also adds in a very, very liberal measure of whether the shot is contested, to the point that even a shooter like 6-9 Kevin Durant is going to frequently miss if a defender is within two steps of him.

nba live 15 review screen 2

NBA Live 15 provides feedback on the timing of your shot, but only after you take it. Even then, there appears to be little difference between the success of a "slightly late" or "slightly early" shot and one with perfect timing that is defended. NBA Live 15 does not feature a meter or any other indicator to tell you when to release in the act of shooting. There's no meter to watch to the exclusion of everything else around the player. That would be a defensible choice, if it were supported better.

The window for successfully releasing the shot isn't even tied to the player's shooting animation (that window narrows as the difficulty level is increased). That does directly address one of the biggest problems NBA Live 14 had, in which superstars had signature release times (Stephen Curry: very early; teammate Klay Thompson: much later) and users had to blunder their way through finding them. Still, Live 14 would also flash the player indicator when you did time your shot perfectly; that visual cue is gone this year. And if a player animation isn't tied to the accuracy of a shot, then the one piece of visual information NBA Live 15 does provide, in the act of shooting, can lead you astray.

This puts a premium on creating and taking open shots, by running set plays or calling for a teammate to set a screen to scrape off a defender. It's harder to break down defenders with special ballhandling moves, but this is a good thing. Last year's AI would fall for anything, even the same move three straight times.

NBA Live 15 returns its Rewind (replay an entire game that took place in real life) and Big Moments (a quicker mode that has you repeating some amazing feat) along with an Ultimate Team mode and Live Season, which is essentially a play-now mode using any of the games on this year's real-life NBA schedule. Online play saw no connectivity problems, but realize this was sampled before the game's launch, and its population will still be a lot smaller than the competition's. The bread and butter are the two no-frills career modes controlling an entire team or a single player. You'll have to make up most of the story of the season for yourself. Neither the in-game commentary nor the mode's menus provide much context beyond what you did in your most recent game.

nba live 15 review screen tall

Rising Star is the more enjoyable of the two, provided you choose the right player. A power forward or a shooting guard (particularly with automatic playcalling turned on) is going to have a better time than a point guard, and when you're a lower-rated player early in your career, you're more able to step outside of the pure-scorer role than in NBA 2K15's MyCareer. Both your teammates and the opposition still have a tendency to wait until very late in the 24-second shot clock to initiate a play. But unlike last year's Rising Star, they do act independently, and don't require the user to call set plays, even if he is in a role that doesn't call them (like a center).

Also, Rising Star is smarter about handling your requests to be passed the ball. Last year, any time you pressed X/A they threw it to you, even the length of the court. I still saw some of that in Big Moments (where the focus is entirely on one player) but in Rising Star, I've had teammates rightly ignore my call for a pass as they drove to the basket, and you wouldn't believe what a difference that makes.

Wrap Up:

NBA Live 15 isn't bad, but it's hard to love

Like an obstreperous child, NBA Live 15 is not bad, but it can be hard to love. Its real impact will have to be measured later, in the bar it sets for successive editions and whether they clear that. With no truly fair comparison to make, this is the last time NBA Live can claim credit for fulfilling basic obligations. But at least it no longer plays or looks like an experiment gone wrong.

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