NBA Live has put me on a limb before, one I swore to God I wouldn’t shimmy out on again.
Five years ago, in a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, I thought I saw something good. I didn’t. It remains my greatest professional shame. The game was canceled two months later. NBA Live’s failures and fits and starts since have stalked my career writing about sports video games, going back to a pitiful demonstration at E3 2010. NBA Live will take your trust by the wrist, turn your back and plunge a knife into your kidneys. It’ll come to your home and make promises to your face. It’ll ditch its console launch date and hide out on mobile, like it did for all of 2016.
Still, I can’t quit it.
After playing NBA Live 18’s demo, I still get the feeling that the franchise has turned a corner. Yes, again. Maybe not as a competitor to NBA 2K the way Pro Evolution Soccer is to EA Sports’ FIFA behemoth. But it’s something with enough guts in it that announcing next year’s edition shouldn’t be a seat-of-the-pants decision before the January investors' meeting.
There is a reasonable, understandable and very playable game here, especially against NBA 2K’s complicated, pretzel-fingered expectations of player control, and it’s centered on a career mode distinguished more by life outside the NBA than in it. Pair that with 12 WNBA teams and, if the gameplay holds up as it did for me at a preview event last week, you could see a legitimate alternative come Sept. 15.
“The one-more-chance pitch,” says Mike Mahar, a senior producer on a franchise that seems to have run out of them, “is we’ve spent the last two years working on the core mechanics, addressing issues that players have brought up — both 2K fans, and our own. We’ve tested and repeated that process. We’ve made a pretty good game, and we’ve got some compelling new ways to play that are different.”
Most noticeable in my playthrough was the utility of the right stick, symbolizing a player’s hands, paired with the left, his feet. This synthesis has been a goal of NBA Live going back to the days it was called NBA Elite, and is taken from similar control schemes in EA Sports’ NHL series.
It was tough to judge its true effectiveness; in NBA Live since 2013, making any special move is often good enough to let you blow by a defender. Razzle-dazzle moves are still necessary to get to the rim in a one-on-one situation, but at least there’s a genuine feeling of moving a player’s feet with one stick and executing useful switches, hesitations and crossovers with the other.
NBA Live 18’s career mode draws heavily on role-playing games and shooters for its system of customizing players and equipping them for a game. Within “The Rise,” players can expect to equip two talents for their games on The Streets. This loadout can be different for The League — i.e., games in the NBA played by the career player.
As soon as it became available in the career mode, I bought the skill that gave my created player a step-back jump shot. This skill’s availability depends on player type. But for those who choose a scoring role, it should be ready early, and it’s a must, as it creates a lot of space between you and a defender. I’m not pretending to discover Atlantis here, but the package worked as expected, and was even deadlier with the on-screen shot meter letting me know when to release the ball. Shooting at the top of the meter is always optimal. It’s still subject to player ratings. This was apparent with my created player having a terrible attribute from three-point distance and bricking most anything from there, regardless of how I did with the shooting meter.
The best new gameplay introduction is a defense system that makes playing active defense fun and understandable without spamming the steal or block/jump keys. It also gives a human player on offense opportunities against other humans. That’s good, as when I played against the CPU, I would sit out on the perimeter waiting for my teammates to make picks or cuts, and rarely saw anyone do anything other than post up or stick a hand in the air on the wing.
“It’s mapped after, basically, a fighting game,” Mahar said of NBA Live 18’s defense system. “If I go left and you go left, you’ll bump me. But if I go left, you go left, and I quickly cross over and you still go left, I might get an ankle-breaker.”
In NBA Live 18, user-controlled defenders will see an arrow light up beneath their feet. That indicates the direction their man is going. Match that in time, and it can open up a window (represented by a solid green arrow) that allows the user to make a steal; the ability to pull it off is still subject to a user’s rating.
“We started with the concept of ‘why should defense on the perimeter be fun?’” Mahar said. “And then we watched people play. And we heard what they said. They said ‘Yeah, when I’m playing defense in my career, I’m mostly guarding off-ball, because this is hard to do, and it’s not that fun.’” Thus came the new defense system, to make that fun.
I made a couple of steals off low-rated ball-handlers in the early portion of The Rise in this way. The new defense mechanism gives users something clear and understandable to do, instead of swat at someone dribbling the ball or leap in the air as soon as he’s taking a shot.
The Rise is where anyone playing NBA Live 18’s demo should spend most of their time, and not only because progress carries over to the full game for anyone who decides to buy it. The Rise develops an understanding of the low-leveled player someone creates, which may vary from their expectations going in. I created a “wing-scorer” hybrid model for my player, then quickly realized the wing had little to do with my scoring — I was expected to go to the rim and finish there. Other hybrid types are available, helping the player step out of the traditional roles of distributor, pivot and shooter, so that they can be a big man with range or a scoring point guard. But once you settle on a role, The One will hold you to it and grade your performance accordingly.
The most burdensome part of The One isn’t really the performance expectations loaded onto the player — even a terrible player is going to go to some team in the first round. It’s the full-motion video interludes of Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman from ESPN’s First Take (ESPN’s broadcast package is licensed into NBA Live 18). Props to both, they argue about the trivialities surrounding a fictitious player as much as they do for athletes in real life. But after two unskippable minutes of this stuff I remembered why I don’t watch their program.
The career suite of The One straddles two modes of play: The League and The Streets, and the player can equip talents for both areas, similar to a loadout in an FPS. Because The Rise is all about reaching the NBA, all of the player’s time will be spent on The Streets in the demo. A dizzying system of multiple currencies unwraps the player’s new toys — dunk packages, clothing, hairstyles and the like. It was hard for me to tell if I’d earned enough XP to buy one of these crates, or if I’d passed the XP barrier that made the crate available to buy. Conversation choices will also give the player the option of acquiring XP or a crate on the spot. Plainly, this is is part of NBA Live 18’s long-term monetization strategy.
Some of the buffs available to the user — through a skills tree that can’t be bought out like the more cosmetic crates — do confer a teammate benefit, much like in an MMORPG. These can be still be tough to detect. But having an “intimidator” perk in a big man’s loadout can affect opponents’ shooting percentage just by standing on one of the blocks within a couple steps of a shooter.
Players can separate their loadouts, using one for The League (the NBA) and another for The Streets (pro-am tournaments and other unorganized online play), but the demo won’t advance a player far enough where this is meaningful. I suppose down the line I’ll see some talents that more reward one-on-one play. In the demo, everything is focused to street-ball play, under the conceit of improving your player’s stock in the draft. Once your player is drafted, the mode is done for this demo.
That NBA Live could even credibly introduce and address a player attribute system says plenty about where the game is now relative to its previous, often hurried releases. That said, its developers have had two years to work on new concepts and create a career mode different from the one in its nominal rival at 2K Sports. Players will more likely see a difference in playing summer-style pro-am games in The Drew League of Los Angeles, or Seattle Pacific University, or at Harlem's Rucker Park. Big-timers still show up in these competitions., but running ball in real locations other than a 20,000-seat mega-arena with lights and timeout dancers was a welcome change of pace and NBA Live 18’s most distinguishing feature.
NBA Live 18’s demo is available now through the PlayStation Store for PS4 and Xbox Live for Xbox One. The full game launches Sept. 15.