NBA Live has been a nonentity for the better part of a decade. But NBA Live 18 seems to be a stable, enjoyable and accessible basketball game that represents progress for EA Sports’ basketball simulation, and takes meaningful steps away from a beleaguered reputation.
That does not mean NBA 2K18 is facing a head-on challenge yet. NBA Live 18 has some big flaws, especially in the franchise mode, where it shows that the development team placed its highest priority on “The One,” the single-player career supported by a modest story layer as the created player breaks into the league.
But that mode makes some shrewd choices that highlight some differences between NBA 2K’s behemoth MyCareer suite that hoops fans should appreciate.
The dirty secret about the NBA 2K franchise is it’s a hard game if you’re not constantly refreshing your memory with it. That RAM fills up fast from a dizzying list of discrete ballhandling commands. This is where NBA Live 18 does the most to help itself as an alternative, with a simpler set of ball-handling controls that make it easier to create space, go to the basket and finish. While basketball lifers may not get what the fuss is, lapsed or less dedicated players easily lost in complicated control systems should have an easier time getting into NBA Live 18, if they can forgive the occasional jerky animation.
The controls also make a sensible use of a shot meter, something NBA Live had trouble with when it returned to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2013. That now feels like it has turned a corner, too. The goal is still to release the ball at the top of one’s motion, but I found that to be more deterministic than it was in NBA Live 16. It also feels faster, which feeds back into a faster-paced offense that let me strike the instant I got free, rather than having my defender frequently catch up to me in the act of shooting.
The meter is color coded and that gives the user a clearer idea of the difficulty of a shot (and also how well they are defended). Hitting the top of the meter in the green usually guarantees a made shot. Not always, especially for longer range shots (and if the player is not a good three point shooter), I had more understanding of why shooting works and, therefore, had more fun in pulling up and hoisting one as much as slamming and jamming.
There is also a new on-the-ball defensive mechanism that borrows a rock-paper-scissors concept from fighting games and gives the user a means of playing active defense without spamming the leap or steal buttons. However, this system had me staring too much at the other player’s feet, looking for the arrow indicating where he would go, because raw speed is a lot more effective at getting around a player now. Countering a move will bump the ballhandling player and even open a window were a steal is possible, if the counter is timed perfectly. There’s plenty of forgiveness to let the user make the steal though (at standard modes of difficulty), and it looked a little weird the first couple of times, as if the player I had countered was waiting for me to press the steal button.
The controls are understandable and fun and well suited for The One, which is where the game wanted me to spend most of my time as a shooting guard. Once I had confidence in myself it was kind of surprising to see how much the game opened up to me, particularly with dunking, something I’ve accomplished mainly by accident in the past. I did feel like I was spending a lot of time waiting for AI teammates in The One to get free, and they’re not the most diligent of offensive rebounders, either. But The One includes cooperative play with other humans, in the Live Run mode making that less of a worry.
EA Sports also made a good choice in making the skills tree in The One microtransaction-free. The crate system, with a currency specific to it, is where cosmetic items are found, meaning players can build up a player with experience points earned during play and not have to worry about wearing the same generic getup in the street ball games. The One gives a lot of attention to summer leagues at some of amateur basketball’s iconic locations, like Seattle Pacific University, or Los Angeles’ Drew League. With these leagues taking on more intrigue in the offseason, this was another smart decision to give some depth to the pro-am story. It’s where NBA Live 18 stands out the most.
NBA 2K has had a streetball layer to its MyCareer suite but its large playgrounds are fictitious. By integrating The Streets with The League, the user has more to do with their created player to round out an emergent personality for him. I didn’t do so hot in my draft order in the preamble leading into The One. After getting taken in the low teens, I put in time in these pro-am games to make my player more useful in the League, instead of riding the bench and getting fewer minutes than I wanted.
Unfortunately, it appears as though The One got all of the love, leaving new inclusions like the WNBA with not much more than the bare minimum of treatments. Commentary for the WNBA games does not even use the team names (or if it does, I never heard it) much less the players’, making that seem like more of a last-minute inclusion than a video gaming milestone. Like women’s teams in its FIFA cousin, the 12 WNBA teams are limited to a play-now mode.
A staple mode like Franchise is also given short shrift. Managing players isn’t all that interesting unfortunately, as it just doesn’t feel like I was part of a living breathing league when I didn’t see any CPU-controlled teams making a trade in a quick simulation to test that out. Injuries also seem to occur only during simulated games rather than live play. Some basketball fans will find it particularly unacceptable that there is no way to edit players in Franchise. There is an Ultimate Team mode but it is also a rather stock affair, head-to-head multiplayer and single-player games against a CPU and no specialty mode, like the quick draft games seen in Madden and FIFA.
NBA Live 18 is best for a very personal brand of basketball, focusing on a created superstar and the moves that make him stand out in a game that skews more toward individual play than teamwork.
But the spare treatment given to the rest of the big modes of play make this a pick-up-and-play basketball game that walks the line of being arcadey in some spots. Those who enjoy player management and building out teams will not find much to love in NBA Live 18, but at least the gameplay is solid throughout, and fans can actually talk about what this game can expand on next year without wondering if there will be a next year.