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NBA Live 19 - Joel Embiid and squad in The Ones career mode

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NBA Live 19 saves EA’s troubled series with a fantastic playground

The One and The Streets mode make NBA Live 19 a game fans and newcomers alike should try

EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

For the first time in a decade, NBA Live deserves to have a review all to itself, with no comparisons to you-know-who, nor reminders of you-know-what.

That’s because NBA Live 19, thanks to smoother gameplay and a thoroughly enjoyable career suite, has an identity. It’s not the salvage operation for you-know-what or the acknowledged subordinate to you-know-who. It’s a very fun, high-spirited take on basketball as a game and the sport itself as a lifestyle. The gameplay perfectly suits the street ball and pro-am scene that distinguishes NBA Live 19. Before launch day, it’s a success on its own, not in light of past failures or as a runner-up.

Basketball is not my best sport, so it has been a long time since a video game of this kind has kept me up until 2 a.m.; that’s the best testimonial I can give for NBA Live 19 and The One, its career mode. This year, there’s an extra layer in developing a player that gives them more individuality and usefulness. And The Streets — with all of its optional rule sets, 3-on-3 and 5-on-5 variants, and locations tied to street ball lore — is again NBA Live’s go-to strength and a worthy career experience by itself.

I attribute the coalescing of the series’ various parts to the introduction of Real Player Motion — EA Sports being EA Sports, it loves putting buzzy names on its refinements. But with RPM, it seems like NBA Live has cleared the last hurdle in delivering a fundamentally sound game that doesn’t jar the player with rough animations or laborious movement. NBA Live 19’s players move a lot more freely; they’re not as stiff, heavy and jerky as last year. The motion improvements are best seen by using the right stick, which now sends an off-the-ball player on a cut to the basket or the perimeter. There is a little bit of stickiness in that players will get suctioned into collisions or tangles with their defender, which keeps me mindful to keep moving or make another cut. But in 3-on-3 games of The Streets, the action is delightfully wide open and fast-paced.

NBA Live 19 is slowly but smartly building on its WNBA partnership

You can have a great time in NBA Live 19 without ever playing an NBA league game. That’s important because while women are, for the first time, creatable within the single-player career, they don’t have a WNBA career like the men have with the NBA. (It seems an obvious inclusion especially with the rest of the league in the game, but it wasn’t present when WNBA teams and players were introduced last year, either.) For now, becoming a globe-trotting pro-am star is the most interesting part of The One, male or female. And the co-stars, both NBA and WNBA, whom I encountered and brought into my crew added the necessary variety and incentive to go for one more game of 21.

NBA Live 19 - female player in The One
Women aren’t just created players in NBA Live 19’s The One — they’ll show up as teammates and competitors, too.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Mixed-gender competition isn’t some conspicuous or performative thing in NBA Live 19, either. The taller women can dunk, sure, but the shorter ones can get into some eye-popping mismatches, and any player, regardless of gender, used outside of their strength is going to have problems. (I put in Iman Shumpert to give me some defense in a game that gave an accuracy bonus to quick shooters, and still found him bricking almost all of his shots.) A game involving women and men simply looks like ball being run at any Y or college gym where high-level players are playing hard and sparing nothing. That means, occasionally, flattening 5’9” Sue Bird with a hard screen from my created 6’7” forward.

In basketball careers where only one player is controlled (which is most of The One), I tend to play at the wing, having poor court vision for passing and a bad command of post-specific controls. In NBA Live 19, players can now pick a path within their larger archetype. A wing scorer role, for example, can be created as a three-point specialist (my female star) or someone better at shooting in traffic (my taller guy). Both can still finish at the rim. They handled beautifully at their expertise, even at lower overall ratings. Outside of those skills, I was quickly reminded of their limitations.

NBA Live 19 makes the grind fun with over-the-top, unpredictable rules

The variety of competitors and teammates is best on display in Court Battles, a new mode that won me over when I finally tried it after a few days. Users name and personalize a custom gym, stock it with a starting lineup from their list of stars, and then set the home rules, game requirements (roster limitations, basically) and the strategy your bot team will use against a human player. There are dozens of these parameters, most of them locked at the outset. The rule variations were most amusing, like blocks and dunks counting for five points (the “Clash of the Titans” game you see often when just starting out) or baskets counting less the closer they’re shot. Then users invade others’ gyms in offline competition versus AI-controlled opponents, while hoping that the lineups and rules they’ve set at home can defend it. Whenever I signed in to NBA Live 19 for the first time that day, I started with Court Battles to check on my gym and collect my hype reward for its defense.

Because XP and “hype” (a reputation rank that affords some unlockable items as levels are passed) are accrued in all modes of play, Court Battles was a way for me to rank up a player without feeling like I was grinding through game after game of a tour or NBA schedule. Progression comes very quickly in The One. Players still have to put in good games, take good shots and make smart decisions, but with a little focus this is not difficult. While the acquisition of traits, attributes and signature skills is all linear, the player archetype and signature style that a user selects early on take the place of specializing within a skills tree.

NBA Live 19 - Paris court in The Streets: World Tour
The pro-am portion of The One has been expanded into The Streets: World Tour.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Player development also highlights one of NBA Live 19’s virtues. Anything a user unlocks or acquires is usable by all of their created players in The One (a user may have up to five). They likewise contribute to and share in the same “hype” pool and goal-based skills (making a certain number of assists, or pick-and-roll baskets to rank up a trait or perk available to their player type). And that folds into another tremendous courtesy to the user: no microtransactions in The One. Gear, teammates and other customizations (including tattoos) are all either unlockable rewards or acquired with the free currency earned by gameplay. I was piling up enough currency naturally, and unlocking cosmetics and players by advancing in hype and level, that I never felt like I was grinding for loot or missing out on a new look.

NBA Live 19 somehow makes social media fun again

My exploits in The One were wrapped with a fictitious social media presentation that’s the best I’ve seen since sports video games started faking tweets about five years ago. Instagram hypemen and basketbloggers will show up after a big game to tout your player’s scoring or triumph over a big-name star, with highlights from that game threaded into the full-motion video. The super casual, filmed-in-my-bathroom quality of the updates fits with the theme of a baller’s fame spreading by word of mouth, and so being a social media playground legend is as meaningful as a being an NBA All-Star. And again, knowing these highlights were coming kept me playing as much as the reward of a new set of sneakers or a skill point.

However, the novelty of the presentation within The One seems to highlight how other staple modes received mostly marginal attention. They just don’t have the presentational support or play incentives baked in like The One. Franchise has some technical changes and inclusions that modestly improve the usability (things like simulating individual games, or getting a preview of the upcoming draft class during the season). But the broadcast presentation (irrelevant to a game in The Streets) is a voice-over only, with some ESPN graphics tossed in. At least now commentators Ed Cohen and Jay Williams (new to the game) refer to players by name when playing a WNBA game (which is still a one-off game only; no franchise or even a playoff mode). Ultimate Team is still little more than a placeholder, especially when compared to something like the Ultimate Team adaptation of EA Sports UFC 3.

NBA Live 19 - skill upgrades in The One
Signature skills help further differentiate a player’s development and give them a greater sense of individuality.
EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

NBA Live 19’s gameplay, while on the whole sound and enjoyable, has shortcomings that could use some post-release polish — passing in particular. The jittery targeting of the auto-pass AI made it hard for me to run a fast break or an uptempo offense, as it usually hit the closest player and not the one who had beaten the transition defense. Variants like lobs and bounce passes take an extra button press and seemingly have to be done from a standstill (although I did occasionally see a contextual bounce pass without hitting that command). Icon-specific passing requires a user to hold a bumper button, making for some pretzel fingered inputs. This should be a toggle, with icons staying up for two or three seconds.

But the gameplay shortcomings can still be overcome with patience and focused decision-making. The flashes of brilliance I do get — cutting to a catch-and-release jumper; driving and finding the big man behind the defense for a thunderous jam, or Maya Moore curling off a screen for a wide-open dagger — are worth a bland but functional mode this year, or bare minimum broadcast commentary.

The real fun of NBA Live 19 is out in The Streets, with my new friends from two different leagues, fitting together their styles with my star’s, and then running that back all the way to 2 a.m.