The NBA Live franchise has a daunting task in front of it. NBA 2K has dominated the NBA video game market, much like Madden has dominated the NFL video game market for the better part of a decade. 2K fans are passionate and loyal. It’s going to take a lot for that fanbase to switch teams.
In some ways, NBA Live has done this to themselves. The list of debacles here are nearly endless. There was the NBA Elite cancellation. Then there was the on-again, off-again nature of their release schedule. It hasn’t felt like a competition, if we’re being honest, until now. NBA Live 18 is good, and that’s a win for basketball fans everywhere.
NBA Live 18 introduces a couple of really smart new gameplay mechanics. EA Sports has somehow managed to make defense fun. No, really. It almost works like a mix between Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero. When you’re playing on-ball defense, an arrow indicator will flash when the offensive players makes a move in any direction, and if you react in time, you’ll stuff the drive attempt, opening up the opposing player for a steal or deflection. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s fun. It makes you feel like you’re doing something, and can have a tangible impact on any given possession defensively.
Offensively, NBA Live introduced a new shot meter that doesn’t appear groundbreaking at first glance, and it’s certainly not the first shot meter to appear in an NBA video game, but it might just be the most satisfying. If you time the shot meter right, it’ll glow green, and the satisfaction of knowing a shot is likely going in before you see it go in is very reminiscent of real basketball. Sometimes a shot just feels good, and when you land a perfect on NBA Live’s shot meter, you’ll get a rush similar to when you’re playing real ball and you know a shot is going in before you see it drop. The meter is both easy to see while basketball is happening on screen, and discrete enough that is doesn’t distract you from the action. It just works.
The gameplay isn’t perfect. Some animations are a little funky, and the ball can bounce around on passes in an unrealistic manner. Overall, the control scheme is pretty simple. Simplicity isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re looking for deeper basketball experience you might be a little disappointed. It worked for me, and I feel comfortable saying this is the best NBA Live has ever felt on the court.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing NBA 2K throughout the years, and when you’re that deep into 2K basketball, you almost forget that they don’t have any broadcast affiliation. You don’t miss it because there wasn’t a competitive alternative that had it. That isn’t the case this year, and NBA Live’s utilization of the NBA on ESPN presentation, from commentary, to bumper music, to replay graphics, to the addition of Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman in The One mode, everything from a presentation perspective is excellent. Much like real-life NBA games feel bigger when they are on ESPN or TNT, NBA Live games feel more important because they have the ESPN dressing.
I have nothing in my review notes about the WNBA options in NBA Live, and that is an accurate representation of how NBA Live treats the WNBA. All you can really do with the WNBA teams is play. There is no franchise, or season. You can’t even play against other WNBA fans online. It’s nice that NBA Live 18 has the WNBA in here, but it’s hard to take it as anything more than an afterthought.
The One, NBA Live’s answer to NBA 2K18’s MyCareer mode, is totally fine if that’s the kind of video game basketball experience you’re looking for. My issue with both The One and MyCareer is that I just don’t like controlling one player. I’d much prefer taking control of an entire team, managing substitution patterns, calling plays, timeouts, and the strategy of video game basketball. You can’t do that when you’re controlling one player, and the A.I. in NBA Live 18 wasn’t spectacular enough to change my opinion.
With that being said, I’ll applaud EA Sports for how they presented the early parts of The One. Like I mentioned earlier, the First Take analysis is nice dressing, and the introductory videos for different pickup locations like Rucker Park, or Drew League, are really well-made.
Improving your player and unlocking new gear doesn’t feel like a grind. You’ll constantly be unlocking new gear, gaining access to new skills, and improving your attributes. If you’re into this kind of mode, there is plenty of fun to be had here, but it just wasn’t for me.
Where NBA Live struggles is in its franchise and Ultimate Team modes. There isn’t anything compelling or out of the ordinary going on here. If you’ve played one of EA Sports’ Ultimate Team modes in the past, you know exactly what to expect, and NBA Live 18’s franchise mode is pretty barebones when compared to NBA 2K18’s offerings.
On the whole, it feels as though NBA Live went light on different modes in favor of beefing up their gameplay, and that approach makes a lot of sense. You can have all the interesting modes in the world, but if the game isn’t fun to play, none of that matters. Fortunately for EA Sports, NBA Live 18 is fun to play.
This installment of the NBA Live franchise is definitely something worth building on. Here’s to hoping EA sticks with Live this go-around, and doesn’t take any more years off. If NBA Live is good, it’ll only push NBA 2K to be better. Competition is a good thing regardless of which game you support, and with NBA Live 18, we’re finally on the cusp of real competition.