It never feels good to go into a game with low expectations. When you offer to review a game, you generally want it to be good, if for no reason other than the fact that you don’t want to spend hours banging your head against the wall playing a terrible game. In recent memory, however, the NBA Live franchise has given basketball fans everywhere a lot more aggrevating moments than anything else. After years of vibrant competition with the 2K series, around the turn of the decade, NBA Live took a considerable nosedive in terms of the quality that the franchise had to offer. While it’s always been a hope of mine that the series would rebound in a substantial way, I never expected the series to live up to its full potential. That was until this year’s game.
NBA Live 18 is far from a perfect basketball simulation. The gameplay is a little slow and too methodical at times. Animations and player models aren’t the best in the world. The career mode feels rushed and pretty underwhelming but, despite all of this, NBA Live 18 is a foundation for what the series can build upon moving forward.
To start, gameplay has been revamped to make it more accessible and fluid than ever before. While saying something feels next-gen could be viewed as too little too late (especially in 2017), Live’s control schemes are more streamlined than ever, allowing for more freedom on the court than the game has had in years. The shot meter isn’t as intrusive as past iterations of the game, making the court feel less compressed than it did with the gaudy meter from the last two entries in the series. While these things might be all quality of life changes (which individually aren’t revolutionary), when they are viewed together, they add a lot to improve the user experience tremendously.
The new on-the-ball defensive mechanic is fantastically implemented, and adds another layer to defense that basketball sims haven’t ever really nailed. I no longer found myself constantly spamming the steal button, but instead I was looking to body up my man and force them to pick up their dribble. This little change makes every possession feel much more active, and gives you more tools when it comes to defending, constantly keeping you more engaged.
The biggest hole in NBA Live 18 however, is its incredibly by-the-numbers story mode which does little to move the needle in terms in regards to what it has to offer. The story mode, titled “The One”, tells the trite tale of an underdog making his way into the league after an injury, which is about as safe a narrative as developer EA Tiburon could play it. The mode consists of your player facing off against NBA ballers who just so happen to be playing pickup games at Rucker Park and Venice Beach, which is just as cheesy as it sounds. These gameplay encounters are made even worse by being interspersed by unnecessarily loud breakouts of ESPN’s First Take with Steven A. Smith and Max Kellerman, both of whom perfectly encapsulate all of the obnoxiousness that First Take usually has on display. Generally, the game’s story is quite a letdown and simply needs to do more in order to compete with the likes of 2K, FIFA and Madden.
The one thing that did make it over from NBA Live 16 is the series’ fantastic presentation, which features wall-to-wall coverage from ESPN, including real-to-life layouts, presentation, highlights and announcing. Although not as robust as the NBA 2K series, the commentary, featuring the ESPN’s Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, is serviceable enough to not break the illusion of the broadcast, even if it does, at times, occasionally drift into uncanny valley territory.
The last huge addition is the introduction of WNBA teams; a first for the series. Much like in FIFA’s introduction of women’s international teams, it’s nice to see the inclusion of women’s sports into the genre, as they add another layer to what is a very male-dominated sport. Nevertheless, WNBA integration is far from feature complete. While the inclusion of the likes of Britney Griner and Maya Moore in head-to-head games is nice, their absence from every other aspect of the game leaves a little to be desired. Whether it’s a separate story mode, or adding the ability to play a full WNBA season, NBA Live 18 doesn’t quite hit the mark when it comes to integrating women’s teams into the base game, and instead, leaves them feeling like a missed opportunity.
When it’s all said and done, NBA Live 18 isn’t going to be hailed as a modern classic in the sports game genre; it’s no NFL 2K5, MVP Baseball or NHL 94, by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, it does lay a foundation for the series to begin competing again with the 2K franchise. With improved animations, player models and gameplay tweaks, along with its diversification through the addition of WNBA teams, Live has pulled itself up off the hardwood and gotten itself back into the game. In what has been a bad year for the 2K franchise, this year could mark the revival of a dormant rivalry between the two series.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Electronic Arts.
While NBA Live 18 doesn't reinvent the basketball sim, it creates a foundation to give the series a second chance within the already competitive genre.