NBA Live is a beloved franchise bathed in the most scathing gamer disappointment this side of Call of Duty. So maybe that comparison isn’t really apples to oranges, but the truth of the matter is that the gaming community wants it to return to glory. While CoD hasn’t truly had a competitor knock it off the throne, NBA Live has been in an almost decade long dog house scratching its way back to prominence thanks to the NBA 2K franchise.

As with any game franchise that is annual, hardcore gamers will scrutinize everything from graphics to number of modes announced during the pre-release stage of a highly anticipated game. Even when beta’s or demos are released, they must be considered with a wary eye given the total or finished package isn’t what is being sampled. So when I got my hands on the NBA Live 18 demo, I was cautiously optimistic but wasn’t really expecting much. My resulting impression was better than expected.

Bar none, when you are playing a sports game, the ease of grasping the control scheme, the CPU AI, and the ‘nature of the animation’ are critical. When I say ‘nature of the animation’, I’m speaking of whether special animation sequences like dunks, passes, special dribbling moves, and the like force you to finish the animation before you can either cancel it with another move or change it up slightly to avoid something. So when I played the demo, these areas were of particular concern. Thankfully, nothing horrific or unforgivable stood out as a problem.

One key element of gameplay had me intrigued off the top. Playing defense against a dribbler is not impossible or unforgivably challenging. Casual players of NBA 2K will find that the learning curve of playing on ball defense is relatively high. This is a part of NBA Live 18’s gameplay that was VERY welcome to see.

On the flip side, the timing of when to initiate moves like rebounds, dribbles, or even the shot bar felt a bit slow in response to my controller. This kind of forced me to initiate the release or the move a bit earlier than felt natural in my opinion. Still, I just chalked this up to different controls than the 2K standard timing which has to be learned. Also, this feeling is something that even 2K regularly has an issue with but is typically improved with patches.

 

Despite being pleased with the controls and graphics, this wasn’t what ultimately made me consider pre-ordering it. Instead, the demo provided a healthy dose of what their create a player mode called The One was to be like. Built up in press releases and trailers as an action RPG kind of mode, The One places your character into a position related (Guard, Wing, or Big) role (stretch four, slasher, post anchor, scorer, defender, etc.). From there, you are played up as a prospect looking to play their way from a bad injury into the nba. You have your street ball career as well as your NBA career. This street ball career allows you to play against the CPU as well in order to build your character into a super star. This differs from the 2K strategy in that your created player ONLY plays against the CPU in the NBA team games primarily. The My Park and Pro Am modes are online multiplayer modes. Pro Am will have some CPU opponents but that is only if players drop out of the game primarily.

Based upon your selected role, you can only upgrade 2-4 attributes for your star player. Beyond that, you can select and upgrade 2-4 ‘traits’. These traits look to operate much like the badge system does in 2K. They greatly affect the success of specific situation like ‘catch and shoot’ or ‘pick n roll success’. Still, where 2K allows you to earn as many badges as you can grind your way towards, Live looks to force you to only allow for 4 traits to be active at one time despite being able to earn numerous. Not certain if this is a good or bad thing as of yet.

Also, we live in the gaming days of loot and NBA Live delivers. Having different outfits and shoes apparently affects attributes and so on. While this is included in the game, it should be made more clear what boost is provided and more aspects of gameplay should be affected. Boosts like additional buzz or XP earned, slower stamina reduction, quicker injury recovery, and so on should be thrown into the mix. This feature works wonders for the Injustice 2 fighting game community so using it here should also extend how long players return to the game as well.

While this mode may shine in providing the most curiosity in gamers, nuances like CPU AI, depth of mode choices (Ultimate team, Franchise), and other things probably still lag behind 2K’s dominance. While this may seem like nitpicking, these details are what extend the game’s lifespan with fans. NBA 2K’s options, in-game adjustment AI, and regular MyPark and MyTeam events and challenges keep players coming back for more and more up until the next year’s release.

Here’s things NBA Live will need to do in order to sniff the success that 2K is seeing with their franchise.

–    Ball physics, pass realism and ease, in-game AI adjustments to player tactics, and controller response timing need to be greatly improved

–    Animation needs to be a LOT smoother and more realistic in MANY situations.

–    WNBA players and teams need to be accessible in ALL modes (franchise, Ultimate Team)

–    Female create a player option for a bit of coed street ball games as well as WNBA themed The One should be available

–    Continued expansion of usable historic teams and players (different versions of the same legends) should be explored

–    Some mechanic where player attributes will go down should be introduced to limit the number of 99 rated players online (difficult to do without angering hardcore players)

–    Some mechanic that keeps you from being a 90+ rated player your first year of NBA yet doesn’t penalize you for simulating games (easier to play a career rather than just one or two seasons)

–    Remake history mode where you take control of your fav historic or current NBA player from their rookie year and play a similar styled ‘The One’ mode with them (control their progression) – can start from current season or from that player’s actual draft season.

–    A robust coaching/gm sim mode that has a simplified single game simulation that is actually fun to play rather than just watching numbers change (maybe card based?)

–    Groups or clans within the multiplayer space should be added in a way where it isn’t just the size of one team. Getting everyone online at the same time is difficult so having a clan that is associated with an NBA team (there can be multiple) with 20+ people per clan would be better. That way more clan/team vs clan/team online games can be done without deferring to always recruiting whatever random online person is dropped in the game.

–    Player AI should learn how a player uses their team so that an offline version can be used in online leagues. This would speed up seasons for leagues that have a lot of casual players.

More can be done but this is just a start. NBA Live has a rich history of displaying the prowess of EA Sports development team. They may have lost their way in the past but the gaming public is always hungry for quality competition.

For those that are impressed with the free demo, they’ll be happy to know that all of their demo progress will be carried over to the full version when it releases on Sept 15th. Also, pre-ordering now will take advantage of a 33% off discount on the release price of $59.99.

Let’s see what the full NBA Live 18 and its ongoing patches have to offer!