The NBA Live franchise is back, and goes head to head with 2K’s NBA 2K18. A foolish move, or just a bold one? The game is out for Xbox One and PS4 – we tested the latter version of NBA Live 18.
NBA Live 18 is actually the first NBA Live title I’ve played in years. It was my go-to basketball game back in the nineties, during which I even bought the cd-rom version of NBA Live 96 for MS-DOS – which is when the series first went with a 3D graphics engine. The console version still had an isometric viewpoint though, but this is the Sega Genesis/Megadrive and SNES generation we’re talking about.
In the past ten years or so, 2K has firmly taken over the basketball genre – and the lukewarm reception that NBA Live’s first current-gen games received wasn’t helping. When NBA Live 17 was cancelled, I thought that that might have been it – but EA announced the series would be back a year later. Here it is, and… as skeptical as many were, NBA Live 18 is actually a quality game well worth considering.
We got out first hunch that the new NBA Live was going to be pretty decent during Gamescom. EA wasn’t promoting it heavily over there (it’s an EU-based convention, after all), but did offer hands-on time with the game. The demo booths seemed to be manned whenever we saw them, and people seemed to be enjoying what they played. Playing a few games ourselves made it clear why – NBA Live 18 is basketball like people see it on TV, but more accessible in “pick up and play” way than NBA 2K is.
A casual game of NBA 2K is something that’s difficult to achieve at all but the easiest of difficulty settings. The main reason for this is not some kind of imbalance on the game’s part, but rather the intricate way in which ball handling and tactical setups are handled. It takes time to learn – a ton of time, and it’s extremely rewarding when things start coming together. For the more casual NBA fan, however, it’s hard to jump in and compete against the higher difficulty levels or more experienced human opponents.
NBA Live 18 takes a simplified approach to ball handling, with plenty of visual cues to help you master the game as best as the game allows you to. Getting off a perfect shot is a matter of letting go when your shot meter reaches the top – which is harder to do the further away from the basket you are when shooting. You’ll also see a color attached to the shot meter, which indicates how big your chances of making the shot are. This depends on how far away you are, but also on how open you are when taking the shot.
Defensive play is also visually aided, with arrows showing you where opponents are moving – giving you an indication of where you need to be in order to cut off their attack or even perform a steal. They are subtle in nature, but serve as an in-game tutorial system that you’ll stop (actively) looking at once you have more practice hours under your belt. This translated perfectly into the game’s main mode, dubbed “The One”, which is about your custom character’s journey towards and into the NBA.
In “The One”, you grow not just by learning the ropes, but you also unlock new skills and moves based on your performance. This includes moves modeled after a few real life stars, so once you get to their level you’ll be ready to compete. Before then, however, the amateur/college events that you join are also worth mentioning. Instead of generic pickup games, these are based on real-life locations that hold a lot of history for basketball fans – and the game is not afraid to emphasize this either. It gives extra depth to the story in “The One”, even though it’s not as flashy and meaty as we’ve seen in recent 2K approaches to a story mode.
What does add to the drama is that you’re likely to not be a starter for your team for quite a while. You’ll be brought in for small parts of the game, during which you’ll have to prove your worth and eventually prove that you’re ready to start a game. It’s a nice and natural kind of progression, that makes it clear that success shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Cosmetic upgrades can also be unlocked for players who enjoy giving their prospect a bit of a unique style, and there are game modes besides “The One” as well. NBA Live 18 even includes WNBA teams (FIFA made a similar move last year as well), and gives you the option to manage as well as well play in its franchise mode. Both of these are mainly functional in nature though, and relatively bare-bones.
In that sense, NBA Live 18 is mostly a strong foundation that future editions can build on. And that’s certainly something, since that foundation was missing for quite a few years. Starting with this year, basketball fans have a proper alternative to NBA 2K – especially if you’re looking to play a more accessible game of basketball that sits nicely between the sim that is NBA 2K and the arcade alternative that NBA Playgrounds provides.