Fall Seven Times, Stand up Eight.
That was the slogan for a shoe advertisement for Miami Heat Chicago Bulls Impending free agent Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade. The message is simple: when you fail, get up and keep trying.
This adage applies to NBA Live 18, as the franchise tries to move on from being the laughing stock just a few years ago (remember Passion of the Bynum?), to return to its former glory days of pre-2K dominance. And Live 18 succeeds in making improvements; while the franchise is still a while away from being in the discussion for best basketball game of the year, the changes in this entry are dramatic.
This is most noticeable with character models. In the last few games players looked like caricatures, with Steph Curry and LeBron James resembling painted toy army men. This year's Live has made a huge leap in that department, and it's obvious with the intro video of cover athlete James Harden – beard and all – that the team at EA have worked hard to make it look as life-like as possible (although our own Steven Adams’ unusual ponytail makes him look like Khal Drogo more than ever).
Facial capture for character creation using the NBA Live app is also very solid. Faces captured are all quite accurate, without a need for perfect lighting or background. The app is only supported on newer versions of iOS and Android though, so users of older phones may not get the opportunity to fully customise their player.
Unfortunately not every graphical aspect has been perfected yet, as the occasional frame rate drops hamper the experience, particularly during cutscenes and replays. The gameplay’s fluidity feels off as well, when the game suddenly triggers a player's shooting or iso-motion animation, rather than a single organic movement.
Moving on to The One – the story-driven, custom player creation. EA has caught up their basketball game to their football equivalent in FIFA’s The Journey. As a highly-touted high schooler returning from a serious injury, you start off playing on the streets. The introduction of various pro-am leagues such as Rucker Park and Drew League, gives this mode a fresh perspective. You garner the attention of NBA teams during your college career off-screen, and depending on how you play, you get picked in the draft and kick off your NBA dream.
From here, your path can vary. You can spend a majority of your time playing in the league, or venture out to the renowned street leagues across the nation. Regardless of which path you take, achieving goals within each discipline will earn you hype, which earns you skill points, and currency to purchase gear with. With the street league emphasising personality, there are a lot of options to customise your player. You can't purchase items of your choosing though; instead they come in loot boxes, but the ease at which you earn currency makes this a non-issue.
The One mode separates ability traits of your created player, allowing you to mold two separate playing styles that suit both the professional and pro-am circuits. Earning traits and upgrading your player is simple, and sometimes feels a bit too easy, but the rate at which you earn credit is substantial and makes the progression curve surprisingly gentle.
What initially was a neat idea, soon became a head-scratcher: playing both the professional and street league modes concurrently. Most NBA players have a clause in their contract that prevents them from participating in non-league sanctioned events during the season, save for the super-duperstars (Michael Jordan, for example, had a “love of the game” clause that exempted him from this rule).
But while being able to switch between the two gives you freedom, it.certainly takes away from that authenticity of living a basketball player's life. It's a bit nit-picky of me, but I would prefer a singular story that allowed me to complete a season, then go play in the street leagues in the off-season, with a storyline developing over the course of these two disciplines.
Speaking of aspects that take away from authenticity, the commentary duo of Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy leaves a lot to be desired. In actual NBA games, Breen’s play-by-play commentary is contagious, while Van Gundy’s analysis and quips with third commentator Mark Jackson are inquisitive and cheeky. But in NBA Live, both are wooden, and none of Van Gundy’s humour comes through. On top of that, you'll find yourself hearing the same comments at least twice per game.
Many little quality of life improvements have been introduced in Live 18. Being able to see passing lanes and defensive assignments via an overlay minimizes unnecessary mistakes and creates smoother gameplay experiences. The controls are straightforward, yet react fast enough to keep up with opposing player movement. Small counters that remind you to inbound the ball or cross the half-court within the allotted time can be annoying, but handy. While the freestyle controls assigned to the right stick are still rudimentary, it’s getting better, and leaves room for growth.
Although it’s a minute addition in the grand scheme of the game, the introduction of the WNBA is significant, since this is the first time their teams have been playable in any basketball game.
I’ve seen many scoff at the idea of a so-called “inferior” basketball product being featured, but I welcome the idea. It gives kids who grow up watching the sport another platform to be invested in it, and the girls that have dreams of playing professionally can say, “Hey, I can grow up to play in the WNBA and be in a game!” – think Gianna Bryant, Kobe’s daughter, who has a killer push-off jumper like her old man.
Like FIFA and Madden, NBA has their Ultimate Team mode in Live. A mini-game based on card collecting and building the best team possible. The mode is lighter than the football (soccer) and football (gridiron) equivalent modes, but provides the same idea, even if it serves as a minor feature.
Online modes are really slim, with emphasis on The One mode street games being the meatiest. A lack of online franchise or league modes means there's plenty of room in that department to flesh out.
EA have a vested interest in seeing the NBA Live franchise land at the top of the basketball simulation sub-genre. While this year's iteration doesn’t quite get there, they’ve made a big enough leap for people to take notice, especially given the much lower price point than NBA 2K18.
Let's hope this is the final time the Live franchise needs to get up after being knocked down for so long.
Tony received a physical copy of NBA Live 18 from EA for review.