Games Review: NBA Live 18 (PS4, 2017) is a step forward for a series overshadowed by the competition

Do you remember the last time you played an entry in the NBA Live series? Me either. More or less off the radar for about a decade at this point, the series is back in the public eye this year with NBA Live 18, a basketball sim with a clear desire to leave the series’ average reputation behind.

Look, I want to be clear. NBA Live 18 isn’t going to have NBA 2K18 shaking in its stylish, designer trainers but it’s clearly been studying what it is about 2K’s basketball behemoth that works so well. There’s still plenty of flaws to be found in NBA Live 18 — the franchise mode in particular suffers due to an obvious focus on The One/The Streets single player mode. It’s the now-familiar sports game campaign that allows the player to ascend from small time to The Bigs with a thin story draped over the top for a bit of cohesion.

What interested me about The One was the admittedly very clever choices it makes to differentiate itself from NBA 2K‘s monolithic MyCareer mode.

What is understood, not really openly acknowledged  about NBA 2K is that it’s incredibly difficult if you aren’t playing it a lot. Its controls are complex and the list of ballhandling inputs can be measured in kilometres. NBA Live 18 seems to understand this because, in setting itself up as a viable alternative, it strips the inputs required for good ballhandling way back. This has the effect of making the game much more accommodating for players who prefer to jump in and jump out rather than dedicate hours to it every day. It’s easier to clear space on the court, it’s easier to move the ball down the court, it’s easier to score and it’s easier to capitalise on a bungled pass by your opponent to take possession.

EA’s strategy here couldn’t be clearer or more shrewd: Leave NBA 2K to the purists and the hardcore. NBA Live is for everyone else.

Returning is the shot meter mechanic, a bit wobbly when the series reappeared on PS4 and Xbox One in 2013 but feeling quite solid and accurate now. It’s colour-coded to help you better mark the quality of your shot, and the degree to which your shot is being defended. You still want to release that button when the meter hits the top of the bar, but it feels faster and the outcome far easier to predict. Green basically guarantees a basket. It’s more deterministic and I like that. All of this allows you to play an incredibly fast offensive game, making the most of any opportunity the moment you get away from your mark rather than having them show up to block you mid jump shot.

It’s not all about offence though, there’s plenty going on in the defensive game too. NBA Live 18 introduces a new on-the-ball mechanic that resembles rock-paper-scissors. What this means is that you can now actively defend and keep your wits about you without needing to lean on the steal or jump commands. What you’ll find yourself doing far more often is watching your mark’s feet, looking for the arrow that indicates the direction he plans to zoom off in because Speed is now more valuable than its ever been. Crowding a mark in while the ball is in their possession may lead to you jostling them, creating an opportunity to get away with a steal if you time it right. You don’t even have to be perfect, I found the game to be extremely generous with its steal detection at even regular difficulty. Crank it up to harder tiers if you want to play against a team with a better grip on the ball.

Another area where I have to hand it to EA Sports is in their decision to leave NBA Live 18‘s skill tree devoid of microtransactions. Instead there is an Overwatch-style loot box system that drops cosmetics, meaning your player character must be grown and upgraded through play. I can’t believe I’m writing that as though its some kind of revolutionary mode of thinking but I suppose that’s as reliable an indicator of how bad things in gaming today have become as any.

The Streets side of The One campaign is designed to highlight to the summer leagues and renders iconic, real-world amateur locations like LA’s Drew League. This allows NBA Live 18 to stand out again against its competition’s fictional streetball locations. These sections allow you to figure out where your player’s strengths lie without the pressure of a big game under lights and cameras, allowing you to make them more valuable when the time comes and get those all-important minutes off the bench.

The downside to all this is that, beyond The One, everything else in NBA Live 18 feels a touch anaemic. The inclusion of the WNBA is a great one but they are represented to what feels like a bare minimum. I heard no WNBA team names or even player names mentioned in the commentary tracks that play in-game. It makes them feel like they were added last-minute. They’ve also received the same treatment as the women’s teams in FIFA in that they’re only available in Play Now mode.

Even modes like Franchise that previously would have been a big draw have been allowed to fall by the wayside. The act of player management has been made to feel dull and I no longer felt like I was a part of a league that was constantly heaving and shifting. I’m not seeing CPU teams making trades to test players out. Injuries can be avoided by switching to live play because as far as I could tell they only occurred in simulated games. You can’t edit players at all in Franchise mode, and even the Ultimate Team mode that is EA Sports’ stock and trade these days feels rather undercooked compared its Madden and FIFA counterparts.

NBA Live 18 doesn’t feel like it holds to the old adage of there being “no I in Team.” It’s quite happy to focus on the mode that makes it all about you — your journey, your rise to superstardom, your gradually increasing KPI’s — and for some, that will be exactly what they’re looking for. Where it falls down is in the lack of attention given to all the other modes beyond The One, decisions that make NBA Live 18 feel like its threatening to cross from simulation into arcade territory.

This is still an important step forward for a series continually overshadowed by the competition, a position rare for any game in the EA Sports stable. With the single-player campaign right where they want it in terms of playability, it is my hope that EA will refocus on the modes in its orbit to produce a more balanced, well-rounded game for next year.

Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: The One is a solid single-player offering; Smart approach to streamlining play
Lowlights: Throws every other mode under the bus in favour of The One; The WNBA deserves better
Developer: Electronic Arts, EA Tiburon
Publisher: Electronic Arts, EA Sports
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Available: Now

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.