Those of us born with the sports-fandom gene have sort of a sixth sense that comes from decades of watching the games we love (and curse). We can sense when a player belongs, and we can sniff out when he can’t hack it. It’s called the “eye test,” and while it’s not exactly a perfect form of analysis, it generally helps separate the men from the boys.
This transitions to sports videogames, too. We can usually tell immediately whether the action accurately imitates the games we see on the court, on the gridiron, and on the diamond—and if we sense any inauthenticity, it immediately takes us out of the action. When I play MLB: The Show, Madison Bumgarner’s nasty repertoire of pitches rings true to life as he handcuffs hitter after hitter. When I crash the net with Joe Thornton in EA’s NHL series, it feels authentic. It passes the “eye test.”
NBA Live 15 does not.
There are many reasons for this, but one of the biggest is the on-court action itself: It’s immediately apparent that you’re playing a videogame. Every movement is stilted and unrefined, not fluid and natural. Not to compare every single element to NBA 2K (I’ll try to keep that to a minimum in this review), but as someone returning to NBA Live for the first time since its relaunch last year, the differences between the two games are stark from the get-go.
In NBA 2K, there’s a natural progression from the second you inbound the ball to your point guard to the moment he delivers a pinpoint pass to the big man underneath the hoop—one action naturally flows into the other, which is critical for a sport as fast-moving as basketball. NBA Live feels like one canned animation moving into the next, with the seams visible at every turn.
The other major inauthenticity comes from the shot meter, but unlike NBA 2K, there’s no actual “meter,” just a notice as to whether your release was early, on time, or late after you take the shot—and the results are far less satisfying. Moreover, whether you make a shot is based solely on whether you’re open or not. You can be Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Stephen Curry and have a guy guarding you, but if you’re not wide open, you won’t hit the shot. Anyone who’s watched Curry play knows he makes plenty of shots with guys in his face—if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be in the NBA!
Again, this is all part of the “eye test” I mentioned earlier. One of the most famous plays of Larry Bird’s illustrious career is when he got open for a potential game-winning shot in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals…and, to the shock of everyone watching, he missed. Pantheon players miss wide-open looks. That’s part of basketball. But to hear NBA Live tell it, wide-open looks are the only shots that ever go in. Thankfully, the game does at least allow you to turn the meter off and let player ratings determine whether a shot hits nothing but twine, but that ends up feeling sort of random, too, and I wasn’t satisfied at all with any option presented to me.
Moreover, the game bizarrely glosses over defense, a critical part of basketball fundamentals, despite having Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard guide you through several offensive drills when you first start the game. That’s all well and good, but defense is just as important to success in the NBA. That’s why it’s baffling that the game leaves you to your own devices when it comes to that end of the floor. My coworker, EGM reviews editor Ray Carsillo, pointed this discrepancy out during a preview event, but EA apparently didn’t address it (next time, listen to the bitter Knicks fan, people!), and it feels like the game only gives you half the tools you need to succeed.
Even elements that do show potential feel squandered in NBA Live 15. The game features a mode called “Big Moments” that challenges you to re-create some of the best performances from the 2013-14 season, like Lillard’s extraordinary three-pointer with 0.9 seconds remaining that knocked the Houston Rockets out of the playoffs. You almost never see shots go in with less than a second remaining on the clock when the play begins. I watched that moment live, despite not having a rooting interest in either team, and it was one of the most insane NBA playoff games I can remember. When the shot went in, I was stunned and spent the next minute with my mouth agape. ESPN’s Mike Tirico was as excited as I’ve ever heard him. The fans in Portland went into a delirium so intense, you’d think a new craft brewery opened up downtown in the Rose City.
But when I took control of Lillard and hit that shot in NBA Live 15, there was no euphoric celebration. No stunned commentary from ESPN’s Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy. Lillard’s teammates casually congratulated him like he’d just hit a couple of third-quarter free throws. I definitely like the concept of reliving these big moments, but the necessary execution just isn’t there.
Now, capturing the big moments has been a major problem for sports videogames in general, since so many variables can come into play—NBA Live is hardly the only offender, and this is a longtime complaint for me in general. But when you only have a handful of these moments to get right, it feels inexcusable that they feel so small here, especially when the game runs the actual video of Lillard’s shot for comparison.
That’s NBA Live 15 in a nutshell, really. It isn’t a terrible brand of basketball, and it’s not an embarrassment for EA, unlike many entries of the past. But I can’t think of a single element—whether it’s the animations, career mode, dynasty mode, ball movement, the announcing, and any number of other things—that doesn’t need some sort of improvement.
At least NBA Live does have one measure of bragging rights, though. EA’s servers didn’t appear to be working properly for much of launch day, and I had a few dropped online games once they did start working—and, of course, there was the requisite lag that made timing my shots a maddening endeavor at times. But given the server problems I’ve had with certain other sports titles, it hardly felt like a hassle overall. And I’ll give NBA Live credit for not tying its modes to its servers—even when they were down, I could still play any offline game option without any issues.
I’m all for competition when it comes to sports games—it makes everyone better. But just like a .500 team isn’t going to push a top-tier side like the San Antonio Spurs, NBA Live simply hasn’t reached the point where it’s going to push the folks at Visual Concepts, and there’s absolutely no reason to recommend it this year over 2K’s far superior effort.
NBA Live has had a tough time escaping the shadow of NBA 2K—and that trend continues with NBA Live 15, which doesn’t deliver believable player movement, shooting, or gameplay flow. The “Big Moments” mode shows the potential that the series might be able to execute in the coming years, but right now, it’s like a .500 team trying to compete with a playoff juggernaut.
E – Everyone
|NBA Live 15 is available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Product was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
A proud Japanese RPG and serial-comma enthusiast, Andrew attended E3 for more than a decade. His least-proud moment? That time in 2004 when, suffering from utter exhaustion, he decided to take a break on the creepy, dilapidated—and possibly cursed—La-Z-Boy at Konami’s Silent Hill booth.