Early on in NBA Live 18’s career mode, “The One,” your created character is christened “the Comeback Kid”, and you get the sense that the game is referring to itself as well. EA took a year off between NBA Live games, and while NBA Live 18 is definitely an overall improvement on NBA Live 16’s promising baby-steps toward redemption, it’s still not living up to its full potential.
To be fair, NBA Live 18 has improved on many of the areas where NBA Live 16fell flat. The biggest and most obvious improvement is in its core gameplay. Surprisingly, defense is almost as fun to play in NBA Live 18 as offense. While the main goal of defense is still about basically getting in your opponent’s way and shutting down shot opportunities, NBA Live 18 has introduced new mechanics for shutting down the dribble. When guarding an opponent, arrows on either side of the opponent will clue you in as to which direction you should be guarding. Adept, quick dribblers will still be able to juke you on their way to the basket, but if you successfully guard a dribble, you’ll stop your opponent’s momentum and make them reset.
This system plays into forcing steals as well—timing a defensive move correctly (right when your opponent makes his move) and you’ll come away with the ball, but mistime it and you’ll be left eating your opponent’s dust. You can even “pull the chair” out from under an opponent who’s aggressively backing down against you, causing them to fall and lose control of the ball. However, if you try this move and misread the situation, you could end up stepping away and giving them a free lane to the basket. These kinds of risk-reward elements add a whole new depth to playing defense.
Offensive gameplay feels better, too. NBA Live 18 has both simplified and expanded its controls so that it feels like you have more control. That’s because NBA Live 18’s offensive control scheme is nearly identical to that of last year’sNBA 2K game. Lob passes and bounce passes are now assigned to face buttons and, perhaps more significantly, right-stick shooting is an option. Personally, I prefer shooting with the face buttons, so I was glad to see this was still an option, but for people who prefer right-stick shooting, NBA Live 18’s right-stick shot options are almost as comprehensive as its on-court rival’s.
Additionally, the shot meter is probably my favorite in any basketball game so far. Replacing the monochromatic, percentage-based meter from NBA Live 16, NBA Live 18 introduces a color-coded indicator that changes depending on the situation on the court. While this element was present in NBA Live 16 in the form of indicators that were beneath players’ stamina bars (as it is in NBA Live 18), this system now translates to the actual shot meter itself. For instance, if you have an open look at the basket, you will have a green zone at the top of the meter, and if your shot indicator lands in the green zone, you’re 100 percent guaranteed to make the shot. However, if you’re guarded, that green zone will disappear, introducing an element of chance into the shot, no matter how perfectly you nail the timing. It takes some of the unnecessary guessing out of shooting the ball, not to mention it’s visually more attractive and more instantly readable, which is important during those split-moment decisions and off-dribble shots.
Likewise, pulling off a Euro-step move is as easy as driving to the basket and double-tapping the shooting button, as opposed to utilizing the inexplicable “gather” button from NBA Live 16. Stringing together dribble moves with the right-stick and driving to the basket is both easier to pull off, thanks to smoother dribbling animations, and more challenging, thanks to the more engaging defensive gameplay.
One place where I felt like NBA Live 16 topped NBA Live 18 was in the actual player movement. When you have the ball, players control fine, but as soon as you give up the ball, players feel much heavier when they’re moving around, and therefore have way more momentum. While this might be more realistic, I preferred NBA Live 16’s more precise feel. This led to some moments of me falling off my spot in front of the defender, though it does make defending dribblers like Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving about as frustrating as I imagine it would feel in real life.
In addition to moving around the court, I found that too often my player got stuck on the other players on the court, and it led to a few frustrating moments where I simply couldn’t keep up with the player I was defending because the hit detection stopped me cold, leaving my opponent wide open for an easy two or three points. And I wasn’t getting stuck on players who were purposefully screening, but rather players who were simply standing around. Obviously I don’t want my player to phase through other players, but some sort of movement system (or a button I can press) where my player will know to simply push through other players would have been helpful.
NBA Live 18 has also seen some decent improvements off-court, especially when it comes to the game’s career mode. “The One” will task you with creating a player and grinding your way to the top of the NBA superstar list. However, unlike Live 16, in which you almost immediately jump into the NBA, Live 18 makes you earn your stripes by playing a series of 21-point games on a variety of celebrated street ball courts like Rucker Park and Venice Beach, eventually earning yourself a spot in the NBA Combine, where your performance will determine what pick you’re drafted at. All throughout this first part of the career mode, live-action segments starring ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman will tell your story, with some details in the dialogue changing depending on how well you play in certain games.
From there, The One is divided into two halves: The League and The Streets. While your ultimate goal is to dominate the League, you can still play the Streets by playing Pro-Am tournaments against the CPU, or by playing with four other actual players either co-operatively against computer players or against another five-man team. These two modes, which were separated in the last iteration’s career mode, are wholly tied together here. Burying Pro-Am in the career mode adds a nice level of consistency in your created player’s game-life, and it ties into the consistency of your character’s progression.
Like in Live 16, you will be graded for every performance. The higher your grade, the more experience you earn, which you can then feed back into your player’s stats and abilities. Every game you play, whether it’s an NBA game, a Pro-Am game, or a street game, will earn you XP toward leveling up your character. If you’re getting a lot of minutes in the League, then it definitely pays to grind it out there. However, if you were a lower draft pick, you might want to buff your skills in Pro-Am games against other players or against the CPU, which you’ll get more time on the court. It leads to you having a satisfying relationship with your created character. The more you level them up, the better you’ll be against tougher opponents, both online and off.
What’s not as satisfying is having to play with AI teammates. Live 16’s AI was pretty abysmal, and while Live 18 takes some steps forward, inconsistent decision-making and an almost magical ability to suck at getting defensive rebounds led to too many moments where I felt like my team was playing against me. It’s slightly better when playing with human teammates online, though most likely you’ll be wide open for a corner three and your teammate will insist on driving to the basket while triple-teamed and doinking a layup.
On the topic of multiplayer, connection issues for the early adopters seemed okay. I was dropped from one head-to-head game, though it did say my opponent quit the match before it even began. As far as the Pro-Am five-on-five online is concerned, it ran quite smoothly. The major downside for this mode is that, if you’re in an online lobby and other players quit, it seems like the game will simply fill those empty spots on the roster with AI players instead of finding new players to fill in the blanks. While it’s easy enough to quit out and join another lobby, it’s an odd choice, though it’s possible that the relatively fewer players who had early access made it more difficult to find available players. Still, it isn’t the most elegant solution, and it seems like you’ll want to go in with a full team most of the time anyway, as playing with strangers can often result in dropped plays and selfish players.
That’s to say, when it comes to sports games, I much prefer controlling the entire team. Unfortunately, Live 18’s Franchise mode is just kind of boring. There’s plenty to do if you want to focus on a single team and play every game, but don’t look for much beyond that. You can still micro-manage your roster and you can jump into the middle of simulated games if your team is losing and you want to try to correct the ship, but trading and picking up free agents is made somewhat awkward by the fact that the calendar is split into weeks. Additionally, news from around the league is sometimes just completely wrong, like when I simulated a game as the Cleveland Cavaliers and it said that Richard Jefferson earned a double-double, which would be awesome (if not a little unexpected) except for the fact that Jefferson hadn’t played a single minute that game. It doesn’t break the mode, but it doesn’t help it, either. All of this means that Franchise mode isn’t necessarily terrible, but it makes zero significant changes or improvements over Live 16’s, which is pretty disappointing when you consider the developers had two years to buff what has historically been the most popular mode in sports games. Live 18’s Franchise mode is simply not immersive in any way.
Outside of Franchise mode, one other interesting addition to Live 18 is the WNBA to Play Now. While you can’t play a WNBA franchise or career, you can play an exhibition game with two WNBA teams. While the inclusion of the WNBA is a nice nod to the historically under-appreciated league, EA Sports falls far short of providing an equal experience. It’s immediately noticeable that EA Sports didn’t bother having the commentators record almost any of the WNBA players’ names. Additionally, you can’t play WNBA games online, run a WNBA franchise, or create a WNBA player, so it seems almost like an afterthought whose purpose was to gain some sort of social brownie points that look good in marketing campaigns. That being said, something is better than nothing, I suppose, but my hope is that EA Sports will continue this trend and expand on the WNBA next year.
And that pretty much sums up my experience with NBA Live 18 in a nutshell: it took some steps forward, but it could have gone further. Whether that’s with the career mode, which could have introduced a more compelling narrative device other than text messages between you and your agent, or whether it’s player models, which look less stiff than they have but still suffer from some weird animation issues and odd facial tics, NBA Live is probably at a better place than it’s been in a long time. Still, some of that was by mimicking what NBA 2K has been doing for a while now. As good as NBA Live’s career mode is, it’s been done before. What hasn’t necessarily been done before is a completely immersive Franchise Mode. Either way, NBA Live will need to commit to something in a big way if it wants to stay relevant, though by continuing to refine its gameplay, especially when it comes to one-on-one defensive situations, and alternatively going all out with its franchise mode next year, NBA Live might have a future after all.
NBA Live 18 has improved in almost every way over its predecessor, making a strong case for its continued existence. However, a lackluster franchise and a sense of been-there-done-that with that other basketball series puts Live 18 one step behind the competition.
E - Everyone
|NBA Live 18 is available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Primary version played was for PS4. Product was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Michael Goroff has written and edited for EGM since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter @gogogoroff.