There’s a certain level of quality that players expect from a product bearing the EA Sports logo, and NBA Live hasn’t lived up to it for the past several years. Not helping matters is that Visual Concepts puts together one of the finest sports games every year with their NBA 2K series, and EA has had to go the drastic measure of skipping a yearly release in order to give their basketball series more development time. They know that NBA Live 18 has a perception issue, and thankfully for gamers, they’ve finally made a game that’ll be able to compete with the competition.
I see two main selling points for NBA Live 18, and the first comes from the game’s attempts at a single-player basketball RPG. Yes, it sounds crazy, but after spending several hours with the demo build that’s available today, I’m sold on EA’s vision. I began my career by creating a character, and I modeled him after Electronic Arts’ unofficial mascot Tha Hoop Gawd. After customizing his play style towards being a shooting guard, the Gawd was ready to hit the court.
There’s a light story told during the beginning of NBA Live 18’s career mode, and while I didn’t mind the premise (your player is returning from injury and has to prove himself before the NBA Draft), the presentation left something to be desired. EA actually partnered with ESPN for the project, and players get First Take segments with Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman arguing about the player’s career. They totally nailed the production style of the show, but that means it’s grating nonsense that appeals to the least intelligent of crowds. Your mileage may vary, but I’ll be good if I never had to hear Stephen A. Smith screaming about sports he doesn’t seem to grasp again.
The good news is that these First Take segments are short, and things are much better on the court. I got to control my player in some pick-up basketball games, and the relaxed street-style of play is a major focus of NBA Live 18. The first team to score 21 points gets the victory, so these matches are shorter affairs that allow the player to get away with some fouls. Despite playing street ball, I was going up against some of the NBA’s best players, and it becomes a cross-country affair as the game takes the player to iconic basketball courts.
The game starts off in the most iconic park of them all — Rucker Park. The Harlem, NY staple has been beautifully recreated for NBA Live, and it was a real trip getting to see one of my bucket list locations in the game. Other basketball venues I got to check out were a beach-side court in Venice Beach, California (where I went up against Blake Griffin and company), and a Seattle gymnasium. Each court has its own atmosphere that it brings, and it all builds to the player getting to participate in the star-studded Drew League in Southern California.
What really stood out during these games was how much better the gameplay felt from previous installments. I won’t go as far to say that Electronic Arts has toppled 2K, but I had a great time playing virtual basketball, which hasn’t been the case in prior years. One thing that really helps the game is its on-screen presentation, which helps teach players how to play while they go through the motions of a match. The shooting meter is particularly effective, and I always knew if I was taking good shots & why it missed if it did. Rarely have I seen such effficient feedback from a sports game, and I was able to become a better player due to it.
After every match, I got to see the game’s RPG mechanics at play. Tha Hoop Gawd gained experience points for doing well on the court, and I regularly earned stat points as I leveled up. These can be applied in a skill tree to enhance your player’s skills, and I turned my player into a three-point threat. I also was able to buy loot boxes filled with gear using in-game currency, and equip traits that impact how my player plays on the street and in regulation play. These ranged from doing better at contested shots to being able to drain open shots, and really allowed me to create a play style that fit the character I wanted to make.
The prologue chapter of the career ends with the player getting drafted into the NBA (it’d be sort of a buzzkill if you didn’t, after all), and while I didn’t get to see how that plays out, I did end up playing a regulation matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. I took great joy in choosing the Warriors (whose stacked roster essentially turns the game into an easy mode no matter what difficulty you play on), and ended up regularly draining three-pointers with Curry and Thompson. I ended up beating Lebrun James and the Cavs pretty easily, but I got a better fill for the regular gameplay (as I could finally switch players) and came away very impressed.
Taking a year off has done wonders for NBA Live 18. Electronic Arts have severely retooled their basketball sim, and for the first time in nearly a decade 2K Sports finally have some competition. Gamers can’t go wrong this holiday season as both games play great, and it’ll come down to unique features that are the real selling point. Turning basketball into a RPG is strange at first, but I really dig what I’ve seen so far, and I can’t wait to go more in-depth with NBA Live 18 when it releases in September.
NBA Live 18 preview build played on PlayStation 4 Pro. Electronic Arts provided travel/lodging as part of the preview event.