To mark the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live, we’re taking a look back at every game in the series with retrospectives and other fun content! This also includes re-running some features from our 20th Anniversary celebrations, with a few revisions. Whether you’re a long-time basketball gamer who grew up with NBA Live and are keen on taking a trip down memory lane, or you’re new to the series and want to learn about its history, we hope that you enjoy celebrating the 25th Anniversary of NBA Live here at the NLSC! Next up is a retrospective of NBA Live 15.
Although NBA Live 14 had been a rough comeback, the mere fact that it was actually released gave us hope that the series wasn’t done. There was a lot of work to be done, though: modes and features needed to be added, mechanics and animations needed to be enhanced, and more authenticity was required. NBA Live 15 took a few steps in the right direction, but it wasn’t a big enough jump. It was a better game than NBA Live 14, no doubt, but that was a low bar to clear. Interestingly, it also dropped a few ideas that were actually worth keeping. Let’s take a closer look at the second year in NBA Live’s comeback attempt, and see what went right, and what went wrong.
Before we get into the game itself, I need to acknowledge some key events from NBA Live 15’s preview season. Damian Lillard wasn’t revealed as the cover player until August, which was an unusually late cover announcement. A little over a week later, Executive Producer Sean O’Brien published an open letter, explaining that the game’s release had been pushed back three weeks in order to add further polish. Needless to say, the delay invited speculation that the game was shaping up to be disappointing, or in the worst case scenario, cancelled. Talk of another cancellation proved to be wrong, but it’s fair to say that NBA Live 15 was less than what many gamers were hoping for.
What we were hoping for, of course, was a massive improvement from NBA Live 14. That meant the addition of modes and features that had been missing in the series’ first game in four years. It meant gameplay with more fluidity, and without the quirks that had plagued NBA Live 14. It meant a viable alternative to NBA 2K15. NBA Live 15 didn’t quite live up to our loftiest expectations on any of those fronts. While I spent more time with NBA Live 15 than NBA 2K15, it was mostly out of brand loyalty, as well as disappointment with NBA 2K15’s MyCAREER story. I did have some good times with NBA Live 15, but in hindsight, I wish I’d played more of 2K that year.
With that being said, let’s look at the gameplay. Although there was still stiffness to the movement and animations, overall the feel was indeed better than in NBA Live 14. The players didn’t feel as heavy, and thus making a simple play didn’t feel like a tremendous effort. As a result, there was less frustration, and fewer moments that left you thinking “I didn’t actually want to do that”. Contextual dribbling animations made changes of direction easier, without compromising foot-planting. There definitely was more polish than there had been in NBA Live 14, and while there were aspects that needed work, the game was considerably more playable than its rough predecessor.
Of course, there were still awkward animations, particularly in the paint when there were collisions. Shot trajectories were much the same as they had been the previous year, and the ball bounced very hard off the rim, making rebounding animations look abrupt and unnatural in real time. Transitional animations, and in particular the speed of certain animations, contributed to NBA Live 15 having awkward moments. It meant that most gamers’ first impressions weren’t much better than they had been for NBA Live 14, even though NBA Live 15 was improved on the sticks. Also, the delayed release had pre-emptively tainted its image, so gamers were already sceptical.
The controls were simplified in NBA Live 15, with the removal of the bounce pass button, modifier, and signature dribbling trigger. Instead, signature dribbling moves were performed by holding the right stick up, down, left, or right. It was far more intuitive to drop the modifier for signature dribbling, but it was a pain to lose control over bank shots, runners, and bounce passes. Contextual animations were intended to take care of things, but as is often the case, the game didn’t always trigger the best animations for the current scenario. Looking back, I’d say that the developers went slightly too far in streamlining the controls in NBA Live 15, resulting in lost depth.
A new feedback system informed us of how well we timed a shot, how open or how guarded the player was, and the shooting rating that affected the dice roll. It wasn’t as effective as a perfect release point indicator, or a shot meter like the one that NBA 2K15 had adopted, but it was helpful all the same. Shot timing was also tweaked in a patch post-release, making jumpshots more viable. In fact, I often found it a little too easy to get four point plays in NBA Live 15, so if anything, shooting was perhaps overpowered in the end. It was definitely too easy to penetrate for a dunk or layup, though the CPU would draw some annoyingly cheap charging fouls under the rim.
Speaking of cheap fouls, a high volume of whistles seemed to occur on plays where there wasn’t much contact. One might be tempted to make a snarky remark about the modern NBA here, but the physics and collision system did result in several phantom fouls. The CPU would bail itself out with soft shooting foul calls, though the user benefitted from generous whistles as well. The AI lapses seen in NBA Live 14 were unfortunately still common, and could be taken advantage of. Meanwhile, the “Quick Action” mechanic in the halfcourt – activated by pressing L1 – helped get things going for the user, especially if a play was broken, or if playcalling was too confusing.
NBA Live 15’s stealing mechanics might be among the best in the series. There’s less “press steal to foul” compared to other games, and good timing is generally rewarded. On the other hand, once you have a handle on the timing, you’ll probably end up with too many steals. Blocks are also quite common, and really the only way that you’ll stop opponents from scoring inside. That’s an area that remains a weakness for NBA Live: shutting opponents down without racking up blocks and steals. It’s the kind of issue that can sometimes be addressed by sliders, but unfortunately there were none to tweak in NBA Live 15. Their return would have to wait until the following year.
It was still quite difficult to move the ball around the perimeter quickly, owing to floaty passes and cumbersome catching animations. As noted, the logic governing the contextual animations wasn’t always smart. On the other hand, though, the increased smoothness and responsiveness of the controls and player movement made NBA Live 15 an easier game to enjoy despite its flaws. It hasn’t been a part of my rotation since it was new, and I don’t think I’d ever be able to play it regularly again, but it kept me entertained back then. NBA Live 14 didn’t set a high standard, but NBA Live 15 still managed to put a respectable amount of distance between itself and its predecessor.
Unfortunately, while the gameplay had gone from “playable at best” to “enjoyable once you’re used to it”, NBA Live 15 lacked improvements to its features and modes. Roster editing and Create-a-Player were still absent. Sim Intervention had returned in Dynasty, but apart from that, it wasn’t much deeper. Rising Star was a functional career mode, but lacked the bells and whistles that made MyCAREER in NBA 2K so immersive. New scenarios were added in BIG Moments, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of depth elsewhere. Ultimate Team added an Auction House though, and the new content every week made it feel like the deepest mode in the game.
Indeed, Ultimate Team is the mode that I spent the most time with in NBA Live 15, and I greatly enjoyed building a team of stars from the 90s. Even more so than in NBA Live 14, I found myself enjoying the game in smaller portions: either the BIG Moments challenges or the shorter games in Ultimate Team. It speaks to the lack of depth, and legacy gameplay issues, that I didn’t feel inclined to play a Dynasty or Rising Star game with my preferred 12 minute quarters. At the same time, I spent far more time with NBA Live 15 than I had NBA Live 14, and found that I could adjust to (or tolerate) the quirkier aspects of gameplay. Flawed though it was, I did have fun.
The developers also made the right call in adding interactive tutorial drills on top of a free shootaround mode. That kind of onboarding was not only helpful to newcomers to basketball games in general, but also gamers who were more familiar with the feel, controls, and mechanics of the NBA 2K series. Mastering the game obviously didn’t (and couldn’t possibly) overcome all its flaws, but like its predecessor, NBA Live 15 felt even rougher when you were unfamiliar with its mechanics and style of play. To that end, it was a good idea to throw everyone into the tutorials on the first boot, as it allowed us to experience the gameplay in a controlled environment with no stakes.
I do think it’s fair to suggest that NBA Live 15 benefited from being an improvement on a rough and disappointing game, as even the minor advances felt impactful. In a vacuum, however, it’s far from impressive. It was a competent product, and playable; even enjoyable under the right circumstances. The lack of depth and authenticity also meant that it was still a long way from being a great game, though. Obviously there was only so much that could be done in a single development cycle, but with so many missing features that were staples of the genre (and essentially minimum requirements by 2014), NBA Live 15 ended up feeling somewhat empty, unfinished, and outdated.
Touching on the visuals, the lighting, faces, textures, and environments were all better than they had been in NBA Live 14. It wasn’t a revolutionary improvement over its predecessors, and NBA 2K15’s graphics were better overall, but once again, all of the “PlayStation 2 graphics” potshots were hyperbole. The main issue was the animations and their awkwardness. In that regard, I would agree that many of them looked “last gen”, though again, the comparisons to the PS2 era are a slight exaggeration in my opinion. Mind you, the fact that the animations weren’t a big improvement on games from the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 era was (and still is) a valid criticism.
Presentation once again made effective use of the ESPN license to replicate a real TV broadcast. The commentary was still dry, but anecdotes about players did cut down on the dead air. They did get repetitive, but that’s the nature of the beast when it comes to video game commentary. The atmosphere settings from NBA Live 10 and NBA Live 14 returned, enhancing Playoff and NBA Finals game in Dynasty play, as well as in Tip-Off games if you so wished. Also, it’s a very small detail in the grand scheme of things, but the commentary was no longer cut off mid-sentence when the game was paused. It continued where you left off upon resuming, which maintained immersion.
All things considered, how should NBA Live 15 be rated, and what is its legacy? The expectation is that it would improve upon NBA Live 14, and it did. Again, that was a low bar, but NBA Live 15 was noticeably better, addressing some key issues. As far as being another step forward and a more polished, competent product, it succeeded. However, expectations were high considering how far sim basketball games had come, and what NBA 2K15 was doing. It’s fair to say that NBA Live 15 did fall short of several expectations in terms of depth, animation quality, and authenticity. It wasn’t arcade-like, but its realism was more superficial compared to that of NBA 2K15.
It also lacked the modes to keep most gamers hooked throughout the year. I managed to get a lot of mileage out of Ultimate Team because it was a fresh experience, but the lack of improvements to Dynasty limited its appeal. NBA 2K15 had brought back in-depth roster editing, including Create-a-Player. The addition of MyLEAGUE revived the traditional franchise experience, while keeping the new MyGM approach as a separate mode. MyCAREER featured a creative idea in a different starting point for a rookie, as well as a new story (albeit with your MyPLAYER being rather unlikeable as a protagonist). NBA 2K15 also boasted some superb, sim-oriented gameplay.
In other words, NBA Live 15 had pulled ahead of NBA Live 14, but the gap between it and the competition was arguably even wider. NBA Live 15 was a game that was worth checking out, but not buying instead of NBA 2K15. Admittedly, that would’ve been expecting too much, but we were hoping that NBA Live 15 would be just a tad better-rounded. There were welcome improvements, but it still felt as though parts of the game had been neglected. Missing features could arguably be excused in NBA Live 14, but the continued absence of staples such as roster editing was difficult to justify. At a certain point, missing content matters just as much as what’s present.
I realise that I haven’t really said much about Rising Star, the career mode that was introduced in NBA Live 14. I didn’t go into much detail about the mode in my NBA Live 14 retrospective, either. The reason for that is that there really isn’t much to say about it! You began your career at the Jordan Draft Showcase, and your performance influenced where you went in the Draft. After that, you played through a career in the NBA, earning Skill Points to spend on upgrades. There were no endorsements to earn, no press conferences and cutscenes, and no real role-playing opportunities. There was no story, which isn’t always a bad thing, but it looked barebones next to MyCAREER.
Of course, one advantage of Rising Star – and indeed, all of NBA Live’s career modes to date – is that there was no pay-to-upgrade mechanic. The only way to improve your player was to play the game, and your starting ratings were more generous besides. It is a bland experience without the bells and whistles, though. While I’ve often felt that NBA 2K can focus too much on those aspects, they do help MyCAREER to be a far more immersive experience. It just wasn’t very exciting to play through Rising Star. With subpar teammate AI, you needed to be very assertive, leading to some ridiculous numbers. The mode absolutely needed to be included, but it just wasn’t very good yet.
Getting back to NBA Live 15’s legacy, it can be acknowledged as a noteworthy leap, though again, that meant the series went from a game that was greatly flawed and barely playable, to one that was a bit more polished and capable of being enjoyed; as long as certain issues weren’t personal deal breakers, of course. That was great in so much as it suggested that the series was headed in the right direction – for the most part, anyway – but it still ranks among the lesser NBA Live releases. To put it another way, NBA Live 15 is far closer to NBA Live 14 and NBA Live 07 than it is to NBA Live 2005, or to one of the other recognised high points in the NBA Live series.
It’s hard to say that without sounding like I’m bashing NBA Live 15, but it’s the truth. As I mentioned, I did spend a lot of time with it, getting the most out of it that I could. It was undoubtedly a rebuilding effort, though; the next step in its comeback after bottoming out, rather than a high point in the series. Electronic Gaming Monthly’s review likened it to “a .500 team trying to compete with a Playoff juggernaut”, and when you consider what NBA 2K15 accomplished, that’s an extremely apt analogy. The general consensus was that it had improved upon NBA Live 14 and included good concepts and features, but the game still wasn’t at the level it needed to be.
There’s still a measure of success in that, though. Running with the analogy put forth by EGM, NBA Live 15 could be likened to a team that went from the lottery to a low Playoff seed, a marked and respectable improvement on the year before. There’s talent there that’s starting to gel, but they’re getting trounced and bounced in the first round because they’re just not good enough yet. Credit where it’s due, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves with gushing praise, especially when they could’ve racked up a few more victories. Fans have been able to get some enjoyment out of the run, but the ceiling is a long way off, and expectations are only going to get higher from here on out.
I believe that just about sums up NBA Live 15. I personally found the game enjoyable enough to keep returning to it, but I also knew that I was making some allowances for a flawed release. I was encouraged by the progress though, and I know I wasn’t the only one. I have an easier time returning to NBA Live 15 than I do NBA Live 14, though that isn’t saying much. Now that the servers are offline and Ultimate Team is unavailable, there’s little incentive to play it. I can still appreciate the advances that it made though, and while it was disappointing in some respects, the improvements did inspire optimism…and of course, raised the bar for the next step in the comeback.