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 18.
We’re almost at the end of our retrospectives, with just two games left to cover. Before we begin, which do you prefer: the NBA, or streetball? NBA Live 18 aimed to give us the best of both worlds, in the form of The League and The Streets. Even the cover emphasised the duality of the game, with two pictures of James Harden: one in his Houston Rockets uniform, the other in a plain singlet and shorts. The game wasn’t a disaster, nor was it a complete departure from previous titles in the series. It was clear that NBA Live was headed in a new direction though, and not everyone was happy about that; especially long-time fans of the series.
NBA Live 16 had been a solid release. Despite its improvements however, the game unfortunately didn’t move the needle in terms of sales. EA Sports therefore decided to take some extra time to work on the next game. At first, the next release (presumably titled NBA Live 17) was set to be released in early 2017. This seemed like a risky plan; after all, NBA Elite 11 was cancelled as every day of postponement meant lost ground to NBA 2K. The name “The Drive to NBA Live” was briefly floated, which suggested some sort of digital release previewing the next game, but nothing came of it. Instead, the series was announced as returning later in the year with NBA Live 18.
The extra development time, as well as snippets we’d hear every now and again, led to more than a couple of us getting our hopes up. You’d think we’d have learned our lesson after NBA Elite 11, NBA Live 13, and NBA Live 14. In our defense though, NBA Live had been making some steady improvements after a rough start to the generation, and the idea that it needed more than one development cycle to really take things to the next level certainly made sense. Our hope was that on top of gameplay that was more polished than ever before, we’d finally see the depth we’d been craving since the series returned in 2013. Suffice it to say, we set the bar a little too high.
I’ll change things up this time by getting into modes and features first. NBA Live 18 rebranded Dynasty mode to Franchise, the name it originally had when it debuted in NBA Live 2000. It was also revamped, but in this case, revamped meant streamlined. As for “streamlined”, that meant even more barebones than before, with an interface that as I understand it, was borrowed from Madden. The mode had already been quite disappointing through the past three games, and now I for one found it completely off-putting. It didn’t help that in the meantime, MyLEAGUE in NBA 2K had become one of the best and most comprehensive franchise experiences in all of sports gaming.
Ultimate Team was actually serviceable though, and as such, it’s the mode that I spent the most time with, much as I had in NBA Live 15. Once again though, in comparison to NBA 2K’s MyTEAM, it was disappointing. There were still no sub modes, and the challenges were rather repetitive. The coin rewards also weren’t as generous as they once were, while packs were more expensive. On the bright side, when new historical packs were released, they actually included a guaranteed historical player. I’ll admit to spending a bit of loose change on Ultimate Team in NBA Live 18. It was all worth it to get a Scottie Pippen card, and a couple of other Legends to build the 90s All-Stars.
BIG Moments and NBA Rewind/LIVE Season were no more however, owing to EA Sports discontinuing their partnership with Synergy. Fortunately, some new content took its place. On top of adding 1v1 and 5v5 scrimmage options to Practice mode, NBA Live 18 included every WNBA team. It was the first time that the WNBA had been officially represented in a video game, aside from individual players in NBA Street Homecourt. It was definitely a different experience playing with WNBA teams, but the lack of a season mode to use them in limited their appeal. There are only so many exhibition games that you can play before you start wishing for more.
What NBA Live 18 was really all about though was The One. It was the new career mode, replacing Rising Star, and incorporating LIVE Run. The name came from the focus on your avatar: they were “The One”. You could play through an NBA career (The League), or choose to play online pickup games or tour the pro-am circuit (The Streets), alternating between the two experiences or sticking to the one you preferred. The League was slightly deeper than Rising Star had been, with goals to earn extra Reward Points and League or Street Hype. Reward Points were once again used to purchase cosmetic items, while levelling up Hype allowed you to get new loot crates.
Yes, loot crates. A majority of cosmetic items were purchased in loot crate form, which meant that even basic accessories were unlocked in a random order. No real money changed hands as they used Reward Points as the currency, but it was still an annoying approach. Skill Points meanwhile were still used to unlock the next ratings upgrade in the category of your choice. Hype, Skill Points, and Reward Points were earned in both The League and The Streets. The League had a similar interface to Franchise, which meant the same week-by-week simulation system. It may have worked for Madden, but it was unsuitable for an NBA game.
LIVE Run now included both 5v5 and 3v3 play. The Summer Circuit, meanwhile, had evolved into the Pro-Am Tour. The tour consisted of five famous pro-am leagues: in order of their appearance on the tour, they were the Chosen League at Cherashore Playground, the Dyckman League at Dyckman Park, the Goodman League at Barry Farms, the Crawsover League at Seattle Pacific University, and the Drew League at King Drew Magnet H.S. Each league consisted of five games, with a total of 15 objectives. Winning and completing objectives earned Hype, Reward Points, and new gear for your player. There were also ongoing stats and milestone-based objectives.
The One did have a basic back story with your player coming back from a knee injury to make it to the NBA, as well as prove themselves on the Pro-Am Tour. It wasn’t anywhere near as in-depth as the MyCAREER story, but by the same token, it wasn’t nearly as intrusive, either. If nothing else, there was no B-Fresh! The One’s story also involved some conversations with your agent, which provided opportunities to earn extra Hype and other rewards. It did spice things up a little, but the mode could’ve done without it. For all the drawbacks of MyCAREER stories, by going all out, they have had some memorable tales. The story in The One was mundane in comparison.
Finally, there were the new LIVE Events. These were daily online Street events hosted in one of the aforementioned venues. Winning the games earned the rewards that were on offer, which were usually clothing items. Some events consisted of multiple games, all of which needed to be won in order to obtain all of the rewards. At one point, a Star Wars Battlefront court was featured as a promotional tie-in, with themed gear that could be earned. NBA 2K has featured similar events in Park, especially since introducing The Neighborhood (and now The City), albeit with a slightly more diverse range of prizes than simply cosmetic items as in LIVE Events.
Upgrading attributes in The One was much better than in MyCAREER. There were only a few Primary and Secondary skills that needed to be upgraded, at the cost of Skill Points. Progression was therefore much quicker than upgrading every rating point-by-point, and included boosts and rewards along the way. Face scanning was as simple as it had been in NBA Live 16, and the results tended to be just as good. The main drawback with The One is that the camera followed the ball rather than your player, meaning that it was too easy to get lost off-screen. In my experience, none of the camera angles really help out here, with none standing out as the ideal option.
While it certainly wasn’t a bad idea to expand into this area of online gaming, it left NBA Live 18 feeling shallow. Gamers who wanted deeper career or franchise mode experiences were underwhelmed by the idea of vying for cosmetic items, though. The Pro-Am Tour was also a good way of building on the concept that the Summer Circuit had introduced. The use of actual well-known pro-am leagues where NBA players often went to ball in the offseason added a sense of legitimacy. Once again, all of the venues were re-created down to the last detail. There was no problem with the overall execution of the pro-am concept, and its integration with The League side of The One.
The sticking point for most gamers who were disappointed by it was that it wasn’t the NBA, and the game was NBA Live 18 after all. It was never going to excite gamers who didn’t care for online play and preferred the traditional modes, but it wouldn’t have stung as much if those modes were already up to scratch. It would’ve been an expansion of NBA Live’s features and content; a hook that was a fun alternative to a robust NBA experience. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. If anything, the new direction and focus was now ensuring that the NBA content was a lower priority, even though The League shared billing with The Streets, both on the cover and in the game itself.
On a more positive note, although roster editing was absent at launch, it was actually added post-release via a patch. We certainly hadn’t expected that to happen, and it was gratefully received. Sure, it wasn’t as deep as it had been in previous games, but we could trade and sign players, modify lineups and rotations, create up to 135 players, and edit existing ones. It would’ve been nice to have access to their animations and a few other attributes we couldn’t edit, but we enjoyed finally being able to modify, save, and load rosters again. We were also able to create more than one player for The One, so with the addition of roster editing, NBA Live 18 didn’t feel as restrictive.
Of course, modes and features – no matter how deep they are – don’t mean a great deal unless the actual gameplay experience is enjoyable. Once again, expectations were quite high here, owing to the extended development cycle. I don’t believe they were universally met, as NBA Live 18 had the usual awkward animations, trajectories on shots and rebounds that weren’t natural, and issues with exaggerated momentum. It didn’t feel any worse than NBA Live 16, but only incrementally better at most. Some of the AI lapses had been cleaned up, but there wasn’t any variation in team styles, or realistic strategy. It made the NBA gameplay experience extremely generic.
It’s unfortunate, as there were some good gameplay mechanics. The new shot meter took its cues from NBA 2K, with a green zone at that top that resulted in guaranteed baskets, barring a block or overruling violation of course. Shot success wasn’t too reliant on perfect releases, so if you were playing with a great shooter, you didn’t need to green light to shoot well. Arrows appeared at a defender’s feet, indicating which way they should move to cut off a drive. Their defensive abilities determined when the arrows appeared, and how accurate they were at anticipating the ballhandler’s moves. The colour of the arrows indicated whether they had succeeded in doing so.
There were some new and revamped controls as well. The defensive stance trigger was now a Defensive Assist, which automatically moved the defender towards their man. I’ve never been a fan of that approach, and it had a tendency to move your player out of position on defense. On offense, the controls now greatly resembled NBA 2K. There were three pass buttons, providing control over lobs, bounce passes, and flashy dishes. Euro steps, spin gathers, and other elusive moves and shots, were performed by either double tapping the Shoot button or pressing it in conjunction with sprint or left stick movement, or holding down on the right analog stick as with 2K’s Pro Stick.
Dribbling moves were also still performed with the right stick, and modified with the sprint trigger to perform more elusive ones. Most of the other controls remained the same as in NBA Live 16, though if you tried to steal the ball when you were too far away from the defender, you’d always make an aggressive move and be whistled for the foul. As I mentioned in my NBA Live 15 retrospective, it probably still has the best stealing mechanics of the entire series. The CPU also still had a tendency to bail itself out with some soft shooting fouls in the paint, compared to the physicality it got away with at the other end. Needless to say, it made the challenge feel a bit phoney.
Another new gameplay mechanic introduced in NBA Live 18 was Traits. These were similar to Badges in NBA 2K, providing boosts and special abilities. Unlike Badges though, they were equipped in a loadout for players in The One after they had been unlocked. Your One player had a loadout for The Streets and The League, as certain abilities could be more beneficial in one rather than the other. On the whole, I prefer the Badges system, though the meta-gaming of both concepts can be frustrating at times. I’m not sure if real players utilised the Traits system. They definitely did in NBA Live 19, but they’re not shown as having any equipped in NBA Live 18.
The continued partnership with ESPN ensured authentic, broadcast-style presentation. There still hadn’t been much improvement to the commentary though, with the usual dead air and unenthusiastic responses to big plays. Visually speaking, NBA Live 18 wasn’t a huge improvement over NBA Live 16. There were some better faces from players who had clearly sat for new scans, but generally speaking, the aesthetic was very similar. The lack of variety in body models was also apparent, though NBA 2K has had similar issues in recent years. NBA Live 18’s graphics are passable, but once again, they usually failed to wow people with their first impression of the game.
Although it wasn’t quite the game I was hoping it would be, I actually ended up spending more time with NBA Live 18 than I did with NBA 2K18. As I’ve discussed in Wayback Wednesday and on the NLSC Podcast, NBA 2K18 was an unusually disappointing year for NBA 2K, and I stopped playing it quite early in the year. As noted above, I mostly opted for Ultimate Team, but I did dabble with The One and managed to upgrade my point guard to an 85 Overall. The mode did feel somewhat empty compared to MyCAREER though, and the online scene wasn’t as fun as playing 2K Pro-Am or Playground games with my friends on the NLSC squad.
Comparing the games leads to some weird and contradictory conclusions. I would say that technically speaking, NBA 2K18 is the better game. It’s more polished, much deeper in terms of modes and content, and has some better mechanics. At the same time, I found NBA Live 18 more enjoyable. I think that’s in part due to it feeling fresh after a year off, and NBA 2K18’s design choices – and the pushy approach to recurrent revenue mechanics – turning me off that game. Objectively speaking, NBA 2K18 is still the better product, and although it has its good points, I don’t think that NBA Live 18 lived up to the lofty expectations that came with an extra year of development.
The choice to focus so heavily on The Streets definitely didn’t help matters. The trend may have started with NBA Live 16, but that game did put more effort into the NBA experience, while also looking to branch out. NBA Live 18 clearly focused primarily on The Streets, and even then, there are some clunky moments due to animations, camera angles, and teammate AI. Among the games from its generation, I’d rank it behind NBA Live 16, and perhaps slightly ahead of NBA Live 15, owing to the roster editing functionality and added smoothness. I wasn’t thrilled with the overall direction though, and unfortunately, the series wasn’t about to change course for NBA Live 19.