Wayback Wednesday: Revisiting NBA Live 18

Wayback Wednesday: Revisiting NBA Live 18

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! From retrospectives of basketball games and their interesting features, to republished articles and looking at NBA history through the lens of the virtual hardwood, Wednesdays at the NLSC are for going back in time. This week, I’m giving NBA Live 18 a second look.

It’s fair to say that NBA Live didn’t live up to expectations on the eighth generation. We were hoping for a fresh start after NBA Elite 11 torpedoed the series during the seventh generation, but instead there were numerous unsuccessful attempts to rebuild. However, there were some flashes of brilliance and genuinely good ideas, which only makes the shortcomings of those eighth gen NBA Live titles more frustrating. Now that several years have passed and the weight of new game expectations has been lifted, those positive aspects do stand out, and can be appreciated.

As such, when I revisit an eighth generation NBA Live, I’m sometimes left surprised by how much I enjoyed dusting it off. While these second looks haven’t changed my mind to the same extent as NBA Live 10 or the Next Gen version of NBA 2K14, I do come away thinking that some of them hold up better than I remembered. This was true after Dee and I revisited NBA Live 18 using Parsec and the Xbox App, and had a really fun game. Indeed, I ended up picking up where I left off in Ultimate Team, and it inspired me to reconsider my previous critique. Let’s take a look back…way back…

Going back and reading my retrospective of NBA Live 18 for our 25th Anniversary of NBA Live celebrations, I feel as though I may have been too harsh on it. After all, I did quite enjoy playing NBA Live 18 when it was new, to the point where it was my game of choice that year after NBA 2K18 proved to be disappointing. In fairness to my previous critique, I don’t entirely disagree with it. NBA Live 18 does have its issues on the virtual hardwood, its modes could’ve been better and deeper, and you can see how focus was beginning to shift to The Streets and LIVE Events. With that being said, revisiting the game in 2023 reminded me of how much fun it can be.

Steph Curry Shoots Over George Hill

Although the attempts at realistic foot-planting did result in players feeling heavier and less manoeuvrable than they ideally should be, movement isn’t quite as clunky as I recalled it being. There are some stiff and janky animations, and there’s something about the way the ball bounces hard off the rim on misses that isn’t quite realistic, but there are some moments that look and feel great as well. It’s possible to break your defender’s ankles with a well-timed move, and it’s exciting to power to the rim for an explosive poster dunk. Such plays see me eagerly triggering the instant replay to watch them again. It also has some of the best shooting mechanics in the entire series.

It helps that it borrowed the Green Release concept from NBA 2K, rewarding perfect shot timing. At the same time, makes aren’t reliant on getting Greens. If you’re using a great shooter and your timing is slightly off on an open look, the game is rewarding without being too easy. Defense is satisfying to play, and here I’ll have to disagree with my previous retrospective that on-ball D is hampered by “Press Steal to Foul”. Certainly, aggressive and poorly-timed button presses will commit fouls more often, but it’s definitely possible to craftily pick pockets and step into the passing lanes for an interception. If anything, on the lower difficulty levels, steals might be too easy!

I do still have mixed feelings about the Defensive Assist control. I’d have to agree with my previous criticism that it has a tendency to move players out of position or have them facing the wrong way. Basically having two Defensive Assist controls – one for generally staying with your man, the other for tight on-ball coverage – was overkill. Blocked shots can definitely feel canned, with grab blocks in particular being rather obvious when they’re about to happen. They do look awesome though, and it’s undoubtedly satisfying to pull off those swats. For the sake of realism, more of them should be altered shots, especially as rebounding is fairly solid for the most part.

Rookie Lonzo Ball in NBA Live 18

Just as NBA 2K’s controls took a huge leap forward when they finally implemented right stick dribbling controls similar to the ones found in NBA Live, NBA Live 18’s controls wisely borrowed from NBA 2K’s playbook. This included expanding passing controls with three buttons, and combining dribbling moves and shooting on the right stick. The latter gave us more control over shots, which we could smoothly transition into off the dribble. It wasn’t quite as polished as NBA 2K’s Pro Stick, and not all of the moves looked as good, but it was an improvement over the controls we’d had in NBA Live 14-16. For the most part, the gameplay was moving in the right direction.

I’ll also have to amend my previous commentary on…well, the commentary and in-game presentation! Yes, there are some moments where it’s dry compared to NBA 2K, and sometimes the reactions to highlight plays are underwhelming, though the latter is really an issue with audio selection logic that many games have suffered from. Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy can have suitably excited responses to big dunks and clutch baskets that make them feel important, and JVG also offers up his trademark snark when a team is performing poorly. The ESPN presentation in general does a fantastic job of mimicking a real broadcast, making effective use of the license.

In short, revisiting NBA Live 18 has reminded me why I did spend a considerable amount of time with it during its lifecycle. It wasn’t just a case of making the best of the situation after giving up on NBA 2K18, or a stubborn refusal to give NBA 2K a chance. There were other games that I could’ve gone back to, but I was drawn in by NBA Live 18. I also find its style and aesthetic appealing. Playing with the Legends in Ultimate Team, I’m impressed by the fantastic job that was done with many of the faces; especially since they couldn’t get authentic scans for players who were now in their 40s, 50s, or 60s, to say nothing of the few that had passed away by 2017!

Hakeem Olajuwon in LUT18

Of course, NBA Live 18 does have its drawbacks. I’ve already mentioned the janky animations and heaviness to player movement. It doesn’t stop me having fun with the game, but it does take some getting used to, and again, it’s hardly ideal. Players do a good job of moving without the ball and trying to get open, and playcalling is usually effective enough. However, freelance offense isn’t as good as it’s been in several NBA 2K titles. The AI’s shot tendencies don’t reflect the NBA’s shift towards a perimeter-based offense, with its higher volume of attempts from downtown. It’d be wrong to call it an arcade game, but its authenticity falls short of expectations for a sim title.

Beyond the quality and fluidity of animations, the variety is lacking. Even though it lost some animations with its shift to a new motion system, NBA 2K18 still has a much wider variety of dunks, layups, and other shot types. Like many games in its series, NBA Live 18 focuses on big, flashy dunks that are meant to finish off a drive. That might sound like an odd criticism, but there are times when a quick flush or simple dunk under the rim is preferable to going for a highlight slam. Also, while the focus on big dunks lends itself to highlight reels, the lack of variety means that many of them end up looking very similar. They’re still exciting, but slightly repetitive.

Honestly though, seeing the same dunk a few times per game doesn’t stand in the way of me enjoying NBA Live 18. However, repetitiveness and an overall lack of depth undoubtedly detract from its modes. I do really like Ultimate Team, as evident from the fact that what was intended to be a quick, once-off revisit turned into multiple sessions playing through unfinished challenges. It doesn’t have the same array of submodes as MyTEAM, though. There’s no campaign mode without restrictions and requirements, such as Domination. Instead, the only campaign mode is comprised of multi-game challenges, many of which require using specific cards to even attempt.

Shawn Kemp Dunks in NBA Live 18 Ultimate Team

It still leaves Ultimate Team with a decent amount of content to be played through, but MyTEAM’s formats are more appealing. Also, I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m in Australia and Ultimate Team relies on server-side content, but the challenge menus take a painfully long time to load compared to the various tabs in MyTEAM. Now that there are several pages of challenges, it’s frustrating to always land on the first one when you’ve completed it, and accidentally scrolling too far (or not far enough) wastes even more time as you wait for the page to load. Again, it may be due to my location, but it makes navigating the menus far more cumbersome than it should be.

As a long-time Franchise/Dynasty enthusiast, I was dismayed to see the “streamlined” approach in NBA Live 18. It’s functional with most of the basics intact, and while it isn’t my favourite franchise mode layout, I can see how it does the job if you’re after a simplified experience. It’s still disappointing, though. It feels as though the developers realised they couldn’t catch up to MyLEAGUE, so they just threw up their hands and decided to go barebones instead. Or, less cynically, it was likely the inevitable result of EA’s pursuit of a “new, younger demographic“; one that didn’t care as much for a “traditional” mode like Franchise, preferring online games with live service content.

That in turn led to a focus on The Streets, with its online team play and loot box rewards. To EA Sports’ credit, they avoided microtransactions in The One, and even used separate currencies for player upgrades and cosmetic items. The approach of updating core skills rather than needing to grind up thousands of Skill Points to max out each attribute had merit, and the higher baseline physical attributes made online player viable sooner. On the other hand, the need to buy a series of loot boxes just to get basic accessories for The League was annoying. Somewhere between NBA Live’s The One, and NBA 2K’s MyCAREER, is the NBA career mode that I really want!

The One Player with a Face Scan

To this day, I have mixed feelings about The One’s limited story, that being your player is making their way back from a serious knee injury by hitting The Streets and famous pro-am leagues. It avoids the nonsense and intrusiveness that some iterations of MyCAREER have had, yet at the same time the lack of cinematic cutscenes makes it almost not worth doing as flavour content. I can appreciate the minimalist approach, yet a career mode story feels like something games need to either go big with, or not do at all. Ultimately, I think my love of the NBA and the idea of role-playing as an NBA player made it difficult to enjoy The One, given that it focused on The Streets.

While the lack of focus on NBA strategy, a deep franchise mode, and The League side of The One might not have appealed to sim/traditional gamers, the addition of roster editing in a post-release patch did cultivate goodwill. This staple feature had been sorely missed, and while it was still lacking sharing functionality, we could at least customise our own rosters for the first time since NBA Live 10. I undersold its depth in my 25th Anniversary retrospective, as apart from complete control over the assigned animations, we had access to a lot of bio data in Edit Player. Face creation options were limited, but simply being able to edit rosters once more was a big deal.

Of course, while the in-game face creation tools were limited, the face scanning of the companion app was fantastic. NBA Live 19’s was even better, and I’ve been able to get far superior face scans in both games compared to any of my attempts with NBA 2K’s companion apps. While I wasn’t drawn in by The Streets, NBA Live 18 did an excellent job of incorporating real venues from famous pro-am leagues such as the Drew League and Dyckman, not to mention Rucker Park. The LIVE Events could be fun and the Star Wars court in particular was a cool venue, but personally, they didn’t hold the same amount of appeal as team Pro-Am in NBA 2K’s MyCAREER modes.

LeBron James vs. Andre Iguodala

My recent experiences with NBA Live 18 have solidified it as my favourite eighth generation NBA Live. That may sound like I’m damning it with faint praise, but it’s not just a case of it being the best of a bad bunch. I’ve legitimately enjoyed going back and continuing my journey through Ultimate Team, as well as playing a handful of exhibition games. It’s a game that I’m far more inclined to revisit than I would’ve thought when I wrote about it back in 2020. It does manage to cover the bare basics as far as modes and features, and while it takes a looser approach to the sim style and is missing some authenticity, it provides a brand of virtual basketball that I can enjoy.

Also, while it absolutely has its janky moments and there’s a roughness to it, it’s more mechanically sound that I remembered. Ideally it would’ve been lighter on the sticks, but if you play under control, if you don’t try to sprint all over the court and change directions on a dime with no regards to momentum, you’ll find that player movement isn’t as cumbersome as it first seems. Moving to catch passes does take players out of position more often than it should, and similar to how shots bounce off the rim, there’s something about the way that the ball moves on passes that isn’t quite right. That’s the roughness that I mentioned, but when something does look and feel good, it’s great.

With that in mind, NBA Live 18 definitely needed some extra polish to really impress gamers who had lost faith in the series. Had it made a better first impression, had it provided deeper modes and roster editing at launch, had it allowed Legends to be used outside of Ultimate Team, then it could’ve really capitalised on the dislike for NBA 2K18. If nothing else, it could’ve been something to build upon the following year. Unfortunately, NBA Live 19 leaned further into The Streets, LIVE Events, and the new Court Battles. It’s not that those modes didn’t have value or appeal, but the lack of focus on the NBA game further alienated many of us long-time NBA Live fans.

Scottie Pippen With The Steal in LUT18

Nevertheless, while I do stand by those criticisms of NBA Live 18, I have a far more favourable view of it than I did when I wrote my 25th Anniversary retrospective. It wasn’t everything that we wanted it to be – especially after another hiatus – but it did show promise, and I can still have fun with it today. When I talk about NBA Live’s disappointing run on eighth gen, I might have to make a point of excluding NBA Live 18 when I talk about the lowest of lows for the series. A second look has reminded me that it wasn’t just frustration with NBA 2K18, or rose-coloured glasses, that kept me hooked on NBA Live 18. Amidst the roughness is a deceptively solid hoops title.

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