Despite being a market share leader in most sports games segments with their Madden, FIFA and NHL franchises, EA hasn’t been able to rule in the basketball market with their NBA Live games, given the public preference towards 2K Sports’ NBA 2K series. Not to mention a smaller, but present, preference towards arcade-like titles such as NBA Playgrounds. Most Live games from previous years have both sold poorly and performed badly with critics, to the point EA didn’t even release a new title in 2016. Maybe that was for the best, as this year’s NBA Live is much better than any other game in the franchise ever since, well, the PS2 days.
Gameplay-wise, NBA Live 18 is less realistic and complex than NBA 2K18. Scoring layups is easier, free throws are not as hard to perform, and stealing balls is more likely to happen here than in 2K Sports’ title. If you’re looking for a more realistic approach, then you’re not going to find it here, but I have to admit that NBA Live 18‘s gameplay felt more accessible for newcomers, as well as more forgiving towards them, than its main competitor. In a way, that’s a good thing: NBA Live 18 is definitely a better choice for people who are curious towards basketball games but have little to no experience with them.
One thing that this game lacks in comparison to its competitor is the amount of playable teams. Besides the obvious 30 teams from the league, all you can choose here are a few more teams from the WNBA, the women’s main basketball league. Gone are the national teams, due to the expiration of FIBA’s license. Classic teams, one of the best aspects of the 2K series, are also nowhere to be seen. This leaves NBA Live 18 lacking in variety in this department. Another (very small) problem lies in the soundtrack. Sure, the rap songs present here are great, with stuff from Nas, Kendrick Lamar, and Kid Cudi, but that’s all the game offers in its soundtrack: rap, while 2K18 goes overboard with everything from Def Leppard’s hard rock to Shakira’s reggaeton.
While the game lacks in team variety, the same cannot be said about its game modes. You have the typical instant match and GM modes, decent online options, as well as EA Sports’ staple Ultimate Team and the possibility to play in licensed Pro-Am leagues such as the Drew League. The real star here, however, is the game’s main selling point, The One.
The One is basically this game’s Be a Pro mode. Instead of just being a simplistic career mode in which you control one player, just like other EA Sports games from previous years, the developers took their time to come up with a nice little introductory story revolving around you picking up an injury in college that nearly made you quit basketball, as well as a small prologue chapter with you and your childhood friend playing amateur basketball in some of the United States’ most famous street courts. Another awesome addition was the inclusion of Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman from ESPN’s First Take show, who recorded quite a hefty amount of footage in the show’s actual studio, making the experience even more realistic. Speaking of realism…
You can play as yourself in this mode. As in, literally, yourself. Thanks to a companion phone app, you can have your face scanned and placed into your character’s model. Yes, it makes you look a bit weird, given the game’s somewhat subpar facial animations (everything else looks great, though), but the fact is that your face is in the game, and you can even customize your player with loads of haircuts, beards and tattoos. Seeing myself with dreadlocks was odd, to say the least.
The One isn’t only good because of the aforementioned features, though. This mode outshines NBA 2K18 career mode by, firstly, not being anywhere near as glitchy, and secondly, by having an actually decent progression system. Unlike 2K18‘s borderline offensive progression system, which basically forced you to spend real money to buy more stats for your player, your progress in the game is solely tied to what you do on the field. The more you score, the better you play, the more experience points you earn. Thankfully, the coaches are decent enough to let you play, at the very least, two fifths of each match, and maybe even more if you start playing well. It took me less than fifteen matches to reach a very decent rate of 80, for instance. I was already a starting player for the Mavericks before the end of the league. While 2K18‘s career mode was downright infuriating, NBA Live 18‘s was a joy.
In the end, I can safely say I’m positively surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying NBA Live 18 so far. It might not have the same amount of content as its biggest competitor, nor does it have the same level of realistic gameplay, but its newcomer-friendly gameplay and incredibly entertaining career mode (devoid of progress-hindering microtransactions) more than make up for it. Besides, playing as a polygon self in a video game never ceases to be amazing. After years of being considered the ugly duckling of basketball games, NBA Live 18 finally manages to outshine its competition, not only due to the fact that it’s a good game, but also given the amount of controversial decisions adopted by its 2K Sports rival. Definitely looking forward to next year’s iteration.
Also available on: PS4.