It's no secret that NBA Live is akin to a rebuilding franchise.
As fans of the Association know, though, there is a big, big difference between a rebuild done the right way and one botched from the beginning, spinning wheels until folks lose jobs and fans lose interest.
Basketball fans seeking a digital alternative to the NBA 2K series can rest easy: EA Sports isn't spinning any wheels with the release of NBA Live 18.
After delaying and eventually shoving last year's game into NBA Live 18, creating a rare two-year development cycle for a sports video game, EA Sports has crafted a fun experience fans will want to rediscover.
With innovations, arcade-inspired gameplay and a game visually on par with anything on the market, the NBA Live series is back in a big way.
NBA Live 18 puts the emphasis on fun.
Sounds simple, right? Fans have come to appreciate the depth and layer after layer of complication mimicking the real thing found in the NBA 2K series.
NBA Live 18 isn't trying to step into that lane. It goes boldly toward simplification. The right stick still controls dribbling, with shoulder buttons modifying. Holding a left trigger locks a player in on defense. Right-stick shooting is here and simple.
EA Sports combines the basic controls with responsive and eye-catching overlays.
The yellow shot meter is easy to follow while pulling the stick. Land it in the green, guaranteed make. Passing overlays on the court stand out and show viable lanes for the user, who can then hit one of several face buttons to perform different sorts of passes, like lobs.
On defense, the lock-on function creates overlays showing which way the player with the ball might go. An inbound and half-court countdown timer overlay helpfully appear as well.
Again, simple—and it all feels fantastic. Anybody can pick up and play, and the game doesn't work too hard to punish users who make mistakes. This is slanted toward arcade ball, meaning anticipating the next jaw-dropping dunk or ridiculous block followed by a celebration, not punishing a user for an iffy pass.
This whole system creates a certain weight to players not often found in basketball games. Trying to man up LeBron James feels fruitless. Keeping in step with Isaiah Thomas will leave the user's player with hurt ankles.
This isn't a bad thing, as signature stars aren't that in name only here; they're game-changing presences users can't help but be impressed by.
The pick-up-and-play potential here might be better than any other sports game out right now, but it doesn't feel simplistic enough to rip it of a "simulation" descriptor, either.
Graphics and Presentation
Observers will have a hard time telling the difference between NBA Live 18 and the latest NBA 2K installment.
Sure, a few superstars here and there will look better on one version or the other. But the real story is the significant boost EA Sports has put on compared to the...odd visuals of NBA Live 16.
Part of the aforementioned weight of the superstar players comes from their presentation and behavior.
Carmelo Anthony doesn't rock the rim when he slams it down; he almost gently lets the ball fall through. He then spins and gracefully heads up the court. LeBron jackhammers it like he belongs in a WWE ring.
The contrast between superstars is striking and a big part of the reason the more arcade-slanted style works. This applies on the various streetball courts as well, where players perform the same way yet do so in creative outfits. Players are expressive and, should the game go long enough on the sunny oceanside court, sweat breaks out on shirts.
Presentation itself is a more hit-or-miss affair.
It was fun to see First Take worked into The One, with the ESPN-style presentation a cherry on top. But in-game announcing felt limited. Granted, "limited" is miles better than hearing the same tired line from an announcer, but it's an area of improvement moving forward. This is especially the case for the WNBA mode considering there isn't commentary at all pertaining to the women's team or player names.
Like the other areas, EA Sports has a solid foundational piece.
The One and More
This is far from a featureless offering.
The One isn't Madden 18's Longshot mode by a, well, longshot. There aren't mo-capped characters and big production-value cutscenes.
But The One is a more personal experience, leaving droves of options at the hands of the user. This is about the user's created player working back from an injury on the path to the NBA draft. Users choose how the journey unfolds, taking both to the street and hardwood.
The customization is outstanding. Users can unlock vast arrays of equipment and features for their player, and the leveling system while rounding out a player's skill set feels right out of an RPG thanks to the branching paths and traits able to be flipped from the Pro-Am Tour to the NBA.
Customization and options don't feel limited to these areas, either. As soon as I was drafted by the Sacramento Kings, I popped open the phone, told my agent I wanted to be traded and got shipped to my first choice, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
As hinted, it isn't all perfect.
WNBA implementation is a huge bonus, though the presentation falls short. Franchise mode is nice to have, though it has a handful of noticeable problems, like a lack of online and the fact the calendar only moves in weeks as opposed to days. This sort of weekly approach works in the NFL, not NBA.
Ultimate Team is here as well, though it feels barebones compared to the offerings found in Madden. It'll help the game's longevity for many where franchise won't, but it's odd to see such a coveted area miss the mark, especially when Madden does it so well.
The intention with NBA Live 18 was never to go toe-to-toe with 2K Sports' in-depth simulation.
Here, casual means good fun. It feels as accessible as a basketball game should and is a step or two ahead of what many fans might have anticipated for a game following up on an outright cancellation.
Again, this is a rebuild done right. NBA Live 18 has something many sports games never establish: an identity. A deeply customizable arcade feel with strong base gameplay highlighting the emphasis superstars have on every game is a strong way to recoup some of the series' losses over the years.
NBA Live 18 feels like a rebuilding franchise contenders notice. It's the one with a high draft selection sure to pan out. There's a streaky shooter in the lineup still and no depth on the bench, but a few more smart moves by the folks at the controls, and the playoff hopeful can turn into a contender.
Every contender starts with a direction and a base to build around—NBA Live 18 has both.