NBA Live 18 is a lot like James Harden’s beard after the full-time buzzer. Stunning from a distance, but up close, it’s a sweaty mess.
Metaphors aside, EA Games had a lot to prove with NBA Live 18. It follows a string of cancelled and poorly received games, plus there’s the acclaimed series NBA 2K to compete with. Thankfully NBA Live 18 is a step in the right direction. Simple gameplay, a personalised career mode and full WNBA roster open the game to a wider audience, but shallow game modes and a lack of polish means it falls short of achieving its full potential.
NBA fans will immediately recognise James Harden as the shooting guard for the Houston Rockets. For everyone else, he’s the bearded guy on the cover. James Harden’s presence in NBA Live 18 is one of its most enticing features. Harden is basically the narrator of your basketball career. From the iconic “EA Sports, it’s in the game,” through to explaining the intricacies of upgrading your player, Harden’s deep voice is there to guide you. Using Harden for more than the cover art was a great move by EA and something it should consider for all of its sports titles.
Once my beard envy subsided, I could appreciate the player’s likenesses to their real-life counterparts. From sweat to skin blemishes and tattoos, the realism is in full effect. Although I’m still not convinced that video games can create hair that looks passable which is disappointing when the main player’s face is almost all hair. Basketball courts and crowds go a long way towards replicating the feeling of a real NBA game, and when taking to the streets, the vibrant colours of the skies, grass and painted concrete are a nice contrast to the darker tones found indoors.
However, the presentation could use more work. Player animations can appear stilted, particularly when going in for a shot or layup and quite often arms and legs clip through other players’ bodies – think John Carpenter’s The Thing, but without the gore. It doesn’t help the realism when commentary begins to repeats itself after just a few games, which is incredibly disappointing when compared to EA’s Madden NFL 18 which features extensive and adaptive commentary.
The gameplay is simple and easy to pick up. The left joystick handles player movement, and the right stick is for dribbling control. One button is for shooting, one for pass and another for layups. The same 3 buttons are used for defence albeit taking on different functions. There are advanced controls for dunks, fadeaways and other ball skills which require a combination of multiple buttons to pull off successfully. It only takes a game or two to learn the basics which makes it the perfect basketball game for casual gamers or non-gaming sports fans to get it and have a go.
Speaking of expanding the target audience, NBA Live 18 is the first basketball game ever to include the WNBA. All 12 women’s teams and their players are recreated and appear as lifelike as their male counterparts. It’s baffling that it took this long for the WNBA to be featured in a game. Unfortunately, it’s still a half-arsed inclusion. You can’t play as a woman in career mode, and the commentary doesn’t even use player names.
Still, NBA Live 18’s best feature is its career mode – The One. In The One, you create a custom character and begin playing ball in college and on the streets before progressing through a series of games and on to a professional career in the NBA. Winning games allows you to upgrade stats and access unlockable skills tailored to your playstyle. Deck your player out in your real favourite brands including tops, shorts, socks, sneakers and a robust tattoo selection. The personalisation options are dense, and I was invested in levelling up my player to be the best he could be. There’s not much in the way of story content which is again, disappointing when compared to Madden NFL 18.
If you love the back and forth between ESPN’s First Take hosts Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman you’re in for a treat. In career mode, you can enjoy clips of these two discussing your performance and highlights from the in-game NBA season. The clips can be long and the hosts’ discussion hard to follow. I’d consider First Take to be an acquired taste. It’s just a shame the on-court commentary didn’t receive this much attention.
EA Sports’ flagship Franchise mode returns. Franchise allows you to manage and play for a team through an entire NBA season, but its missing most of the features that make it unique including drafting and customising players. Without these options, it doesn’t feel like you own an NBA franchise which is supposedly the entire point of this mode. It might not have been such a big issue if the missing features weren’t found in other EA Sports games including Madden NFL 18 which was released less than a month ago.
Ultimate Team is back, which sees you collecting players through random drops and building a team for online play. You either love or hate Ultimate Team; frankly, I get annoyed with the push towards building a team faster through micro-transactions which feels wrong in a full priced game. Outside of Ultimate Team, there are your standard options for local and online co-op or versus.
The soundtrack has some goodness including Kendrick Lamar, Gorillaz and Kid Kudi. The problem is all of the tracks are hip hop and rap. I’m positive basketball fans enjoy a multitude of genres, myself included.
NBA Live 18 is a good basketball game, but not a great one. It does wonders for improving the reputation of the NBA Live franchise but has a long way to go before it can reclaim its former glory. The NBA Live franchise is a lot like growing a beard – aims high but can’t commit the time and effort required for it to truly shine. NBA Live 18 is available now on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. If you’re not entirely convinced either way, there’s a free demo you can download and try it out for yourself.
Man of Many received a copy of NBA Live 18 courtesy of EA Games. The online features were not tested.
I played the PS4 version. For better or worse, the beard metaphors are my own.