Maybe the franchise should’ve remained dormant. For many years, NBA Live was synonymous with video game basketball, even to the level that Madden was associated with interactive football. But the quality of the series began to tail off and at about the same time, 2K Sports came in with the extremely well-received NBA 2K franchise. Then, EA opted to temporarily retire Live while 2K’s series continued to excel on all fronts. NBA 2K14 was another fantastic addition…and NBA Live 14 does not hold up well in comparison.
You sense something is critically wrong right from the outset. The player models are beyond mediocre; in many instances, they’re downright creepy. They all appear to be stiff, lifeless, plastic versions of their real-life counterparts, and their animations are borderline comical. Collision detection is all over the place and the sloppy physics result in even crazier visual screw-ups. Despite a few flashy background effects to enhance the overall ambiance of the arena, the general graphical design is mediocre at best. At no point are we seeing a realistic virtual incarnation of basketball; rather, we’re watching a disappointing relic of the past.
The audio isn’t much better, as the uninspired and often erratic commentary does little to bolster the experience, and the soundtrack is generic at best. The on-court sound isn’t necessarily terrible but the balancing is off, and one gets the distinct impression that EA Tiburon didn’t put a lot of effort into this category. As apparently is the case with the rest of the production, the designers inexplicably ignored the power of the new consoles. There’s no other explanation for this poor technical performance, is there? The music isn’t bad – if you like that sort of thing – and a few of the background effects are okay but aside from that, the sound presentation is just plain lackluster.
When you combine seriously subpar graphics and sound in what’s supposed to be a simulator, you’re off to a really bad start. The game is specifically created to accurately reproduce a real-life sport, so if it doesn’t look like that sport, and it doesn’t sound like that sport, the gameplay better be pretty damn special. Unfortunately, there’s nothing special about NBA Live 14 . The jerky, even ridiculous movement of the players, the outdated and unreliable physics, and the severely unbalanced offense makes this game an exercise in frustration. There doesn’t appear to be any way to properly execute a well-designed play, which will give game managers fits.
Whether you’re attempting a straight drive to the hoop, the classic pick-and-roll, or a post maneuver, you’re always stymied by the crappy physics. Balls leave hands at all the wrong moments, players get stuck to one another, and the game’s best big men are completely uncoordinated. They may not be small and zippy, but they’re not bumbling fools, either. The defense is so hit-or-miss that fouls seem to be called almost completely at random, which means all your fine-tuned strategy goes right out the window. You end up having to take a lot of risks, which can lead to crowd-pleasing breakaways but more often than not ends in a mess of flailing limbs. As I say, it’s just immensely frustrating through and through.
For a game that’s supposed to be all about realism and authenticity, it’s laughable how each game plays out. Players who are supposed to be head-and-shoulders above average competitors somehow seem to be even more inconsistent. When it comes to supposedly in-depth modes such as Rising Star, there’s a bit of tension and entertainment value involved in being a rookie in the NBA. However, despite the fact that the mechanic does indeed reward smart play and solid fundamentals, one is also rewarded for just being lucky. I’ve always hated that in any simulator. Just because I heaved up a desperation shot and it went in, I’m somehow a better player because of it? Why am I being encouraged to try it again?
Still, Rising Star has its moments. You can see the improvement of your player when he makes slick passes and properly defends, and it’s always nice to be rewarded for your growing skills and basketball IQ. Sadly, you’re never allowed to fully appreciate and enjoy your acquired ability, because your attention constantly shifts to the lame-brain AI. Your teammates aren’t the smartest when it comes to court position, passing and shot selection, and the opponents can do some wacky stuff, too. Occasionally, the game functions as it should, with players pulling off some nicely strategized maneuvers on both sides of the floor. But only occasionally.
I suppose one could argue that there are eccentricities in any sports game, and that this particular title simply has more hang-ups than normal. Those may be deemed trivial provided the player enjoys his time on the court, but it’s hard to imagine a seasoned NBA fan appreciating what EA Tiburon has given us. When the AI is all over the map, and you’re constantly battling screwy physics and animations, it’s like riding a really dangerous rollercoaster. There are times when it’s one hell of a ride but for the most part, you’re just worried about the seemingly inevitable derailment. That’s a decent analogy for the latest Live installment; there are indeed a few super cool highs, but the lows tend to erase the positives.
Playing online isn’t any better. I experienced plenty of lag, almost to the point where it was completely debilitating. On top of which, the problems one has when playing solo are only magnified when you get on the court with other humans. That’s because everyone soon realizes that well-schooled b-ball strategies really don’t work, and that’s due to the myriad of technical issues that plague every step. Therefore, multiplayer ends up mired in the following rut: Player 1 brings ball up court, looks for a hole and drives to the hoop. He’s either fouled or he’s called for a charge. Player 2 then does exactly the same thing because both players have realized that authenticity is nowhere to be found.
It’s probably best to stick to Rising Star and some of the other modes that work to diminish the obvious drawbacks. If you can get fully immersed in a more complex undertaking, you’re more likely to ignore the glaring shortcomings. Plus, fans will really like the excellent NBA integration. You can attempt challenges specifically designed for your favorite team, and those challenges are reflections on the real-life occurrences in the NBA. If you’re looking to relive the moment when Indiana topped San Antonio to prove that the Pacers are so for real, go for it. The best part is that because such high points are rare and difficult to achieve, they're tough to recreate.
That’s about all we’ve got, though. NBA Live is a colossal disappointment in more ways then one; the technical aspects are well below average, the physics and animations are some of the worst we’ve seen this year, the AI is mentally deficient, and worst of all, nothing about this feels real. There are a few positives to which to cling, if you’re a die-hard basketball fanatic. But even those highlights are difficult to get excited about when the majority of the time, you’re frowning at the screen, thinking— “I can’t believe we waited three years for this.” The last NBA Live title was 2010 and you know, that’s where the series should’ve ended.
The Good: Rising Star offers some solid entertainment. A few decent background effects. Great integration with the NBA.
The Bad: Lousy technicals, including outdated detail and animation. Mediocre physics results in all sorts of gameplay issues. Real basketball intelligence and strategy is almost useless. Poor control. Online is just a waste of time.
The Ugly: “You can’t go two minutes without seeing another example of ‘ugly,’ unfortunately.”