There was a time when NBA Live was a dominant sports franchise, even rivaling the popularity and quality of EA’s other blockbuster IP, Madden . However, the series has inexplicably fallen off the map in the past five years. There was talk about a reboot in the form of NBA Elite 11 but it never happened and the franchise disappeared for a few more years, only to come back with the very mediocre NBA Live 14 . Now, EA Tiburon has tried to rebuild Live ’s good name with another effort and while it still falls well shy of the quality to which we’re accustomed, at least it’s a step forward. If you’re an optimist, you’ll manage to spot glimpses of promise for the future.
Perhaps the first reason to be optimistic is the graphics presentation. It’s actually quite a bit better than NBA Live 14 (and last year's installment) and in fact competes very well with this year’s NBA 2K16 . Granted, the latter still has it beat but the animations are excellent in the latest Live entry and stadium detail is pretty impressive. The visuals nicely capture the general ebb and flow of a basketball game, with authentic player movement and speed. Player models are a little lacking, though; these don’t appear realistic enough to me. However, aside from that small downside, I think EA Tiburon did a decent job with the technical presentation. For the most part, it looks and feels like real b-ball.
The audio category is another highlight, as the soundtrack is a really cool mix of hip-hop and electronic music, and there are actually 22 somewhat diverse songs. The announcing isn’t on par with the latest 2K Sports effort, as the commentators seem more wooden and less accurate overall, but it’s not exactly a huge drawback. The on-court effects are sharp and believable and the only downside is the occasional balancing issue. The bottom line is that while NBA Live 16 won’t blow you away with its graphical and sound excellence, both categories offer solidarity and proficiency and yes, that’s progress. I just wish they could’ve made a bit more progress, so EA can compete favorably with 2K.
And unfortunately, gameplay is where we find the most glaring problems, which is why Live still isn’t where it needs to be. The bottom line is that the core mechanics simply need more work, as the basic control is lacking. Maneuverability, responsiveness and accessibility are all questionable in one way or another, and it’s obvious the instant you set foot on the court. The players simply don’t move and react as they should. On offense and defense, there remain issues that detract from an experience that’s supposed to be a simulator, and you’re always on the verge of rolling your eyes. There are times when you just want to smirk and go, “come on, really?” It’s not terrible but when you’re on the verge of such a reaction every half-hour or so, you know something is definitely amiss.
I can’t decide if the developers wanted to emphasize momentum physics, thereby creating a basketball game that was indeed true-to-life. If this was one of their goals, they overshot; if it wasn’t a consideration, then it’s simply a big mistake. Every player seems to have concrete in his shoes because he never responds with the speed and flexibility of a finely-tuned professional athlete. Additionally, the game makes it very difficult to get into the flow of the action, often leaving you frustrated with the unfortunately unresponsive controls. I’m all for momentum physics and authenticity of movement but I can pretty much guarantee that LeBron can move faster than that . He can be sluggish, as we’ve seen, but this is a tad ridiculous.
Then there’s a button-mapping issue that I just can’t stand. I have no idea who thought it would be a good idea to use the right analog stick to spin around a defender, but it doesn’t work well. The control system just doesn’t make much sense. On top of which, certain mechanics just don’t work at all: I’m convinced I executed certain moves correctly on the controller but that wasn’t reflected on the screen. There’s nothing worse than having sluggish, seemingly uninterested and uncoordinated players, combined with an iffy button scheme. The result simply feels messy and annoying, as you desperately try to come to terms with a gamepad that, for years, has been comfortable and friendly. EA needs to take a cue from 2K’s fluidity and streamlined control, plain and simple.
Lastly, let me just say that the AI is unbalanced at best. Sometimes, you feel completely powerless on defense as your man blows by you. Other times, you think you can own anybody on the court just because you’ve found a laughable AI exploit. Your teammates aren’t much better, as they’ll just pass the ball all day and never try anything even remotely interesting. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a team that passes you the ball quite a bit, because it allows you to learn the gameplay without constantly trying to hog the ball. At the same time, it’s hardly realistic. In brief, while the control isn’t horrendous, it still leaves a lot to be desired, and we needed a much more balanced AI for both teammates and opponents.
But it’s not all bad. Like I said, this production can be seen as a step in the right direction; for instance, I’m a big fan of the new shot meter. This is the only truly great addition to the game, as far as I’m concerned: Now, shooting the ball is both simple and rewarding, and I love that it gives me a probability percentage when I release the ball. This allows me to track my learning progress with the mechanic; i.e., “oh, doing it that way resulted in 77 percent accuracy while doing it this way was only 62 percent.” It’s a step beyond the standard “late release” or “early release” indication that we’ve had for years. I also like pulling off certain moves in the midst of a stifling defense; for whatever reason, I found this to be plenty satisfying. I suppose you can call this an upside to the unbalanced AI.
And I have to add that I really like the available modes, perhaps even more so than what’s on display in NBA 2K16 . As the latter’s MyCareer mode falls totally flat in my estimation and MyTeam is really the only option, it’s nice to see a few different modes in Live . For instance, there’s Ultimate Team, which features the card-collecting mechanic – to which I’m very partial – and it’s great for die-hard fans. Then there’s the Pro Am Live Run, which lets ten players at a time participate in energy-charged five-on-five games. Each game is basically 21, which makes this a fantastic pick-up-and-play option, whether you’re playing with human or AI players. I might be dreaming but it seems as if the AI is actually better here than in other modes. Weird.
Live ’s version of MyCareer is called Rising Star and it’s only okay. It’s not fleshed-out enough and is so simple, it almost mocks the long road an athlete must travel between school and the pros. But at least we’re not bogged down by a predictable and boring Spike Lee story that severely limits freedom and does little to enhance the overall experience. Still, we don’t have enough customization and Rising Star could be a lot more robust. Someone needs to look into creating a really great story-based mode for one of these sports games but if you can’t manage it, just skip the narrative. I can’t imagine anyone is really playing sports titles for a story, anyway, so you don’t have to impress us with a fantastic plot. It’s a good idea (possibly) but it isn’t necessary.
NBA Live 16 isn’t a very good game but at least the series is moving forward, albeit slowly. The technical aspects are definitely the highlight, as the graphics are actually quite good and the music and sound effects add great flavor. The modes aren’t a problem, either, because you’ve got a nice variety here. You just need to nail down the gameplay, which is in dire need of an upgrade and/or an overhaul. The clunky control, unbalanced – and often annoying – AI, and general lack of authenticity and flow holds this production back. Gameplay is the core of any simulator; you can get away with a lot of other drawbacks if the gameplay is solid and fulfilling. Sadly, EA Tiburon still has a ways to go before we get the control we desire. But hey, maybe next year’s effort will be worthy of a 7+.
The Good: Great detail and animations throughout. Solid and appreciated variety of music, along with good on-court effects. New shot meter is a definite highlight. Nice variety of enjoyable modes.
The Bad: Clunky and sluggish control drags everything down. Inconvenient button-mapping. AI is way too unbalanced. Rising Star mode is too simple and bare-bones.
The Ugly: “Gameplay isn’t just another category, it’s the cornerstone.”