The story of the NBA Live franchise is something out of a Hollywood sports movie. From its roots as Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs, it went from a simulation concentrating on the top eight teams to one that perfectly encapsulated every team and their tendencies. From the 16-bit era onward, it was challenged by other first- and third-party studios, but it remained the champion of simulation basketball games in the eyes of players and critics.
At the turn of the century came the NBA 2K series. Though it was exclusive on the Sega Dreamcast for the first few years, people saw a challenger to NBA Live, and the fight began once the 2K series went multiplatform. For years, the fight between the two was close with 2K gaining ground. Then came the demo release and eventual cancellation of NBA Elite 11, which not only took EA out of video game basketball simulations for a while but also solidified 2K as the king of the sport. For a few years, we watched 2K become bigger and better while EA's game threatened to come back each year, only to turn around and postpone for months. After nearly three years, NBA Live 14 is finally staging a comeback on the next-generation consoles. It's a bold move, but the franchise should have stayed retired.
After the train wreck that was NBA Elite 11, many wonder if the three years of development have benefited the gameplay. Parts of the title make you think that the team at Tiburon was really paying attention to how video game basketball should be done. This is especially true of the ball handling, which uses a combination of the right analog stick and a modifier button to handle offense and defense. A few directional flicks of the stick give you an array of defensive maneuvers for each player and a few ways to intentionally foul someone. Offensively, you can pull off different dribbles to shake off opposing defenders. Pulling back the ball on a dribble and crossovers execute well with the stick, so stealing is more difficult to pull off. Granted, the use of the stick is nothing new, but it's nice to see that in building a game from scratch, this aspect wasn't left behind.
Shooting is another element that the game does right, as long as you're used to the way it was done in NBA Live 10. Shots are determined by your player's speed when taking the shot and how long the shoot button is held. The mechanics work the same for regular shots, dunks and free throws, so you don't have to learn different mechanics to make different shot types. If you're used to the shooting system in the 2K series, it'll take a little time to get a handle on this one.
Beyond that, the rest of the gameplay is disappointingly bad due to a bevy of questionable actions. If you don't call for a specific person, passing should now be smarter in choosing to the best player. The problem is that the controls seem to be unresponsive at times, so seeing the target and who the ball ends up going to are two completely different things, resulting in unexpected turnovers. Momentum is now taken into account when you move with or without the turbo accelerator activated, but the speed is inconsistent. The same player can decide to get a little spring in his step or go for a full-on run if you use the turbo modifier, and there's no sense of when they should stop. This results in plenty of fouls and backcourt violations, and it stops any chance of fast breaks.
If that weren't enough, the AI is next to useless on offense. For your team, you won't find anyone who makes an effort to get open for a pass or shot because they love sticking close to their defenders. If you shoot and miss, no one is there to attempt a rebound. This doesn't mean that the opposition runs like a well-oiled machine, either, as there are times when one person hogs the ball until the final seconds of the shot clock. If you decide to run some plays, you'll see their names pop up, but nothing indicates what those names mean and which routes each player takes. The only thing that works correctly is pulling up icons for passing, making for a very frustrating game of basketball if you're trying to play it as a sim instead of an arcade game.
Though it would have you believe that this was a game built from the ground up for next-generation consoles, the graphics look like a lazy port job of current-generation code. There are a few graphical elements that make you think otherwise, such as the mostly solid 60 fps on the court and the more polygonal crowd near the court that never seems to turn their heads toward the action. The player models animate well enough but can get into some awkward situations, like their limbs twisting around and running through the refs. Their faces also vary wildly in quality. Deron Williams and OJ Mayo look fine, but Pau Gasol and Blake Griffin do not. They also only look as good as something from the current-generation, as NBA 2K14 has shown us that next-gen James Harden and Chris Paul can look freakishly realistic. With the exception of the default TV-style view, even the camera angles seem to hide the graphics by being as far away from the action as possible. About the only positive in this department is the arena, which sports nice reflections on the floor and has other touches, like the special parquet on the Celtics' home court.
The audio is probably a bigger mess than the graphics. Both Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy do a decent job at the commentary booth until you start to hear the same lines in every quarter. They barely mention players by name, and when they do, the stitching between dialogue pieces is apparent due to the frequent pauses. Worse yet, once they try to spice things up with incidental dialogue, the volume drops very low. Jalen Rose's dialogue during halftime is even worse, as the pauses between dialogue pieces are even more apparent. The crowd is barely reactive; big shots and lead changes are met with indifference. Showing off an instant replay to a monster dunk gets silence from the crowd, with some sound effects thrown in. Speaking of effects, most are fine, but there are a few places where ball bounces aren't heard at all. The soundtrack fares much better, with a nice mix of rock and rap and one EDM track for good measure. The coach's dialogue during halftime is also nice, since it sounds like it was taken from aired games.
To top it off, there's no practice mode where you can learn things like the right analog stick functions. Instead, you get two promotional videos that talk about the new mechanics instead of discussing how they work. Worse yet, both videos are very poor quality, akin to standard definition with heavy blocking at every frame. The game is only 11GB in size, so they definitely could've used the extra space for higher-quality videos.
All of this is a shame because two of the game modes are intriguing, even though they've been done before. Live Season allows you to play the current season of your favorite team, complete with the exact schedule, roster and game results. When you figure that most people play the game during the NBA season and interest wanes afterward, this is a pretty smart move. In Big Moments, you get a chance to play big moments from the previous day's NBA games. Much like Madden's GMC Never Say Never moments, you're set up with everything you need to re-create the highlight and either surpass it or, if you're playing for the opposing team, prevent it. With the large number of games being played almost every day, there's lots of incentive to fire up the game and see if there's a new challenge to conquer.
The rest of the modes are pretty hit-and-miss. Ultimate Team mode makes its NBA debut, and the results are exactly what you'd expect if you played Madden NFL 25. You'll build your roster from an assortment of cards and improve the team by going through tournaments. The cards come in a hodgepodge of players, logos, contracts and uniforms, so nothing matches up at first, but you get used to it. Building the best teams means you'll have to pony up for the booster packs, and unless you're willing to grind away, start thinking about spending real money to get those sought-after packs.
Dynasty mode has you as the head coach of an NBA team, and you try to mold them into one of the greatest franchises in league history. It works well enough but is very menu-heavy, and with the long NBA season, expect to simulate most of the games you encounter unless you're adamant about controlling every aspect. For control freaks, you can perform level upgrades to your coaching and rehab staff in addition to controlling each player. One thing that doesn't seem to work well is the trading AI. This is especially true after year two, where the AI starts to ask for superstar players in the same position as existing superstar players. It also ignores some real-life ironclad agreements, such as the Lakers contractually obligated to not trade Kobe Bryant. Those gaps in logic occur often enough to ruin the illusion.
Finally, the Rising Star mode tries to be interesting but ends up being more difficult than it should be. You start the mode as a future draft pick who has to play an evaluation game to determine your spot in the draft. From there, you're picked up by an NBA team and have to live out your career trying to be the best possible player until your retirement. Throughout your career, you increase your stock by completing good plays, making shots, and avoiding bad decisions.
The first hint that the mode seems half-baked is in the limited character creation system. You have a set of pre-made faces at your disposal, but you don't have a way to change the hairstyle. If you want a bald guy, for example, you have to accept that he'll always wear a headband. The tattoo selection and placement outnumbers the choices for faces, and that's a big letdown. The other disappointment is in the grading system, which is too strict but gives you little to no hint about how to improve. Unless you can make 100% of your shots, you're penalized for every missed shot. Missing a steal attempt counts against you, even if it was done by someone else, and while the game docks you for not guarding your man, it doesn't tell you who that man is. Beyond that, the mode has unrealistically high expectations of your character, such as trying to beat the performance of established NBA stars in your first game. The result is a frustrating mess that'll have you resetting the mode several times until you understand what it wants you to do.
All of my grievances should give you an idea of what the online community is like. It exists, but it's very tiny. Once you get a game going, you can play in either ranked and unranked matches and participate in a best-of-seven series, if you wish. Ultimate Team can also be played online, but with the current online population, you're not likely to encounter an opponent anytime soon. At least the online performance is relatively lag-free, so games are smooth from beginning to end.
All of the aforementioned modes tie into a global profile that has an experience and level meter. Each task you accomplish, win or lose, helps contribute to an experience pool and is reported to the global notification system for friends who are also playing NBA Live 14. Gaining levels is nice but is only a benefit if you're heavy into Ultimate Team mode, since the reward for reaching certain level milestones is more card packs.
If anything, NBA Live 14 helps prove that the NBA 2K series will be the reigning king of video game basketball simulations for years to come. Some decent game mechanics are ruined by very poor AI that has little to no idea of what to do most of the time. The audio is poorly put together, and the visuals are decent for the middle of the current generation, not at the beginning of a new one. The ESPN license feels largely wasted in the bare-bones presentation. A few modes are too tedious to be fun. There are some good ideas and modes here, but with so many issues plaguing it and few players online in the first few weeks, the whole effort seems pointless. With any luck, the plan for EA is to learn from this and deliver a worthy product next year. Unless you need every game on your chosen platform, just pick up NBA 2K14 for your hoops fix this year, and don't look back.
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