EA’s NBA Live series has had a rather tumultuous time since arriving on the current generation of consoles.
NBA Live 14 was released on Sony’s Playstation 4 going up against NBA 2K14, which blew everyone away with a completely new engine and the most realistic graphics ever seen in a sports title. Live 14 was almost doomed from the start with a launch trailer that was universally panned online, graphics that looked like they belonged on the previous generation of consoles, questionable player likeness and slow, stiff gameplay.
Fast-forward a few years and EA has made tremendous strides with its NBA Live series. After gradual improvements and taking 2017 off to completely re-vamp the series, it returned in 2018 with a title that introduced the fantastic The One career mode and was all about fun gameplay. EA has doubled down on this with NBA Live 19 and while it’s certainly not perfect, in the two weeks that I’ve spent with the game, they’ve delivered what is certainly the best NBA Live title since 2010 and one that is incredibly fun to play.
THE ONE IS THE HEART OF THE GAME
EA’s NBA career mode made its debut last year in NBA Live 18 and has already become the jewel in the series’ crown. You start by scanning your face into the game using EA’s companion app and customising your appearance.
Unlike NBA 2K’s MyCareer, you won’t watch cut scenes here. Instead, the story is delivered through voiceovers as you begin games, text message conversations with other players, coaches, friends and reporters and also through a series of real-life videos. You’ll see Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman talk about your career on First Take and ESPN Studio segments where Cassidy Hubbarth hypes your upcoming games. You’ll also watch reaction videos from Complex Sports and from your favourite NBA YouTubers, in which they’ll discuss your latest games and show off clips of your best plays. You’ll also see fan-footage shot on phone cameras of your highlight plays as they happen in-game. It all works in telling your character’s story in a very non-intrusive way. Having footage of genuine on-air personalities really adds to the mode’s immersion too.
Across The One, you’ll play in The Streets World Tour, where you’ll first travel the world competing in several street ball tournaments before moving on to The League portion of the career. Here, you’ll be invited to the Draft Combine, attend the NBA draft and wind up on a team.
The street ball tournaments are incredibly fun and each venue looks beautiful. Playing at the Jordan Quai 54 in Paris as the sun sets looks fantastic and will have you using the game’s instant replay feature to pause, zoom and take a ton of screenshots to share across social media. The Venice Beach tournament as well as The Cage in New York city are also some of the game’s best-looking courts – especially when you compare them to real life photos of the same places.
To level-up your player, you’ll simply need to play the game. There’s no option to quickly upgrade your player via in-game purchases. The grind, however, never really feels as such and The One is a joy to play.
There’s something extremely satisfying about winning tournaments across the world, defeating the various challenges that each game sets along the way. As you meet and play against other NBA players in the streets, you’ll recruit them to play on your squad. You can then change your team line-up and add new players that you recruit, in order to have the best chance of winning the next tournament. As you do all of this, you’ll continue to gain XP that you can use to upgrade your player, buy clothes or new animations.
You’ll also increase your various ‘hype meters’ for your play in the league and in the streets. Within my first two weeks, I’ve found myself constantly wanting to turn the PS4 back on so I can compete in the next game and continue to build my player.
THE WNBA RETURNS
EA Sports introduced the WNBA to NBA Live 18 and while it was a brilliant move, the mode felt a bit barebones. In last year’s game, you could take part in quick games with WNBA teams but that was it. There was no WNBA-specific commentary either.
This year, the league shines brighter and women’s basketball is much more of a focus in general. The Play Now portion of the WNBA has improved and the commentary is now focused towards the teams and players. For the first time in a basketball game, you can also create your own female player and use her in The One career mode. Unfortunately, the female career mode isn’t quite as deep as the male version and you can’t play through The League portion of the career with a female created player – only the streets part. Since release, the game’s developers have said that they will look to greatly expand on the female career mode in next year’s game. Regardless, it’s great to see the WNBA and women’s basketball feature so prominently.
You can also play as female players in the online modes. It’s very cool being able to go up against or play with a team of players online comprising men and women. Playing against some of the WNBA’s best in career mode and trying to recruit them to your squad, even if you’re playing as a male created player, is great fun too.
COURT BATTLES: NBA LIVE’S SECRET WEAPON
A brand new game mode in NBA Live 19 is Court Battles. As you play the game, you’ll notice that The One and your created character bleed into many other area.
As The One, you can create custom courts, customise these with logos, images and any colours that you can imagine. You can host private games with your friends on these, run practice drills or choose to put them on the line and defend them in Court Battles.
In this mode, you construct a team of five players from those that you’ve recruited whilst playing The Streets World Tour. You will also pick a rule set for your court and there’s tons to choose from: Prefer regular basketball rules? Fine. Do you want every dunk to be worth 5 points? You got it. Want games to only be able to end after everyone has scored? You can do it.
Once you select your rules, you then arm your court with your squad and put it online. From here, other players can challenge your team and try to win on your court, playing your rules. If they win, they take your court. Likewise, you can also go into Court Battles and take a team around other players courts and try to take them down. I have to say, taking control of other players courts is extremely satisfying – but the real draw of the mode is when you find out that someone else has taken your own court and how you feel compelled to go and take it back. It’s a fresh and exciting new mode, which is already proving popular. Fans of the game on Reddit and other online communities are already speculating over how it will be expanded on in next year’s game.
LIVE RUN IS BETTER THAN EVER
Live Run is where you take your The One player online and team up with others in 3v3 or 5v5 games. In 3v3 mode, you choose from a selection of street courts and play to 11 points. The games are frantic, fast-paced and super-addictive while 5v5 is full NBA rules with four quarters of gameplay but also set on street courts. Online players can tend to ball-hog quite a bit and a lot seems to live at the three point line, but find the right players and this mode is a ton of fun. Similarly to the other game modes, you’ll earn XP here to continue to build your player.
There’s also Live Events, which are limited-time games and challenges. These are updated daily and reward you with clothes, new players, items and other things that you can use to upgrade your player and street ball teams.
The series has already featured several YouTubers and basketball content creators in this mode. Once you defeat their team and complete the game’s specific challenges, you’ll be able to recruit them if you wish and unlock other cool items. Like Court Battles, this is one mode that has had me checking the game daily, even if I don’t have any intention to play at that time. Knowing that games and challenges are time-limited and may only be available for a short time makes sure that I’m checking the game regularly so that I don’t miss out on new content.
ULTIMATE TEAM RETURNS
NBA Live’s card collecting mode is back. It’s not something I’ve really spent a lot of time with as these modes aren’t my preferred way to play when it comes to sports games, but it’s packed full of content for those who are fans of it. There are more challenges to complete than last year – a dizzying amount, in fact.
There are no contracts in the mode this year, much to the delight of Ultimate Team fans everywhere. This is the only one area of the game that contains micro-transactions. I’m not the biggest fan of this in videogames, but I appreciate that it’s at least contained to only one mode here.
NBA. IT’S IN THE GAME.
One of the things that has really stuck out in my two weeks with Live 19 is the authentic NBA presentation. Courts and arenas look incredible with different lighting for each venue, hardwood that practically looks real, authentic arena sounds and crowd chants that you’ll hear on TV.
The arena atmosphere has been given a lot of love. Crowds really roar and the areas rumble during the playoff and Finals games – it just feels that touch more special to play on the bigger stage.
The ESPN license is back in NBA Live 19, which really adds to its authenticity. You’ll see all of the same on-screen graphics and hear the same ESPN music that you hear on real-life broadcasts. The halftime show, presented by Jalen Rose, is packed full of great content and top plays – I never skip it.
EA has also brought in a brand new commentary team of Ed Cohen and Jay Williams, who will be recording new audio throughout the season. It’s the same dynamic commentary that you’ll find in Madden. At the moment, there’s a bit too much dead air and repetition, but I can see how it will improve as the real-life season plays out. Player likeness is the best it’s ever been in the NBA Live series.
One of the other big changes this year is the addition of Real Player Motion. The result is a game that moves and feels completely different to the last few iterations. Players no longer have the stiffness that was associated with previous games in the series and they move like their real-life counterparts.
All of the signature dribble moves, jumpshots and other animations are in and the game really feels physical, particularly in the paint. When you get fouled on a dunk attempt or even on a mid-range jumper, the players react brilliantly and you really feel the weight behind the contact. Off-ball play is excellent too. You can jostle for position, try to get out of your defenders way and even grab on jerseys at times. It feels super-responsive.
Another big new addition is Live Arena, which really brings the game’s environments to life. You’ll see players dive into the crowd to catch loose balls, fall into the stanchion, collide with the camera man (and even knock them over), high five the crowd, lose their balance and be pushed back by the fans in the front row and taunt the opposing benches among other things. When playing a game as the Warriors against the Celtics, I hit a game winner with Steph Curry and he immediately ran to the scorer’s table, jumped on top of it and celebrated to the crowd.
EA has made tremendous strides with NBA Live 19 and it’s easily one of the most pure fun basketball experiences out there.
Not everything is great, though. Franchise mode is very much a barebones experience and offers none of the depth that you’d expect from such a mode or that you’d find in 2K’s offering. If you buy basketball games purely for this mode, you may be let down here.
I mentioned the commentary earlier in the review. Ed Cohen and Jay Williams offer something new and fresh, which was needed as the commentary in the series was becoming stale, but there’s just not enough of it. There’s still too much dead air, which will hopefully be addressed as the duo record more lines throughout the year and discuss the season as it happens.
NBA Live 19 can be summed up perfectly in one word: FUN.
The One is one of the most enjoyable and addictive career modes in sports gaming and I can’t wait to see how they continue to build on it. Playing on the various real-life street courts and in tournaments is great fun and Court Battles may be the best new basketball videogame mode in some time. The on-court action is butter-smooth and there’s a lot of little touches and attention to detail that will satisfy the most hardcore NBA fan.
The commentary needs work, but I’m hoping that this will develop as the season goes on, as the NBA Live devs have already stated via Twitter. Franchise mode really lets the game down and it does feel like more attention could have been given to these offline modes, but there’s more than enough here to ensure that I’ll be coming back to the game until NBA Live 20 next year.
NBA LIVE 19 was reviewed on Playstation 4, full retail edition.