When it comes to sport simulation video games, it’s clear that EA Sports is king. It has the crown in just about every major sport, and this was the case for many years with its NBA Live series. Live was the standard bearer for close to 15 years, but during the jump from the PlayStation 2 to the PlayStation 3, it began to lose its grip, culminating in the 2011 instalment of the franchise being cancelled after review copies had already been dished out. Since 2014, EA has been attempting to re-establish itself in the NBA space, and with NBA 2K increasingly coming under fire for excessive microtransactions, could this be the year NBA Live finally comes roaring back?
NBA Live 19 kicks off in rather promising fashion. Before you’re thrown into any menus and potentially overwhelmed with choices, the game presents you a helpful cut scene that explains guard, wing, and big-man player types. This is basic level stuff for hardcore basketball aficionados, but for casual fans or those with little basketball exposure, this is a brilliant introduction. At its conclusion you’re immediately shuffled into a 3-on-3 game to serve as your tutorial. Here you’ll be run through all the basic actions, from passing and shooting to some slightly more advanced moves, like how to post-up or box a player out when going for a rebound. It’s all presented extremely well, and the checklist of actions to perform will have you grasping the basics in no time.
Once this is all over, you’re off to the player creation suite, where for the first time ever in an NBA game, you’re able to create a female player. Following on from Live’s introduction of the WNBA license last year, this is an extremely welcome addition. However, it’s not all positive. Bizarrely, female players cannot participate in “The League”, EA’s answer to NBA 2K’s MyCareer mode. Female created players have access to every other mode and can even play through “The Rise”, a prelude to the career mode, yet are barred from ever turning pro. This seems like a stunning oversight and a complete waste of the WNBA licensing.
In general, The League is a very hit-and-miss mode. As mentioned, you kick things off with The Rise, which has your player starting in high school and then strangely forgoing the traditional college experience or even playing professionally overseas, instead opting to play street ball. Unlike the competition, The League doesn’t have a whole lot more story than that. For the most part it's a straight career mode, which will be music to the ears of fans who have become fed up with 2K’s outlandish and soap opera-style stories.
Another dramatic difference compared to 2K’s MyCareer mode is that you seem to have complete control over your teammates' on-court actions. If you call for the ball in The League, you’re guaranteed to have the ball flying towards you. Similarly, if you tell your teammate to shoot the ball, they’ll shoot it -- even if that means flinging a shot from the opposite baseline. While some players will enjoy the freedom this can bring, beginner players will no doubt find themselves creating plenty of turnovers, as unlike NBA 2K19, there is no effort to teach you what a good or bad call for a pass is.
The theme of The League really seems to be spoiling players as much as possible. Alongside your complete control over teammates, you also start at a relatively high overall rating, somewhere in the mid-70s, while also upgrading your stats extremely quickly. The way EA handles created player progression is by getting you to pick your style of player and then an “Icon”, such as Kevin Durant, to build yourself after. This format means you’re only spending points to upgrade a handful of stats yourself, while everything else is taken care of you. A system like this could probably work well in theory, but we found that it meant we started levelling way too quickly, and within hours we’d developed into the greatest three-point shooter the NBA has ever seen.
The one unanimous positive in giving players so much freedom over their career mode is that you’re able to adjust the length of your seasons. Playing 82 games and then the playoffs is a massive undertaking, so the choice to reduce the amount of games required is a massive bonus and makes it so much easier to progress through multiple years of your career.
Unfortunately, the narrative in The League isn’t the only barebones thing here. The overall gameplay is extremely jarring and never feels completely right. It’s clear when EA boasts about “real player motion” that it's aiming for a realistic simulation, but actually playing the game quickly proves that this is far from present in Live 19. For starters, the physics of the ball itself are extremely wonky and unrealistic, while player animations are stiff, strange and unnatural in a lot of cases. Too many times we would feed a pass to a teammate who would then rocket towards the hoop like he was Superman taking flight. Pretty much anytime a player has to leave their feet, whether it be for a block or a rebound, things don’t look right.
Games are also balanced heavily in favour of offence. While it's true that in general the NBA currently has an emphasis on scoring, here it feels like defence doesn’t exist. Opposition players and teams will score through even the toughest defence most of the time, while on the other hand, offence is made laughably easy for you. Most of the time you’re able to just brute force your way around a defender and drive unopposed to the basket, and at the same time, most jump shots you toss up will fall. Through the first half a dozen hours of our journey in The League, we would have been lucky to miss more than a handful of shots in any of the games we played, which is absurd considering you begin as a lower rated player.
Players with a keen basketball eye will also notice that the off-ball movement from A.I. players is lacking. In fact, a lot of the team off-ball movement is non-existent. Lots of movement is basically basketball 101 for having a functional team, so getting this so wrong majorly affects the overall experience.
To sum it up in a single word, NBA Live 19 is arcadey. Back in its prime Live was known for being arcadey, which isn’t a bad thing, but with the increased emphasis on realism since rebooting the series, there is a serious style clash going on. It all combines to make an experience that is conflicting and confused.
To top it all off, players just look wrong. Graphically, the game isn’t on par with NBA 2K19, but that’s not to say it looks terrible. Where NBA Live 19 goes wrong in terms of looks is most evident in the body types of players. Everybody in this game somehow has the exact same body type. This is most evident when playing with somebody like Shaquille O’Neal, a notoriously big-bodied player, who ends up looking akin to Kevin Durant’s slim and slender frame. This also impacts on the gameplay, as you never actually feel the difference in weight when controlling or going up against players with wildly different bodies.
Other game modes outside of The League include your standard franchise mode, while everything else is primarily focused on squad based street ball battles. You’ll be tasked with assembling a squad of NBA and WNBA players to take on A.I. teams or other people online. There is such an emphasis on this mode that it even creeps its way into career mode.
NBA Live 19 is an admirable attempt at snatching the NBA video game throne, but ultimately it fumbles. While there are a number of quality of life improvements in the career mode, it drops the ball in too many areas. Even diehard fans will be hard pressed to find many improvements to the series’ gameplay compared to entries from a decade ago.