Almost the slam dunk we’ve been waiting for.
When EA finally rebooted its beloved basketball franchise in 2014, critics and consumers alike were appalled at just how far it had fallen from grace. Things certainly didn’t improve significantly over its next four installments, maintaining its negative reputation for muddy graphics, awful physics, and sloppy controls. Despite these shortcomings, EA has remained vigilant year after year, and I’m happy to say that NBA Live 19 finally makes strides in the right direction.
Despite this entry’s visual improvements, NBA Live 19 is still well behind where it needs to be aesthetically. While it’s boasting some impressive face scanning technology for big-name players, many of the lesser-known rookies get left out of the club. Their poorly-rendered faces stand out starkly against the otherwise excellent work on display here. I wish the game offered better customization for the character creation tool as well, as I’d have loved more options besides simplistic templates, but at least players are given plenty of attire options.
Models are also improved overall over last year’s entry, though the player movement is still somewhat awkward as always. The game’s new Real Player Motion EA hyped up isn’t nearly as revolutionary as it sounds, and there are some occasionally janky animations, particularly during passing to nearby teammates. These quick and forced animation changes are jarring to the eyes. Some periodic stickiness in the controls compounds this problem at times, but never so much that I felt frustrated.
"Buttery smooth dunks and pinpoint accuracy on the defense side highlights what NBA Live is typically good at, but as with most modern sports games, the game could really benefit from toning down some of its extremely complicated control inputs."
Dunks and dribbling are also visual treats, with certain dunk animations standing among the best either of the major NBA franchises have offered. Reflections on the court are beautiful, uniform and shoe detail are especially perfect, and a clean interface makes navigation a breeze.
Of course, much of the draw of the experience lies in its mode and feature offerings, and this year’s game makes a few advancements worth noting. Most interestingly is its inclusion of female character creation within its career mode. While there aren’t many major gameplay differences between the two genders, it’s appreciated that the game allows for mixed gender showdowns.
Despite the sticky controls sometimes pestering me, I found that the moment-to-moment gameplay experience feels about the same as expected. Buttery smooth dunks and pinpoint accuracy on the defense side highlights what NBA Live is typically good at, but as with most modern sports games, the game could really benefit from toning down some of its extremely complicated control inputs. I never found them cumbersome enough to warrant exhaustion, but they still take a bit too much work for my liking.
The physics are often still sometimes wacky. This isn’t uncommon with the franchise, especially in regards to ball bouncing and rebounds. It’s something that I wish EA would take some extra time with, but I’m at least impressed with the improvements made to player collisions. NBA Live 19 finally succeeds at making controls and collision feel more intertwined, which kept me more invested in ensuring my currently-controlled player was more intricately managed.
"Sadly, modes like Franchise and Ultimate Team continue to feel completely unnecessary with such a fleshed out campaign mode."
But while player control feels otherwise functionally similar to previous entries overall, there are a few notable additions to the series. My favorite is the asynchronous online mode, Court Battles. It sees players filling a custom gym full of players to defend their court against opposing teams. Meanwhile, you battle against other players’ AI-controlled teams with the goal of taking over new gyms. Thanks to its extraordinary level of customization, you can design exciting and unique rule sets for tyour defensive team. My favorite was to set it so that only dunks earned points, then set up a solid team around that specific rule to give my team a built-in advantage. This endlessly entertaining mode breeds an exciting battle of creativity and strategy unseen in other modes.
Court Battles is one of the easiest and most fun ways to earn XP and reputation (known as “hype” here). But naturally many players are drawn to the core game mode of The One – NBA Live’s attempt at a distinct campaign experience full of skill trees, player choices, and plenty of unlockables. Much like in last year’s game, players make decisions on what kind of player they want to be through making a name for themselves on the streets or through the NBA.
The One wraps players up with immersive features like engaging in social media. Having fans show up post-game to hype you up, or catching a video shot in extremely low quality online adds a genuine feeling of both career and social advancement. I thoroughly enjoyed following my career’s growth both officially and socially throughout my climb.
Online against real players or offline against AI, The One keeps players hooked along a steady progression path, luckily never blocking anything off with microtransactions. As a matter of fact, unlike many other sports games, NBA Live 19 doesn’t offer any type of microtransactions in its single player experience. Better yet, currency comes at a brisk enough pace that I never felt as though my time was being wasted or that I needed to grind away at menial tasks. Court Battles brings in additional currency in the background once it’s set up as well to add a nice income flow.
Sadly, modes like Franchise and Ultimate Team continue to feel completely unnecessary with such a fleshed out campaign mode. Franchise still lacks features and presentation options available in other games to make it feel fully-fledged, and Ultimate Team is a boring collect-a-thon grind. It’s just a shame that none of these modes really offer anything as rewarding as The One, leaving them feeling almost directly at odds with the vision EA clearly set for the series. I can’t help but feel that wiping a few less necessary modes would clear up some time for the developers to further enhance the otherwise improving core experience.
"EA’s other sports titles have made impressive advancements in movement and core gameplay design, but I left NBA Live 19 still feeling as though it’s held back by the franchise’s rocky history."
In addition to Court Battles, NBA Live 19 introduces a court creator this year with a wonderful suite of options from baskets to court lines. There’s a lot of fun to be had personalizing a court your own way, and it’s easy to show off after the fact using the game’s accessible LIVE Run events to meet up with friends. Content creation isn’t new to video games, nor is its inclusion here a surprise, but it’s a welcomed addition that shows EA is trying to expand on its vision for the series.
Sound design is a major component of any sports game, and NBA Live 19 is unfortunate to get a raw deal this year. Commentators Ed Cohen and Jay Williams are lifeless and add repetitive, dull musings that never left me interested in anything they had to say. The music fares better, but there’s nothing about the playlist that stands out from any other major sports game. Court sounds are passable, but I couldn’t help but feel like so much more could’ve been done here.
And ultimately, the same could be said for the game as a whole. EA’s other sports titles have made impressive advancements in movement and core gameplay design, but I left NBA Live 19 still feeling as though it’s held back by the franchise’s rocky history. There’s a feeling within the game design that made me think maybe EA feels afraid to invest too much energy in a series with a history of poor sales and reception, but the game could’ve truly benefited from that extra polish that makes games like FIFA and Madden truly shine.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Court Battles, solid moment-to-moment gameplay, engaging core campaign mode.
Some extraneous extra modes, bland audio presentation, mixed visual offerings.
NBA Live 19 is a great improvement over previous years' iterations, but the developers need to show some extra confidence to ever make the game feel like a true slam dunk.