It seems like every new generation of consoles launches with a game or two that makes you wonder what a developer was thinking. Some, like Super Mario 64, reveal that the developer knew how to utilize a new system’s strengths to its advantage – others, like PS1′s Street Fighter: The Movie, are so egregiously horrendous that the system could never recover (okay, a small exaggeration). There is a third category, however, where games like NBA Live 14 reside. The NBA Live series has been in release limbo since 2009, and the announcement that a new edition would be coming to Xbox One and PS4 was music to any sports gamers ears. Yet the final product is less than what you might expect, and ultimately becomes a minor footnote in the series history.
Part of the frustration of NBA Live 14 stems from the way the gameplay simply doesn’t match an NBA presentation. Simply put, it feels dated and sluggish, as if the players were still wading through a shallow imaginary pool of water that plagued basketball games during the Playstation 2 era. You’ll use the right-stick (borrowing a page from the FIFA series) as the main way to control the playmaking ability of your character, but, even then, your opposition’s reactions can vary from devil-like quickness to slower than you would ever expect from a basketball game. This leads to more dunks than I’ve ever seen in single games, and the mid-range jumpers that make or break a real NBA team’s season rarely happen. More frustratingly, even unskilled players on opposing teams can pull off these moves with little effort, leading to an abundance of quick points instead of a game that entertains the idea of using the shot-clock. Perhaps it’s the game’s over-reliance upon flashy moves or some gameplay modifier that demands players barrel towards the hoop, but the mid-range game was so little used that my entire defensive strategy changed.
I was forced to field a ridiculous lineup of players that could guard the paint instead of my opposition – it was somewhat disheartening knowing that the AI would play almost exactly the same each time, regardless of the difficulty setting. Ironically, the biggest change at higher difficulties was – you guessed it – my mid-range jumpers were blocked at an absurd rate. I’ll leave you to guess how much fun that was. All of this would be forgiven if the game offered some way to master its evident nuances, but there’s almost no tutorial that shows how to approach NBA Live 14. We’ve been away from the series for four years – at this point, even the returning players from NBA Live 10 are newcomers, so the decision to ignore a tutorial system seems out of place. Luckily, EA has released various manuals and updates to its site that will help ease players back into the fold, but the question remains as to why these instructions were not initially included in the final product of the game instead of a website.
Even with these negatives, there are some aspects of the game that show promise. For example, consider the maddening color-coordinated shooting system – when a player goes to shoot, the red circle that normally displays beneath him changes from red to white. 30 games into my career, however, I was struggling to understand if that’s actually true – the color system sometimes operates of its own accord, and, just when you think you’ve begun to understand it, you realize (again, I’m saying this based on my playthrough – could be completely wrong) that the system actually reflects the realistic tendencies of NBA players. This is a great feature in the game for those NBA fans who know nearly everything about their teams, but, for an average fan, the lack of a clear explanation regarding the shooting system makes enjoying the act of shooting nearly impossible to enjoy. Instead of a free-flowing game that cherishes and encourages creativity, you’ll find yourself spending hours (as I did) trying to uncover what players shoot at what time – simply put, you’ll start playing like the computer and trying to get as close to the rim as possible to avoid having to shoot. There’s a fine line between intentionally choosing to play an inside game with your starting bigs and having to play that way, and the game just doesn’t recognize the difference often enough. Even so – the shooting mechanism is a good idea, but it’s incomplete.
Beyond the gameplay, the other significant disappointment is simply how the game appears. While FIFA 14 managed to improve the presentation considerably between PS3 and PS4, NBA Live has moments where it looks like a PS3 game. Player textures, lighting, faces, and animations all fail to impress when viewed closely – funny enough, there are moments where even the in-game replay system seems to recognize its blandness. More often than not, the camera will actually hide the face of the person it’s supposed to be following, leading to replays that show the back of a player’s head or an overhead angle where you can’t see any defining characteristics. The replay angles could be fixed through an update, but the prospect of having a closer view to the player models isn’t a prospect you should enjoy.
It’s a shame that NBA Live 14 contains so many of these issues since there are flashes of a great game within it. The shooting system has the potential to be a nuanced and unique addition to basketball simulations, and I’d like to see the explosive moves tethered to the right-stick balanced so that fewer players seem capable of tearing through a defense like Chris Paul or Lebron James. Until then, however, we’ll have to wait for that game in a future release – if you’re willing to look past the game’s faults, you might enjoy it. But it’s difficult to recommend now, and, given the wait between releases in the Live franchise, you’re left knowing that NBA Live 14 should stay on the bench. Sorry kid – maybe next year.