After nearly a decade of struggling to find its game, last year EA Sports finally found a promising centerpiece to build its NBA Live series around. The create-a-player mode The One gave hoop heads a one-stop-shop for writing their NBA legacy, showing off their skills on the streets, and competing with rival players online. NBA Live 19 adds some new wrinkles to this formula, but stagnancy in legacy modes and new gameplay problems prevent the series from taking a big step forward.
The newest addition NBA Live 19 brings to The One is Court Battles, a fantasy mode that allows you to bring NBA and WNBA players you’ve unlocked in The Street (or purchased with the in-game currency) to defend your customizable home court. At the same time, you can take a squad on the road to conquer other users’ courts populated by A.I. player of their choosing for Court Battle-themed rewards. Many games play out differently thanks to a deep collection of rule modifiers players can place on their courts. One game may require every player on your team to score to win, while another may reward five points for successful perimeter shots. These variable rules call to mind arcade basketball games like NBA Playgrounds, but I don’t get the same thrill from playing against random collections of A.I. as I do competing against other users or trying to capture an NBA championship.
You can still take your create-a-player’s talents to the NBA in The League. Like last year, your mentor, coach, reporters, and others interact with you via texting, but this year social media influencers and ESPN personalities also discuss your promising career over highlight reels that play between games. This is a nice touch that makes you feel closer to the culture. The mode still has problems to resolve on the court, however. Teams (including your own) tend to play their bench players more than their starters, inexplicably leaving stars off the court in the closing minutes of tight games. The revamped grading system is lenient to the point of being meaningless, even rewarding you points for getting lucky with poorly timed shots and missing free throws. The grade is no longer capped at 100, so I frequently had games where I scored in the 300s and 400s. The system, which punishes taking repeated bad shots, was clearly designed to prevent ball hogs online, but does nothing to encourage sound basketball.
The grading system is well-intentioned, but I didn’t notice a drop of selfish players in the early days of online play, even in the new 3v3 pickup games this year. This isn’t EA’s problem; such is the state of online gaming. Private lobbies exist for setting up your own games if you find a group of serious players who also want to avoid the black-hole ballers frequently encountered in pickup games. However, with no team or league structure, this mode still feels woefully underdeveloped.
So does the marketplace that lets you spend the currency you earn across any of the modes in The One. The store offers a rotating collection of lifestyle wear, team-branded apparel, shoes, accessories, court customization patterns, and a couple dozen players for Court Battles. Sadly, at release it feels like I’m shopping at a clearance sale that’s already been picked through. The team apparel is basic as can be; no jerseys are available for purchase, and the list of purchasable players are lower rated than those I earned early on in The Streets. Right now I’m sitting on more than 200,000 in currency waiting for something interesting to splurge on. EA needs to hire a few fashion designers if they think the current paltry selection of clothing is desirable.
The modes not housed under the umbrella of The One are still works in progress. Franchise mode adds a new trading mechanic that lets you field offers for particular players or picks, but this is easily exploited. Before a season started, I offered up my first-round pick for the next draft. One team absurdly offered me two firsts in return even though they have no idea which pick would be higher in the next draft. The mode still lacks player scouting before drafts and draft-day trades, and player A.I. leaves a lot to be desired in the offseason. Modern NBA free agency is driven by players combining their talents with other stars and sometimes taking less money in hopes of getting on one of the three or four teams with a legit shot at competing for a championship. But in NBA Live, free agents gladly left their good situations to get paid to play on rosters with barely any other talent of note. This mode is still far from being a good experience; if you like franchise experiences, you’re better off with NBA 2K19.
The EA Sports staple Ultimate Team returns in NBA Live 19, but this is the most under-developed version of the popular card-collection mode across the label’s sports titles. You start with a woeful roster and must grind quite a few challenges before you earn a halfway decent player, a dramatic reversal from the trends we’ve seen in FIFA and Madden.
All the modes in the world don’t add up to anything if the hardwood action isn’t up to snuff. NBA Live 19 adds some integral new wrinkles like a dramatically improved off-ball dynamic that allows you to impede the movement of your mark and counter handsy defenders with cuts. Its dribbling and defensive mechanics are easy to comprehend and execute, making this the easier of the sim hoops games to pick up and play. But at the same time, the gameplay takes a few steps backward mainly due to locked animations that take control out of your hands and dictate your next movements.
To spice up the look of the action on the court, EA added thousands of new animations to NBA Live 19. The game looks more natural because of it, but since you can’t branch out of some animations the controls feel sluggish. You can get sucked into unintended animations too frequently, which sometimes pull your player halfway across the court when you really wanted to go the other direction. Contextual shots near the hoop are unpredictable and often pull you out of good position. Too many plays that should result in easy dunks become needlessly complicated layups that are easily blocked by defenders. Passing also suffers; sometimes after you press the pass button the player holds onto the ball while the dribble animation plays out before they release the ball, and losing that half second can mean missing that open window where you tried to thread the needle.
NBA Live 19 offers interesting diversions when it moves away from its license and into the fantasy of The Streets and Court Battles. The NBA experience in franchise mode and The League, however, both need a lot of work to reach their potential. If EA can branch out of the canned animations to make the controls more responsive, the already decent gameplay could take a dramatic leap forward. The core at the heart of NBA Live still shows promise, but chalk this one up to a year of growing pains.