NBA Live 18: “The One” Preview
The past several years have been a challenge for EA’s NBA franchise. Formerly champion of basketball video games, NBA Live was pushed to the sidelines of NBA 2K’s growing popularity. The implementation of MyCareer mode in NBA 2K provided players with an outlet to live out their dreams of playing the sport at a professional level. Despite NBA Live titles featuring unique modes like the dunk contest in 2005 and additional All-Star Weekend events in the past, the truth is in the reception: sports gamers are looking for more. Between 2K’s dominance in the market and taking multiple years off to reassess the franchise, NBA Live has struggled to regain its footing. Following a two-year development cycle, the ball is back in EA’s court. I recently had the chance to go hands-on with NBA Live 18 and can say that the series is returning with a newfound identity that will enable the franchise to stand apart from its competition.
I grew up playing basketball throughout the majority of my childhood years and into adolescence. So, naturally, I spent a significant period of time playing NBA Live on PS2 and fantasizing about my destined future in the NBA. Eventually, reality set in and I accepted the fact that I was never going to play the sport professionally. Thankfully, I can continue to fantasize in NBA Live 18’s new mode called “The One.” Inspired by a multitude of RPGs, The One is NBA Live’s answer to a singular career campaign. Sitting down with NBA Live 18 Senior Producer, Mike Mahar I learned that he and the team rebuilt major gameplay components and analyzed the ecosystems across multiple genres including RPGs and other sports games in order to develop the new mode. The culmination of their ideas have established a truly unique basketball experience, and, as strange as this may sound, I like to describe it as a sports game ARPG. From gear unlocks, public events, dialogue options, and skill trees, there was a lot to take in as I began my hands-on playthrough.
The One is all about you rising to become an NBA and Streets legend. Prior to embarking on the journey, I began by creating a character of my own. Normally I like to design a player that closely resembles my own appearance, which is feasible through NBA Live’s Face Scan companion app. Unfortunately, the app was unavailable at the time of my experience; so, I resorted to creating an absolute abomination. Featuring neon pink dreads and a rather dapper mustache, “Donald Doohickey” was born. From a discussion between Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman of ESPN’s First Take detailing my character’s history to a series of text messages between me and my character’s best friend, I immediately began to feel immersed into the life of a rising sports star.
Though all dialogue options lead to the same conclusion, they do allow players to craft their own unique progression. Skill Points, (SP), are required to level up and gain new abilities. Reward Points, (RP), enable players to purchase in-game crates (like Overwatch loot boxes) that drop gear including all articles of clothing and tattoos. At the end of every text conversation, players can select a response that rewards them with RP, a random piece of gear, or Hype. Your Hype level is normally determined by your overall performance. Street Hype unlocks street crates and Pro-Am tour events, while League Hype unlocks league crates, which both add to your total Hype level. Once introduced to the progression system, I jumped into the core gameplay.
I played the opening segment of The One titled, “The Rise.” In the narrative, your character has recently recovered from a serious knee injury, and it’s time for you to rise again as a promising NBA prospect. Before beginning your journey, you choose your position. I prefer to be in control of the offense. Therefore, I decided to be a point guard. Every position features its own signature ability. As a point guard, I wielded the Pocket Passer ability, which granted my teammates a bonus in catch and finish situations. For the most part, the gameplay felt smooth and responsive, which is to be expected of modern sports games. It had been a long time since I’d played NBA Live specifically, but passing and shooting felt great. While playing with and against NBA all-stars on famous street courts including Venice Beach and Rucker Park, I slowly began to garner SP and RP in addition to my overall hype level. Between games, I spent time developing my level progression and abilities based on my play style. Primary skills include your shooting, passing, and dribbling abilities. Secondary skills enhance your skill-set with complementary skills that are capped at a proficiency level lower than your primary skills. Being a point guard, I spent the majority of my SP on dribbling and passing. Reaching certain milestones in your proficiency unlocks gear, new gameplay animations, and in-game boosts.
In addition to the skill tiers, Traits exist to further enhance your character’s abilities (like perks in Call of Duty). Traits are split into two categories: League Traits and Street Traits. Serving as your in-game load-outs, you eventually unlock three slots within each category. Traits range from “Spicy Dish”, which enables you to throw a flashy pass that may lead to granting a scorer a hot streak, to “Windbreaker”, which grants a slight stamina boost when sprinting from the front to backcourt while in possession of the ball. Traits bestow slight boosts to all aspects of your game and can be applied to either category based on your preference. They generate an interesting dynamic as you play both on and offline. The Traits of your teammates and opponents vary each game, so, choosing your own can determine the overall balance and chance of success for your team.
The culmination of your play style, skills, and traits heavily impact gameplay as you engage in raids and boss battles. Believe it or not, both actually exist in the game. According to Mahar, “Everything we do in the realm of powering up your character is within the realm of authenticity to the NBA, summer Pro-Ams, and street basketball.” So, in the vein of games like NBA Homecourt or NBA Jam, you won’t see players flipping through the air at crazy heights or double dunking. All encounters are based in reality. Raids feature a series of games that lead to an eventual boss game. A boss encounter may have you face off against old school legends like Michael Jordan and Julius Erving. Successfully overcoming boss games rewards you with an abundance of SP, RP, gear, and Hype. Players can also tackle said encounters or engage in continuous live events with friends in co-op.
The end goal of The One’s opening segment is to be drafted into the NBA. Following a series of rather outstanding performances in the streets, the Dallas Mavericks took notice and swooped me up as the ninth pick of the 2018 NBA draft. Mahar shared that “It’s based on your performance, but we do allow some flexibility for users who ultimately find it more important to play for their favorite team, rather than adhere to the draft status of their performance.” This news was great because as a kid I’d dreamt of one day playing for the Atlanta Hawks. Mahar also stated that “In perpetuity, your career really doesn’t stop because of the programming we’re inspired by, like our mobile games and Ultimate Team. We’re taking those same principles and applying them to the single player career. So, you’ll be able to go online through live events cooperatively with your friends or strangers, and keep playing in unique scenarios against unique characters to unlock cooler gear or acquire power-ups and traits that won’t be available at launch.” That being said, your career can continue to progress beyond the conclusion of The One. Above all else, I was happy to hear that all skills, traits, and gear can only be acquired with in-game currency. Mahar affirmed that he and the team believe in earning your progression, rather than paying for it. It’s incredibly refreshing to hear in a time when a plethora of games feature micro transactions that can, at times, grant players with “pay to win” scenarios. Of course, players have every right to spend their hard earned money on in-game features. But as a firm believer in the grind, I’d much rather face off against a wave of bosses in order to unlock a gnarly pair of shoes for my character.
I was pleasantly surprised with NBA Live 18’s overall presentation, and apparent revolution. As pathetic as this may sound, I literally used to fantasize about a basketball game just like this one when I was a kid. I’d shoot hoops in my driveway pretending like I was leveling up my skills. Was I a total loser? Perhaps. But it’s cool to see my fantasy more or less realized in NBA Live 18. Serving as an RPG/sports game hybrid, the game certainly stands apart from its competition. And having just recently announced the inclusion of every WNBA team, it seems that EA has made an impressive effort to establish a new identity for their basketball franchise. Throughout the past two years, Mike Mahar and all of the team have been hard at work to provide veteran fans and new with a truly unique sports game experience. Following my hands-on time with the game, I can confirm that if you’re a fan of the sport, NBA Live is worth checking out when it launches on September 15th.