NBA Live has been a joke for so long now that it's hard to remember a time when it wasn't a punchline.
You probably know the story: After a successful run in 2009, NBA Live became NBA Elite—the biggest disaster in EA Sports history. NBA Elite was infamously canceled. NBA 2K put Jordan on the cover and ascended into the upper echeleon of sports sims. The rest is history.
But after taking a year off, NBA Live is back. More importantly, it's actually getting quite a bit of hype in comparison to NBA 2K18, which is experiencing a good deal of backlash for its excessive embrace of Virtual Currency.
So is NBA Live 18 worth picking up over NBA 2K18? Let's break it down.
Gameplay: NBA 2K's Experience Shines Through
NBA 2K is known for its dense, often intimidating reliance on tactics and gameplanning, particularly with more recent entries. It features a dizzing array of dribbles, post moves, and shots, and expertly captures the feel of the NBA's biggest stars. When you're playing NBA 2K, you feel like you're playing against Steph Curry, or going head-to-head against the real Cavaliers.
But as enticing as that might sound, NBA 2K's learning curve is quite steep, and its tutorials aren't particularly great. The shot meter is also really unforgiving, making it easy to brick three-pointers even when you're wide open. The worst feeling in the world is watching an easy layup roll lazily off the rim—a regular sight in NBA 2K18.
NBA Live is more forgiving in some ways, more punishing in others. Defense and dribbling are pleasingly intuitive and enjoyable to pull off, and running plays is actually quite easy. However, as it's balanced right now, NBA Live has way too many blocks, and defense is arguably overpowered. The power of contested shots basically demands that you run screens that are guaranteed to get your players wide open.
Overall, NBA 2K is the denser and more interesting experience, but it's actually much closer than you might think. Despite its balance problems and reliance on canned animations for layups, NBA Live is legitimately fun to play. And its accessibility makes for a great foundation going forward.
If nothing else, it's a fresh change of pace for those who have been playing NBA 2K forever.
Advantage: NBA 2K18.
Graphics and Presentation: Inside the NBA vs. First Take
I'll let you be the judge on this one.
So as you can see, NBA Live 18 makes use of a nice ESPN broadcast package for its halftime and postgame shows, but it's light years behind NBA 2K18's incredibly polished and high-quality presentation and commentary. I'm constantly struck by the care put into NBA 2K's videos: the way that they'll accentuate big games; the way your MyCareer player will be interviewed by the Inside the NBA team after a big game; the way that the openings are almost always different. Frankly, EA doesn't come close in any of its games.
But I'll throw NBA Live a quick bone: the actual character models and in-game graphics look nice! They animate smoothly, they look a lot like their real-life counterparts, and the broadcast overlays are pretty nice. I always like when a sports game make use of live video, even if it's First Take.
So while NBA 2K18 wins pretty easily, it's not like NBA Live is bad. It's just... not nearly as good.
Advantage: NBA 2K18.
The Modes: The One or MyCareer?
Okay, this is where it gets interesting. NBA Live 18's big new addition this year is The One—a single-player career mode in which you rise from street courts in Venice Beach and elsewhere to the NBA Draft and beyond. It borrows many of MyCareer's best elements—the light storytelling, the customization, the online team play—but features a more straightforward chapter-based format reminiscent of FIFA's The Journey that takes you up to and through the NBA Draft.
The One feels more limited than MyCareer, but it does have one major advantage that shouldn't be overlooked: it doesn't rely on microtranscations. Where Virtual Currency is entwined in virtually ever aspect of NBA 2K18, from the player progression to the customization, NBA Live's The One has no microtransactions to speak of.
Instead, progression has handled via traditional skill trees, while customization is earned by separate in-game income. It's... refreshing.
The only drawback? You have to watch First Take, which is way too much Stephen A. Smith for one lifetime.
With the interconnected Pro-Am modes, it's quite easy to get many hours of enjoyment out of The One and the subsequent online team mode, which is where it shines. Sadly, NBA Live 18 falls apart once you delve into the other modes. Ultimate Team feels thin in comparison to its more fleshed out competitors, and franchise mode has a multitude of problems with its simulation engine. It's pretty obvious that EA had a limited number of resources to throw into NBA Live 18, and that they focused them on The One and the gameplay.
Honestly? It was probably the right decision.
But the consequence is that NBA 2K's suite of career modes is miles better than what's on offer in NBA Live 18. You can play through just a regular season; you can add in historical teams, and you can even play through a kind of story mode in which you balance the needs of your staff and your meddling owner. For sim nuts, it's no comparison.
But if you're sick of MyCareer's myriad flaws and mega dose of microtransactions and want something fresh? NBA Live 18 is actually a viable alternative.
Advantage: NBA 2K18 if you want franchise mode, NBA Live 18 if you're sick of microtransactions.
Conclusion: So Should You Buy NBA 2K18 or NBA Live 18?
There's no denying that NBA 2K18 is a very flawed package this year. Players have had to deal with serious glitches out of the gate, including corrupted saves and lost VC. There have also been reports of audio cutting out and cutscenes slowing to a crawl.
Fans have been mostly willing to overlook these issues in the past, but there's a sense that things are finally coming to a head. Multiple outlets are covering NBA 2K18's problems. As amazing as it is in many respects, its strong points can't help but be obscured by heaps of microtransactions and bugs.
That leaves the door open for NBA Live 18. EA has moved aggressively this year, giving NBA Live more attention than it's received in the past, and knocking $20 off the price of pre-orders. They're still miles behind in terms of community size and cultural cachet, but there's a willingness to embrace NBA Live now that I haven't seen since 2010. It's no longer a joke.
Whether you decide to embrace EA's sim of NBA 2K is mostly down to whether you need a breath of fresh air and some relief from microtransactions, because many of the other elements aren't there yet. But it nailed two aspects it desperately needed to get right: the gameplay and the career mode. The rest will come in time.
So while I'm not going to come out and say that NBA Live 18 is better than NBA 2K18—2K's sim is the better, more well-rounded game in most respects—I'm no longer willing to dismiss it out of hand. I can absolutely envision a scenario where someone might decide to ditch 2K for a year and try something different.
It's good news for EA, and good news for gamers who want more competition in the sports sim space. Hopefully 2K takes this as a wakeup call.
Overall: NBA 2K18 is still the better game, but NBA Live 18 is actually viable now. It's worth keeping an eye on going forward.
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