NBA Live 14 sinks lower than I ever thought this once-proud series could go. Making the totally fair comparison to NBA 2K14 would be like LeBron James playing a pickup game against an arthritic giraffe. But even taken in isolation, the resurrected NBA Live is a mess of a hoops sim both in your hands and in your eyes that wouldn’t even make the D-League All-Star team. In fact, there’s only one thing about NBA Live that’s better than its competitor: the net. Yes, that one thing is the net, and it is the best net I’ve ever seen in a basketball game. There, I said something nice.
Of course, the core on-court action has to be at least somewhat appealing for for that beautiful net to matter, and, well…
For an experience built around the basketball itself and the physics that power it, the players handling said rock feel sluggish - as if these ballers only do what youwant well after you tell them to. The right-thumbstick dribble mechanics feel good and are reminiscent of the old-school Live’s Freestyle Stick, but they’re often abused, with behind-the-back spins frequently leading to dunks or layups. Speaking of which, dunks from anyone and everyone are far too common -- the mid-range jump shot is mostly absent from Live 14’s repertoire, probably because jumpers have a freakish tendency to get blocked no matter who’s doing the shooting.
It’s a shame, because underneath the garbage heap of problems are a couple of promising features. Big Moments mode includes compelling challenges that recreate rare real-life achievements or big shots. We’ve seen this in other sports games, but Live’s clever hook is that fresh ones are supposed to be added as they happen in the actual NBA season. For instance, I was able to play Jeff Green’s buzzer-beating game-winning three against the Heat just days after it went down in Miami.
Meanwhile, NBA Live borrows the virtual-trading-card-based Ultimate Team mode from FIFA and applies it to pro hoopsters, creating the only other thing besides Big Moments that I’d be tempted to keep coming back to. In it, you unlock (or buy) new packs of cards and build a better team with which to challenge online foes.
The Rising Star mode isn’t so skilled. It follows 2K’s MyPlayer blueprint closely, right down to opening with a Draft Showcase game, then getting drafted, and then playing your first game and getting scored for every little good or bad thing you do in the contest. Problem is, it’s a lot easier to fail than it is to succeed. You’ll lose rating not just for turnovers and poor defense, but for every missed shot, even if it was a clean, open look that came from great ball movement. Come on, even the best NBA player only makes half of his shots! Worse, you’re not rewarded for drawing a foul or even making the free throws you’ve earned once you get to the line. And the Dynasty mode is a menu-tastic, ho-hum take on the traditional front-office-managing Franchise mode. Nothing more, nothing less.
Things get worse when you stop looking at menus and start squinting at the graphics. The crowd looks PS3-ish. Players lack texture detail, definition, emotion, and lighting; they’re all encased in a white glow that looks like it came out of a PlayStation 2 game. Animations are stiff and unnatural. These guys look anything but alive. And when you do pull off something cool, almost every replay -- many of which suffer from framerate issues that live gameplay doesn’t -- is a view from the rafters or, if it is closer, shows you the backs of the players’ heads. It’s almost as if NBA Live 14 knows how ugly it is and is deathly afraid that we’ll find out.
The poopy presentation extends to the audio, too. ESPN integration means Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy are doing the play-by-play, but they seem to always be fresh out of stories and rarely call out players by name, instead opting for generic pronouns like “he” or basic descriptions such as “this team.” Commentary like this hasn’t been acceptable in a decade. And the SportsCenter-style halftime show hosted by Jalen Rose has good stuff in it -- namely Top Plays and the ESPN Wired scenes that drop contextually appropriate, real-life coach-in-the-huddle audio into your game -- but it’s buried inside a tiresome, eternal four-minute sequence (yes, I timed it).