NBA Live 14 Review (PS4)
Think of the children. Think of the kid who plays for the school basketball team or the weekend Church league.
Think of his parents, or maybe one of his relatives, out at the local shopping mall, stopping by an electronics store and buying that kid NBA Live 14 for Christmas.
Think long and think hard about what you've done, Electronic Arts.
Were the few thousand copies NBA Live 14 will inevitably sell to mom or dad or to aunt Suzy worth the disappointment of a few thousand kids on Christmas Day?
You know the answer. You know what you've done.
And sports gamers will remember. Especially the younger ones.
Despite all the promotional hype behind EA Sports' BounceTek dribbling system, handling the ball ends up being one of NBA Live 14's weakest aspects. Maneuvering your player using only the left joystick feels decent enough, but once you start mixing in crossovers and hesitations with the right joystick, the dribbling animations begin to lose their fluidity. Special moves often interrupt the normal flow of dribbling in a spastic, unnatural way, making it difficult to time your controller inputs to the irregular rhythm appearing on screen. NBA Live 14 could have benefited from including a sound effect slider just for the ball itself, as I found it much easier to chain together dribble moves when I was listening to the rhythm of the bounces instead of trying to follow along with my player's jerky dribbling animations.
The inclusion of signature dribble moves and unique dribble rhythms for more than 50 players does add some much-needed personality and animation variety to NBA Live 14's gameplay, but even after spending over 20 hours using mostly the same lineup of players, the dribbling still doesn't feel right or look natural. BounceTek ends up feeling like a bunch separate animations sloppily spliced together rather than the uninterrupted sequence of smooth, consecutive dribbles gamers were promised.
Along with its player-specific dribble packages, NBA Live 14 also includes 300-plus signature shot animations. The real-life resemblance isn't particularly strong for most of the shooting forms, but it's at least something to help differentiate players from each other.
Aside from the personalized dribbling and shooting styles, that vast majority of NBA Live 14's animation library seems to be shared across the game's entire roster. Basic player movement, post moves, defensive stances, passes and rebounds all animate similarly, if not identically, across the 5 positions and 400+ players in NBA Live 14. Capturing individual athletes' personality and on-court mannerisms has become one of the early hallmarks of “next-gen” sports gaming. But when you combine all these generic animations with NBA Live 14's embarrassingly low-detail player models, you get a basketball game that looks decidedly “last-gen.”
Even NBA Live 14's control scheme feels “last-gen,” as the lack of a directional “shot stick” to guide the ball towards the rim makes the simplistic post-up system extremely difficult to enjoy. Far too many close-range shots get unnecessarily blocked because the game decides on a completely illogical shooting animation instead of following a clear lane that would have easily gotten the ball up to the rim.
The drop step move, for instance, can be used during backdowns to create a wide open path to the hoop if you read the defender correctly. But by the time your big man transitions out of the drop step animation and into a shooting animation, the defense can easily recover and contest or block what should have been a sure score.
Trying to pass the ball around the basket doesn't fare any better, as the directional passing icon will often lock onto the wrong teammate when there's a lot of player traffic. NBA Live 14's lengthy throwing and catching animations are so slow to play out, that on the few occasions where a pass does go towards the right player, the defense will still have plenty of time to recover while the ball slowly floats through the air, stopping what should have been an easy assist.
You know something's wrong with a game's passing system when alley oops are the safest, most reliable method for picking up assists in the paint. Even then, lob passes still take far too long to “charge up,” as they use the same poorly designed power mechanic. NBA Live 14's fast break opportunities are also limited by the floaty passing and poor reception animations, as players will often spin around and come to a complete stop instead of catching outlet passes in stride.
It is common in NBA Live 14 to see both teams finish with double-digit block and steal totals. Computer teams often give the ball away by throwing ill-advised passes to players who are being tightly fronted. There's also a bizarre bug that tends to occur two to three times per half where an AI teammate will completely ignore a pass coming his way and just stare down the ball as it strikes his lifeless body or bounces out of bounds.
Despite all the rejections and thievery taking place, personal fouls rarely occur in NBA Live 14. Most games against the computer finish with no more than three to four fouls for both teams combined. Given how easy it is to run through the paint for turbo layups, turbo dunks, and hop step/euro step runners, NBA Live 14's lack of consistent charge calls and shortage of contact animations make driving the line an unstoppable offensive strategy.
With no gameplay sliders to adjust, and each NBA rule being limited to a simple "on" or "off" switch, the only times you'll see stoppages in play in NBA Live 14 are when a ball deflects out of bounds or a team uses a time out.
One excellent option that NBA Live 14 has included is the “ratings only” shooting system, which uses a player's attributes, and not the timing of his release, to determine whether or not a shot goes in. With the “ratings only” option turned on, teams in NBA Live 14 shoot a reasonable 40% to 50% from the field, 30% to 40% from three and 70% to 80% from the free throw line. It's disheartening, however, that this great gameplay feature is limited to offline modes only.
The computer will even change its defensive strategies dynamically on a player-versus-player basis. So if Kyle Korver gets off to a hot start from downtown, expect your opponent to start double teaming Korver every time he touches the ball until his shooting cools off.
Coaches are even smart enough to recognize when they have a matchup advantage or disadvantage, as the Indiana Pacers' Frank Vogel would let center Roy Hibbert use his superior size and strength to defend Marc Gasol one-on-one in the post. But as soon as Zach Randolph would start backing down the undersized David West, a double team would regularly come to force the "Bully on the Block" into a pass.
Unfortunately, for as great as NBA Live 14's team-specific coaching is on defense, there seems to be very little variety in how computer teams play offense. The AI's primary offensive gameplan is to throw the ball down low to a forward or center, then just stand back and let that player go one-on-one. Many times, the computer big man will end his backdown by taking a hop step towards the baseline, leaving him behind the backboard or over the end line. Other times, the computer's bigs will attempt a slow face-up jumper that is easily swatted away.
NBA fans would expect the San Antonio Spurs to be running lots of pick and rolls between Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. But NBA Live 14's version of the Spurs prefer to keep feeding Tiago Splitter the ball in the post so he can go one-on-one against Marc Gasol. What's even more disturbing are the few times when the AI's bizarre gameplan actually works, like when CPU Splitter's body clips right through the 2012-2013 Defensive Player of the Year, then rises up for a slam dunk over Zach Randolph's flat-footed help defense.
After playing on All-Star difficulty against roughly half of the NBA, the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors were the only computer offenses I faced that closely resembled their real-world counterparts. Los Angeles started most of its possessions by isolating Kobe Bryant on the wings or hitting Pau Gasol in the low post. Golden State, conversely, had Stephen Curry running dribble isolation and pick and rolls from the top of the key. On occasion, the Warriors would even move Curry to shooting guard so he could come off some staggered screens for catch-and-shoot jumpers from the wings.
Human coaches will have a difficult time running real sets with their team if they choose to call plays from NBA Live's 14 team-specific playbooks. AI teammates slowly jog into position during set plays, never displaying the sharpness or urgency that a 24-second shot clock demands. Computer players coming off picks seem unable to square their shoulders to the basket during catch animations, often turning should-be catch-and-shoot situations into awkward-looking, easy-to-block, turn-around jump shots.
If you have trouble finding any suitable plays on the d-pad, you can try calling for a pick and roll by holding down the left trigger. I emphasize “try,” because there are occasions where pressing and holding the left trigger inexplicably draws no response from your computer teammates.
As with set plays, pick and rolls in NBA Live 14 take entirely too long to develop. The center or power forward needs a second or two to process the command before he slowly jogs over to the ball handler's position, then he'll still take another second or two to rotate his body for the screen. When the pick is mercifully set, there's about a 50/50 chance that the on-ball defender's body will clip directly through the screener, rendering the pick useless. If the defender and the screener do manage to make contact, the effect is usually so minimal that the defender will just slide back into perfect defensive position before you can get even one step ahead of him.
While NBA Live 14 also lets you instruct individual teammates to get open or set screens using various d-pad and face button combinations, this is far too many inputs to manage while trying to keep your dribble alive and prevent your pocket from getting picked. To a certain degree, the responsibility should fall on a game's AI programmers, not on the player, to ensure that AI teammates maintain proper spacing and are generally in helpful positions. NBA Live 14's teammates are anything but helpful, as they constantly have to be told where to go and what to do if you don't want them standing around idly, staring at the poorly rendered cheerleaders and fans. Turning on the “Auto Motion” feature just makes NBA Live 14's off-ball movement an even bigger mess, as it causes AI teammates to move around erratically and illogically instead of maintaining a set position that you can pass back to if you get into trouble.
In my Memphis Grizzlies dynasty, I immediately acquired Kyle Korver, J.J. Redick and José Calderón via trades to bring in some perimeter players who could knock down open threes whenever Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol got double teamed in the post. And while those players helped spread the floor as spot-up shooters, I was disappointed to find only one play in Memphis' playbook that I could use to create off-ball screens for my new trio of sharpshooters. As dynasty mode rosters inevitably change over time via free agency, trades, retirement and the draft, it seems shortsighted to not include any way to alter a team's playbook during dynasty mode.
You do, however, have a full staff to control, including a team trainer, doctor, scout and separate offensive/defensive assistants. Investing experience points into your supporting staff will help your players' attributes improve and help to prevent injuries from occurring. You can earn XP by completing in-season goals, like going on a 5-game winning streak or having a player selected for the NBA All-Star team.
As your team travels from building to building, NBA Live's 14's courtside commentators (Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy) and studio reporter (Jalen Rose) will often reference the previous night's action, with each game adding to your season's narrative. Watching Jalen Rose's excellent halftime and post-game presentations is almost more fun than playing the actual games. It is disappointing, though, that Rose never appears on screen and provides only box scores, not video highlights, for the out-of-town games.
NBA Live 14's dynasty experience is heavily isolated around your team and your team only. Stat sheets and single-sentence text recaps are the only bits of information you'll receive about other events happening around the league.
When using NBA Live 14's TV-style “ESPN” gameplay view, you'll notice that the camera is set up in a different location for all 30 NBA arenas. But gamers who prefer to play from a top-down, overhead perspective will be disappointed to see that both the “Baseline High” and “Baseline Low” views stutter frequently, running between 15 to 30 frames per second depending on the arena and the crowd's temperament. NBA Live 14 is virtually unplayable from anything but the “ESPN” and “EA Sports” broadcast cameras, which both maintain 60 frames per second during gameplay. However, any time a whistle blows and the game transitions to a cut scene, the frame rate drops dramatically until the cut scene finishes and you're returned to the normal gameplay camera. Players will also teleport across the court during cutaways, making these moments a major eyesore.
Dynasty mode also suffers from some stability issues, as three times I've started up a game, only to have it crash back to the PlayStation 4 dashboard with the error code “CE-34878-0.”
NBA Live 14's single-player "Be A Pro" experience is simply no fun to play. The mode suffers from poorly designed base player ratings, a simplistic grading system and a complete lack of storylines or cinematics.
You begin by picking from a limited selection of predesigned likenesses. There are only 20 different player models, each with just 3 different hair styles.
I chose a point guard with a specialization in shooting, ala the Warriors' Stephen Curry, and here is how the game rated my three best skills:
Mid-Range -- 65 rating
3-Pointers -- 55 rating
Free Throws -- 50 rating
For comparison, Kenyon Martin has a 63 mid-range rating, Zach Randolph is a 53 3-point rating and Dwight Howard is rated a 49 at free throws.
So the "shooting specialist" I created is about as skilled a marksman as one of the NBA's oafish big men.
When I took the court for the pre-draft rookie showcase, my point guard had no problem getting open looks off the pick and roll, but he struggled to hit wide open 15- to 20-foot jump shots.
I then restarted the game with the difficulty turned down as low as it could possibly go, and even on "Rookie" settings, I was making only 20% of my uncontested jumpers and 50% of my free throws.
Sadly, the only way to score consistently in the early stages of your career is to abuse the hop step and euro step moves in the paint, as tapping the Triangle button will free your player for an open runner every time, regardless of how tightly he's being defended or whom he's being defended by.
After shamefully cheesing my way to 45 points in the pre-draft showcase, I was was selected 10th overall by the Portland Trailblazers. Somehow, almost a dozen computer players who hadn't even hit double figures in the showcase game were picked ahead of me. Even more odd, was the fact that Portland would take another scoring point guard in the lottery, just a year after selecting 2012-2013 Rookie of The Year Damian Lillard. Despite my awful player ratings, Portland immediately made me the starting point guard, bumping Lillard over to shooting guard.
As the season progresses, you'll receive a sentence or two of text summarizing each game in the "News" section. The team's general manager will also send you a short email every couple of games. But with no storylines or cut scenes, you never build much of an attachment to your player or to the league. Rising Star quickly becomes a grind of one identical game after the other, completing the same boring in-game tasks for minimal rewards.
It doesn't help, either, that Rising Star's on-court grading system is heavily flawed and overly simplistic. On offense, you can only be rewarded for completing passes, getting assists, setting screens and making shots. Hitting free throws earns no reward, and the system makes no distinction between a good pass attempt and a good shot attempt versus a bad pass attempt and a bad shot attempt. If you want, you can literally stand still and play catch with your teammates to cheese your way to easy reward points. Just don't expect to get many assists, as your AI teammates will frequently ignore wide open shots in favor of immediately passing the ball right back to you or just standing still and holding onto the ball.
One defense, your player is penalized every time he misses a steal attempt. The only exception is if a steal attempt turns into a foul, which somehow creates no penalty whatsoever. Since steals seem determined, not by proper collision physics, but by an attribute-based dice roll, you'll quickly realize that it's not worth a dozen grade deductions just to get that one rare steal. Using the right joystick to contest passes is equally futile, as your player is unable to move his feet and keep his hands up at the same time. Even if you do manage to position yourself between the ball and an incoming pass, the ball will usually clip right through your defender's outstretched hands.
Playing defense in Rising Star mode leaves you feeling completely helpless, as you are forced to just stay in your stance and watch the offense dribble the ball around until they decide to shoot.
With no auction house, and thus, no way to hand-pick the players on your squad, the fun factor found in FIFA Ultimate Team or Hockey Ultimate Team just doesn't exist in NBA Live 14's stripped-down version of the popular mode.
NBA Live 14's Ultimate Team gives gamers no way to buy or sell specific NBA players; instead, the only means of upgrading your lineup is through luck-of-the-draw player packs, which are earned by completing lengthy tournaments or by spending virtual currency/real money.
Randomized card packs are simply a bad way to build a team, as being forced to grind out a dozen games with Luke Zeller and Fab Melo as your star players is uninteresting at best and tedious at worst. Furthermore, of the three bronze packs I did manage to open, two contained duplicate cards that I had to immediately throw away.
As someone who enjoys the roster building aspect of Ultimate Team more than the actual gameplay, NBA Live 14's decision to strip out the auction house is an instant mode-killer. Even if you were to spend a ton of time grinding through games just to get an enjoyable lineup, you still wouldn't be able to take on your friends' Ultimate Teams, as you are limited to playing CPU challenges and head-to-head matchmaking.
The NBA Rewind mode lets you replay every game throughout the 2013-2014 season. Each matchup becomes playable just a few hours after the real game concludes, containing three in-game achievements based on real stats from the actual box scores.
For example, in the Memphis Grizzlies' season-opening loss against the San Antonio Spurs, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley each posted 14 points. NBA Live 14 asks you to beat the Spurs while matching or exceeding Gasol's and Conley's point totals to fully complete the Rewind challenge.
It sounds like a compelling concept, but asking you to meet specific statistical goals negatively impacts the way you have to play NBA Live 14. Instead of simply taking what the defense gives you on each possession, you're forced to feed to ball to players who may not even be open just to satisfy some artificial stipulations.
All the development effort and manpower put into the NBA Rewind mode just seems like a waste when it's much more fun to set up an exhibition game and play the exact same matchup without any goal-based gameplay restrictions.
The team rosters for each challenge are supposed to reflect every player who suited up that night, but currently, there's a glitch where a generic player named "Point Guard" will come off the bench for the user team wearing the number 0.
By far the buggiest mode in NBA Live 14, Big Moments offers a mixture of team and player challenges based on recent buzzworthy performances from the NBA.
None of the challenges last more than a quarter, and many take only a few seconds to complete. Whether you're hitting a game-winning shot with Andre Iguodala or exploding for 40 points in one quarter as the rebuilt Brooklyn Nets, there's nothing particularly exciting or compelling about playing through these one-off scenarios. Without the exhausting 47-minute buildup, draining isolated buzzer-beaters feel as empty and meaningless as listening to an entire album of 30-second guitar solos.
Online leaderboards are supposed to inspire you to replay challenges until you beat your buddies' high scores, but if any of your friends are playing NBA Live 14 for reasons other than "review obligations," you need to think seriously about the kind of friends you're making.
So far, I've had two Big Moments freeze immediately after they finished loading, with each one crashing back to the PlayStation 4 dashboard from a "CE-34878-0" error.
There's also an audio glitch that occurs frequently, where the crowd noise will go completely silent for the first couple minutes of a challenge, only to suddenly unmute itself a few minutes later.
Even if you could theoretically find an opponent who never uses the overpowered hop step/euro step button, only uses turbo sparingly, and doesn't run into the paint at full speed every play, you still wouldn't have any fun playing NBA Live 14 online due to the insane amounts of latency.
I'm trying to think back to another online game that featured this much lag, and I just cannot come up with anything else that's comparable. Not even NBA 2K1 on the Sega Dreamcast, which ran dial-up Internet through a 56K modem, lagged as badly as NBA Live 14.
The latency cannot be a result of overloaded servers, as the game lobbies have been empty every time I've checked.
Nonetheless, there are two degrees of lag in NBA Live 14:
75% of the time, the game stutters and moves frame-by-frame like it was being played in slow motion. These games are completely unplayable.
25% of the time, the game runs at fairly normal speed, only with user inputs registering on-screen several seconds after the buttons are pressed.
With online shooting success being largely dependent on release timing, jumpers become impossible to make when the player on your television is releasing the ball two to three seconds after you let go of the shot button.
As a defender, staying in front of your man or contesting a shot is equally impossible when there's a two-second delay in sliding over to the left or rising up to make a block.
In short, playing a basketball game with this much latency is about as fun as dribbling a basketball without any air.
Aside from its deep defensive strategies and sharp ESPN presentation, NBA Live 14 has few redeeming values. On the court, NBA Live 14 shows a brand of basketball that is ugly to watch and frustrating to play. It doesn't matter whether you're playing offline, against the simple-minded, slow-to-act computer, or competing online, where the lag is so bad that you can't make a single jump shot.
Visuals – NBA Live 14's low-detail player models and choppy animations look downright embarrassing when compared to every other PlayStation 4 launch game. Both overhead cameras are currently broken, stuttering frequently and running at no more than 30 frames per second. Players warp into position during every dead-ball cut scene, causing the frame rate to dip even further. During gameplay, players limbs will often clip through the ball and through each other.
Audio – Crowd volume will swell or subside based on the amount of on-court tension. Organ music and crowd chants give games a believable atmosphere. The commentary duo of Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen is generally enjoyable, though too repetitive and quiet at times. "Wired for sound" cut scenes use coach-specific audio captured from actual NBA huddles, though it's odd that these moments are only shown during studio reports and not during stoppages in play. Smart soundtrack design grants gamers the ability to turn off individual songs at will.
Controls – There's a persistent feeling of disconnect between your controller inputs and your player's on-screen animations, particularly while dribbling the ball. Lengthy throwing and catching animations plus a poorly conceived “charge up” mechanic ruin the passing game. The lack of a directional “shot stick” hurts the post offense, causing too many blocked shots around the basket. Even with the "Auto Motion" feature enabled, off-ball movement is overly dependent on user-initiated button presses instead of relying on smart AI programming.
Online – Relentless latency makes it impossible to accurately time jump shots. Most online matches lag so badly, they look as if they're running with a slow-motion cheat enabled. Ultimate Team is missing an auction house and the ability to challenge friends. Standard online modes like 30-team leagues and team play are curiously absent.
Score – 3.5 (Sub-Par)
Scoring Note: A 3.5 (Sub-Par) indicates that, while there are some redeeming qualities or features in a title, its execution is so poor that it's hard to salvage much enjoyment from the experience. These games can still be worth checking out if you are a huge fan of the sport, but even then, it's usually best to wait for a discounted price. If NBA Live 14 had not shipped with so many damaging technical issues (online lag, frame rate, etc.), the game would have scored slightly higher based on its excellent strategic depth.