Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4

NBA Live is one of those golden age titles that undoubtedly sells massive amounts of copies regardless of that edition’s flaws. For the most part, fans can be forgiving with their $60 and take one for team EA with the hope their gripes will be addressed in the next release.

At its base, NBA Live 19 is still the basketball video game OG fans will love. The graphics are good though not mind blowing and the player animations are most times spot on. However, there are moments where you can tell the difference when the game’s horsepower is focused more on movement than looks.

Close up camera shots on the animation tend to get choppy while the view from further back show how much thought was put into fluidity, creating an immersive environment to ball in. It can be a gift and a curse depending on if you’re playing for competition or to enjoy a realistic immersion. It’s not crappy looking by any means but don’t expect to always forget you’re playing a video game and not watching a real-life broadcast. It’s not always about looks though and in this release, it’s about basketball culture with an emphasis on realistic play.

Gameplay

NBA Live 19 ‘s RPG elements create a balanced world outside of the court for players who may not be complete b-ball nerds. In Live’s flagship career mode, The One, you start as an unknown rookie with a little buzz and climb the competitive ladder to the coveted “Icon” status. As you get further along and build your fanbase, you’ll sometimes come across WNBA and NBA players who will want to join your character’s squad and aid your rise to global dominance. Adding players to your inventory allows you to choose the right players for specialized events like Court Battles where online players can attempt to takeover another’s custom built court.

Custom courts is a brand new inclusion where you can create the court of your dreams and keep it as your home base. Ball courts have plenty of customization options like, logos, colors and various types of hardwood floors. There’s also the option to handicap offline attacks if you don’t have the confidence in your defending team yet.

Unlocking new moves like Candace Parker’s jumpshot or Allen Iverson’s infamous crossover can give characters a boost in style and performance. When buffed with slottable “Traits,” things like ball handling, passing, free shot accuracy and more are enhanced. Traits can be swapped in and out to suit a variety of game conditions. For example, some games require a certain amount of assists to unlock the next level. A trait like “Bullet Pass” will lessen the chance of an opposing team member snatching the ball during a pass to an open player. Increasing the chance to get that assist cred when they’ve hit the shot. If you don’t nail every task, you can still get rewards and XP but in order to advance levels, all three requirements like scoring a certain amount of points and winning the game must be met.

Microtransactions are handled well and aren’t overwhelming. This was a big complaint with last year’s NBA 2K18 My Career mode to where it was way too much of a grind to get the goodies. EA took note of 2K’s flub and made their store less of a chore to shop. Even without spending a dime of in-game currency, I’ve got a decent collection of gear. It’s not everything I could want but at least it doesn’t feel like fruitless play. About halfway into the introductory “The Rise” portion of the game, I lucked up on two second highest level “Epic” accessories.

Eventually, I tricked off on a “Legendary” item that I didn’t want to wait on. The intent is obviously to keep you coming back after setting sights on wanted gear but there’s no pressure. By the time you start getting restless, you’ll most likely have enough in-game coins to buy it anyway.

Upgrades a plenty

The Hype meter returns from Live 18 with a more eye-catching presentation. Hype progression affects your career in Court Battles, Street Tour and more. It’s a longer journey and it’s mostly for show but if flaunting your hard work on and offline is your thing, it won’t disappoint. Think of it as a rite of passage for the NBA Live community’s elite and a reward for all the hours put in.

There’s three different types of Hype that can be gained which can earn you loot for building up your home court, new players to choose from, and higher end gear. Each type of Hype focuses on the Court, Live Run, and Career respectively. The system still works like the previous one but visually, it’s easier to follow and is more prominent as it displays your level of greatness in your lobby, loading screen, and as a badge when playing online.

Working upwards from Rookie through Pro, Superstar, Legend, and Icon, each tier grants a celebratory gift but I do wish that there was a little more fanfare aside from a nod on social media and the earned loot. Something as small a shot of an article from a fictional basketball blog would add a satisfying touch after all the work done.

Seasoned players will already be familiar with the Live Run feature where you can team up with other players to go against the CPU (the game’s AI) or other humans. Match-ups come in 5x5 and 3x3 games. Wins can be set at 11 points and scoring in one’s and two’s, whereas three pointers will count as two points and everything else earns one. This year, EA added new courts to play on like New York’s famed “The Cage” and LeBron’s favorite in the Philippines, “The Tenement.” Each location is as visually stunning and picturesque as the next. Hopefully Live 20 will treat us to some crowd chatter in the native languages to add a deeper touch of realism.

The one is the one

The most enjoyable mode by far is The One which eclipses all other modes in terms of fun and immersion. It successfully tells the story without having it impede on the purpose of the game; ball playing. Never does the game’s career mode feel cluttered with useless information or cut-scene filler. There’s just enough to break up the on-court gameplay but not so much that you’re mashing the skip button to get things moving. In-game social media has bloggers and influencers chime in on your character’s come up as well with ESPN’s colorful duo Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman making a comeback from last year.

Refreshingly, EA enlisted the talents of non-sports specific media like Complex magazine to build the hype of your rising hoop star with the same familiar production as you’d see shared on your social media timeline. Live’s version of Instagram and Twitter chooses some of your best highlights as your character gains fame. YouTube-like videos show basketball vloggers weighing in and as you progress, you can see likes and comment counts rise with every report.

After a spectacular dunk or magical three-pointer, you can trigger a replay from the perspective of different smartphones in the crowd. I really liked how in some shots you get a full screen horizontal and in others, the dreaded vertical screen with black bars on each side. For whatever reason, I couldn’t stop wondering why there are so many people live streaming. One can only hope that a mobile phone company sponsored free WiFi at the courts for all that bandwidth. Hey EA, that idea is on the house.

From time to time, other players will reach out with advice or to challenge you in a Court Battle. Beat them and gain their respect along with loot and their help on the hardwood. You can accept their help graciously or respond with a cocky retort for a chance to win a larger amount of XP and Hype.

The WNBA’s roar unsilenced

EA took the public’s feedback seriously when it came to their light sprinkling of WNBA players in Live 18 and made good on their promise to deliver a more rounded and inclusive experience. This year we have a full roster of WNBA players including the first ever women’s custom character creation mode that allows you to create a female player with as much performance as any male.

Contrary to the paranoia of a gaming minority, including women did not take away from the overall enjoyment of playing. Proving that basketball skills aren’t gender specific, women can dunk (depending on their height) now. Women players can also take advantage of the many ball handling styles of their on-court brethren. It’s the revitalization that the franchise was in dire need of and even in the mode’s infancy, the future of WNBA video games looks to have a lot of promise and could pave the way for a more robust women’s ball series on its own.

There isn’t a coed Ultimate Team or Franchise mode so you won’t be taking Sue Bird to the top of the NBA and you still can’t put pro NBA teams against pro WNBA teams. You’re locked into creating a custom team in a street-based mode. Even with those limitations, it’s pretty darn cool to see Brittney Griner dunk on LeBron even if it’s not in an arena.

The Verdict

With so much thought and energy put towards The One, it would seem that the NBA Live franchise is moving more towards a basketball culture simulation than just sport. The core game is still intact but The One is so much more addictive it wouldn’t be surprising that the mode will remain the focal point in the title moving forward. Although EA boasts better and more realistic control of the players, it proved borderline frustrating at times. Real life physics are cool but when momentum constantly makes you sprint past the opponent you’re trying to guard it’s a true rage builder. In time you get used to it but I can see it being intimidating to those new with the game. I haven’t encountered any of the reported glitches where players would get stuck and unable to move without a restart so I consider myself lucky.

For a game of this level I would’ve expected more in the way of commentary. Jay Williams and Ed Cohen are great but their responses can get repetitive. According to EA, commentary will get monthly updates so there’s the hope it will sound more organic. There’s also little to no commentary in The One. I’m not talking about an old And 1 mixtape amount of talk but the option of having some street flavored chatter in the background would be a nice addition.

Regardless off the game’s minor quirks here and there, NBA Live 19 is the best basketball video game to come out in a very long time. Since the Live series has such a history of being awesome, it’s good to see that competition from the likes of NBA 2K has pushed EA to put out an authentic, easily accessible game that casual basketball gamers can enjoy just as much as hardcore fans obsessed with the technical nuances of the sport. While it’s not perfect...yet, NBA Live 19 is as close to catering to every level of fandom that you can get.