NBA Live 16 storms into the arena with multiple enhancements both on and off the court, but are the improvements enough to warrant a purchase over last year’s edition? Or perhaps of greater salience, can Live finally escape its image as the D-league of virtual basketball and rise up to cement its place in sports gaming relevance?
NBA Live 16 is a better game than last year’s version. Possibly a much better game. Possibly… Dribbling, passing, and shooting mechanics are either expanded upon or refined over NBA Live 2015; a new physics-based player movement system attempts to mitigate prior issues of scripted animations, rebuilt passing and catching systems permit more precise control regarding ball distribution, and a new shot system theoretically generates more realistic shooting outcomes given a variety of real-time variables. Likewise, upgrades to user interfaces – including a more streamlined play-calling menu along with increased pick and roll control – renders the strategic elements more integral to the game and more accessible to the user.
However, the improved core mechanics render Live 16 as simply a more playable version of its predecessor. The core gameplay is undoubtedly improved, but there are major issues that can not be ameliorated solely through gameplay tuning and small adjustments.
The problems with Live are threefold; the individual systems that constitute particular mechanics are either too shallow or too unpolished, there are not enough systems in place to neutralize overpowered mechanics, and the A.I. does not adequately adapt to their ever-changing surroundings or act cooperatively when necessary.
Let’s serve up some specifics. Live 16’s dribbling system allows for increased user responsiveness via right stick movements, permitting the user to execute hesitations, crossovers, and spins with ease. However, the system lacks an appropriate number of branch points; as such, it is difficult for users to transition in and out of various animations at their own volition. Stringing together moves is possible, but the user generally must wait for an animation to finish before a new input can be registered. The lack of branch points ultimately restricts the user from unleashing ball handling creativity, rendering the user’s stick skills as inconsequential to the outcome of the play.
Additionally, the dribbling controls lack depth. There simply are not enough moves attached to the right stick or triggers, and as such, there are limited options when attempting to navigate past defenders. Even so, the lack of control depth extends beyond the dribbling mechanics; shooting and passing options are similarly limited thanks to a lack of options on the controller. For example, while the direction of passes correlates precisely with the direction of the control stick, the user lacks the ability to choose how they would like to pass the ball. Additionally, while the new shooting mechanic allows the user to better gauge their optimal release point, the lack of “types of shots” – including different types of gathers, step-backs, and jumpers- restricts the ways in which a user can shoot the ball.
Moreover, although offensive controls do not grant users enough, well, “control,” there are even less defensive tools with which to combat the offense. The egregious lack of defensive options severely hampers one’s ability to, well, “defend.” So much so that offensive moves vastly overpowers the defensive mechanics. The end result: games end in shootouts with defense feeling more like an afterthought.
Improper gameplay tuning and incompetent A.I. exacerbates these issues further. Shot percentages are far too high, help defense is severely lacking, AI defenders do not always appropriately box out their defender, and your AI teammates are largely unable to orchestrate a fast break with any precision. At times, the improved mechanics in Live 16 is properly reflected on the court with beautiful glimpses of “what could be,” (including the beautiful hand-off passes) but there are still far too many undercooked mechanics or mechanics “not yet introduced” that prevent Live from reaching greatness. Ultimately, while more playable than last year’s version, Live 16 oscillates too frequently between sim and arcade style basketball.
The graphics in NBA Live 16 are average. While the colors are more saturated, the lighting remains underwhelming. While new face scans have dramatically improved facial models, but the scans have been applied to far too few players. LeBron looks great, but others… don’t. While the included player models look good there are not enough for different body types. Similarly, many new animations look superb, yet older ones… don’t. Truly a mixed bag.
The ESPN presentation is well implemented. Graphics packages, highlight reels, and sound effects are utilized just as they would in a real broadcast. However, the commentary that complements the presentational components are terrible. The commentary of ESPN analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen do not complement each other well; the commentary engine does not permit branching dialogue, many of the lines are not stitched together well, and the duo refuses to adapt the actions on the court.
Live 16 features numerous game modes meant to complement the gameplay, but the modes ultimately lack quality and depth, and therefore do little to detract from on-the-court issues. A Rising Star Campaign allows you to create a rookie and play through a career, but the mode is devoid of the story elements necessary to provide context to your player’s journey. The mode is surprisingly hollow and does little to build upon last year’s version. Additionally, Live Ultimate Team and Dynasty Mode suffer from the same issue; there is little to differentiate this year’s edition from prior entries.
Fortunately, the addition of Live Pro-Am injects a dose of ingenuity, frenzy, and fun to the franchise. Pro-Am Summer Circuit allows friends to engage in a variety of co-op challenges – with their created player – against increasingly challenging AI opponents, while Live Run permits up to 10 user controlled players to play pick up games up to 21. Pro-Am shows great promise, but is ultimately held back by issues to core gameplay.
NBA Live 16 sets out to climb the virtual mountain of professional basketball and deliver fans the best playing basketball game on the market. Instead, the game fluctuates between sim-style and arcade style basketball, never finding its niche. Individual mechanics have certainly been tightened, but altogether, the underlying systems that constitute the gameplay are underdeveloped and lack cohesiveness. While NBA Live 16 is ultimately a step forward for the franchise and a pace further up that mountain, the series is still looking up a steep slope standing menacingly in front of it. But far in the distance and approaching that summit lies another game… And Live doesn’t look to be catching up anytime soon.