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Semi-pro

As a New York Knicks fan, I am extremely familiar with the concept of rebuilding a franchise. After a three-year absence from the gaming scene, NBA Live has been furiously trying to make up lost ground and get back to a point where it could stand toe-to-toe with its most direct competition. It’s first two years back, however, barely moved the needle with all those virtual ballers out there. The hope was that, like with many annual sports franchises, the third year on new-gen consoles could be the one that would announce NBA Live’s triumphant return to glory. Looking more like my Knicks, though, NBA Live 16 continues moving the franchise in the right direction, but only in baby-steps—and not to a point where it can actually compete just yet.

The most impressive addition to this year’s game comes in the form of the new Live Pro-Am mode. Here you can get ten human players together for some classic five-on-five action in venues that channel your local gymnasium or playground blacktop. Further illustrating that pick-up game feel, the first team to 21 points wins—which, for me, triggered flashbacks to games I played after school or during recess with my friends as a kid. If you can’t find human opponents, there’s also the option to take your five-man squad up against a series of computer teams of varying difficulty.

Playing with other people is really where NBA Live 16 shines. While my time online was seamless, it does need to be mentioned this was before the game’s wide release. Communicating via headset, setting up screens, calling out plays, and learning how to work with one another made me want to lace up my favorite pair of sneakers before playing again.

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One note, though. If you plan on playing with friends, you might want to talk before you group up because in Pro-Am you play as the created player you make when you first start the game and it wouldn’t be wise to take the court with five point guards. This means that Pro-Am mode doubles as a nice way to earn experience points before you take that created player into the single player Rising Star mode—NBA Live’s version of Be a Pro.

Besides Pro-Am, the usual suite of online versus modes return, including EA Sports’ card-based Ultimate Team. Live Ultimate Team adds a new feature where you can earn some of the NBA’s elite from early on in the mode, but can only keep them on your team for a small number of games before you lose them—adding a new strategic element to when and where you play certain players. There are also 160 offline challenges in LUT this year, allowing you to earn tons of coins and players for your squad before heading online.

My only gripe with this is that each challenge I saw is a full-length game. I think LUT needs to take a page out of Madden NFL 16’s MUT playbook and focus on shorter challenges like hitting buzzer beaters or making last minute defensive stops. It’s kind of exhausting to put in an entire game’s worth of time just to get a single card, especially if you fail.

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There have also been some tweaks to the offline components of NBA Live 16. The aforementioned Rising Star mode is accompanied again by Dynasty mode, which allows players to be the GM of their favorite NBA franchise and try to take them to glory. Dynasty still allows you to micro-manage every decision about your team, from making trades and re-signing free agents, to setting your starting lineup each night. If you decide to start with Rising Star, you’ll try to take your personal created player and turn them into NBA royalty.

Rising Star sees a major change for that custom player this year, and it comes in the form of the new progression system. Instead of upgrading a single point at a time, NBA Live 16 now sets threshold marks, so a skill may jump as much as five attribute points if you have enough XP to spend. Also, when you pick a position for your player, you now also have to pick a specialty. Point guards, for example, can be Shooters, Passers, or Slashers, each having their own boosts in particular categories when you start out, requiring less upgrading early on in your career.

Besides the skill aspects of your character, you can also customize their look down to the slightest detail. Tattoos, shoes, warm-up gear, and more are available to be earned. There’s also the Gameface HD companion app that even lets you put your own face on your player. I personally had a fair amount of issues linking the app with my PSN ID, and my odd-shaped head seemed to make the app go haywire on my first several attempts—but it’s an interesting idea if you can get it to work. Until then, I’ll stick with one of the pre-rendered faces.

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There are also some welcome changes to gameplay when you actually take the court. New additions like clearer feedback on shots fix what used to be a confusing element from previous years. Now, a very clear shot meter comes up when shooting a jumper, and depending on skill level and how open the individual is, you receive a definitive percentage letting you know your chances of that shot going in when it leaves your hand. The hope is, over time, you’ll start to learn which are high-percentage shots and which aren’t. There’s also new feedback on called plays that tell you where to go and who you should be passing to in the hopes of getting an open look at the basket.

Unfortunately, things start to fall apart beyond the feedback. When controlling your player at a normal tempo, or if you try to slow things down to eat up some clock, it feels like you’re constantly fighting the controller. There’s almost no finesse when moving your player, unless you’re on the fast break sprinting towards the basket for an easy layup or dunk. And the more complex moves to break away from players guarding you are a series of semi- and half-circles on the right stick that remind you more of a fighting game than a sports title.

The worst gameplay offender, though, is your friendly AI. Whether in Dynasty or Rising Star, your teammates are nearly worthless. When I knock a ball loose on defense, I want my teammates to react to it like in a real game and scramble after it. When I’m boxing out on one side with my power forward, I want my center doing the same thing instead of letting small forwards run by him for easy putbacks. And while it’s great that I can call plays now, when I’m seeing the actual diagram on the court of where I need to be and where my teammates are supposed to go, I want them to actually go to those spots so I can pass or shoot like the play intended. I lead my team every night in points as a passing oriented point guard in Rising Star—not because I want to, but because if I pass the ball to one of my dunderhead teammates, they’re going to turn the ball over. It happens with too much regularity.

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Of course, the friendly AI isn’t the only disappointment, as the opponent AI isn’t very good either. Playing as my New York Knicks in Dynasty last night, I gave up one three-pointer. A stellar defensive feat? No. The AI, even with several open looks, never took a three-pointer unless it absolutely positively had to, which in the case of the one three I gave up, it did because it was at the buzzer to force overtime. If it were a three-point shooter, they’d look instead to try to drive to the basket. If it were a big man, they’d look to pass the ball. I can only control one guy at a time, and as alluded to earlier, the AI defense isn’t that good.

And really, that’s the disappointing thing about NBA Live 16. New modes along with additional bells and whistles for existing ones are perfectly fine, but there is still a roughness to the core gameplay that keeps it from being great. The reason why Pro-Am mode was so good when I played it was because it was humans versus humans, reacting and playing basketball the way you’d expect people should and would. Until that level of gameplay quality translates better into the offline modes, NBA Live 16 is a D-league title at best.

Developer: EA Tiburon • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 09.29.15
6.5
NBA Live 16 takes a small baby step forward with the franchise, but there are still core gameplay elements that need to be smoothed out before it can be a championship caliber game.
The Good Pro-Am mode is a welcome addition to the online suite; better feedback on shot taking.
The Bad AI on both sides of the ball is still abysmal and gameplay remains stiff.
The Ugly My odd-shaped head drives Gameface HD insane.
NBA Live 16 is available on PS4 and Xbox One. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.
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