EA's return to basketball last year felt like a labor of obligation, shabbily patched together and pushed out the door. If this year's goal were simply "make a better game," NBA Live 15 checks that box--but that doesn't make it a good basketball experience. Shoddy mechanics, simplistic defensive play, and antiquated visuals make it difficult to have fun with NBA Live 15. It's not broken, and there's enough content to keep you busy for the full NBA season. However, NBA Live is a franchise desperately searching for its identity, and its deficiencies are only more glaring with NBA 2K15 reaching such great heights.
If you take a close look at a player in NBA Live 15, you quickly see the technical strides this series has taken. Sweat realistically travels down bodies, which now sport muscles that retract and expand during drives to the basket. Jump shots, post moves, and even Euro steps all look more believable than those in last year’s game. There's a varying level of detail from player to player, but stars like cover athlete Damian Lillard look sharp, thanks to the motion capture work and 3D head scanning.
It can be attractive up close, but NBA Live 15's technical limitations emerge when you pull back the camera and watch it all in motion. Athletes stick awkwardly close to one another on the court, jittering maneuvers and stiff movements pulling you out of the action. The frame rate often fails to keep up when turnovers lead to fastbreak scores, while sudden accelerated animations make it difficult to follow the action. NBA Live 15 isn't ugly, but constant visual wobbles make it feel stuck in a generation gone by.
Its unrefined presentation is forgivable, if disappointing. However, NBA Live 15's biggest and most pervasive liability comes in how it feels. Running offensive plays is trying, with much of your ball movement stemming from often-ineffective screens. It's too difficult to create space and find an open shot on your own, so you're left relying too heavily on working around picks in order to push to the rim. Dunks and layups can almost feel automatic if you're guarded by a single defender, but getting into the paint is arduous with efficient dribbling and quick finesse moves being so toothless.
Defense isn't smart or fun, as it's just too easy to press against your man and prevent open looks or strong post moves. Instead of guessing the direction of a player's drive, NBA Live 15 allows you to shut down even the biggest stars by simply staying reasonably close. That's it. You need to press your weight against bigger men in the paint and time your jump to contest shots, but defense doesn't offer enough involvement in the on-court battle to actually feel interesting. Attempting steals adds a bit of dynamism, but batting the ball away is too easy. On my first six attempts, I stole the ball five times and drove it down the court for multiple easy baskets. It helped me come away with a win, but that shouldn't happen in a game attempting to simulate the sport.
But then, I continually found myself questioning whether or not NBA Live 15 really is trying to provide an authentic basketball experience. The pace is much faster than is often comfortable, with transition plays often feeling more disorienting than advantageous. Simply passing the ball around the key looks and feels a half step faster than you'd expect, and even shooting the ball is a bizarrely inauthentic task. Instead of releasing at the top of your jump, you need to launch the ball a few moments earlier in order to kiss the bottom of the nylon. This forces you to forget what every other basketball game has taught you, but even if you master the timing, it still feels sinful to let go of the button so early.
It isn't quite a simulation, but don't think NBA Live 15 reaches NBA Jam levels of absurdity. Players don't catch fire and brush against the ceiling before finishing a dunk, yet player and ball motion just don’t feel like they’re based on the real NBA. NBA Live 15 isn't fun and zany enough to be an arcade experience, but it also fails to present the proper shooting, passing, and fundamentals you'd expect in a basketball simulation.
Beyond the standard Tip Off mode, NBA Live 15 includes a simplistic create-a-player component called Rising Star. Here, you can fashion your own personal player from the ground up--determining his position, appearance, background, and build. Unfortunately, there's little outside of the upgrade system that makes this feature feel unique. There's no real semblance of a story to make you feel invested in your created player, so your only incentive to push forward is watching your statistics continue to tick up.
The rest of the feature set continues to feels like a watered-down version of what NBA 2K15 already provides. Ultimate Team lets you build your dream team through collected cards of varying rarity, while Dynasty allows you to manage the trades, goals, and on-court action of your favorite team. Both are serviceable, but have been done better elsewhere. The Big Moments mode is a little bit more novel, letting you reenact some of the most spectacular nights in a player's career. Stepping into Carmelo Anthony's shoes to recreate his 62-point outburst from last season is a challenge, but attempting to recapture this magic is at least a fun change of pace.
Even during its brightest moments, NBA Live 15 isn't a very fun basketball game. Effective offense is a struggle to achieve, and defense is far too automated to keep you interested. Even with individual players looking better up close, NBA Live 15 fails to present an attractive package when all ten bodies are running plays on the court. EA is headed in the right direction with this struggling franchise, but compared to NBA 2K15, Live feels like it's playing for a roster spot in the D-League.