One of the key challenges in making a video game based on a real-life sport is: how do you transfer something so inherently physical, so defined by the ability of the human body, into a medium defined by button-pushing? EA’s latest basketball simulator NBA Live 14 offers game modes single player and online; fantasy and reality; fun and irritating - all of which explore that challenge, to various degrees of success.

Helping the transition from analog to digital, controls in NBA Live 14 are shown in loading screens, unlike its NFL counterpart, and most menu options have helpful tooltips just in case you’re not up with the NBA Live lingo. But it’s still difficult to tell what effect pressing certain buttons will have, even with explanations given.

The best of NBA Live’s modes, whose sheer number make the word “mode” sound strange to say, is the bread-and-butter quick-play mode. Here, you control an entire team, and in the offensive game, the rhythm is fast and satisfying. Passing between players gives the feeling of controlling the team as a collective consciousness, and it’s here, where the virtual gameplay differs the most from actually playing the sport, that NBA Live sings.

NBA Live 14 review

Shooting, however, is an exception, imprecise to the point of having just one button assigned to it. In the heat of the game that’s somewhat acceptable, but free-throws should really allow for more calculated finesse, rather than being driven by behind-the-scenes stats.

Defence is a clunkier story. In actual basketball, defence is inherently physical, all about placement in space relative to an oncoming attacker, where the timing of a jump can make all the difference. There’s no finesse in NBA Live’s defence. It’s hard to pinpoint who you’re controlling, and defensive moves are difficult to execute effectively thanks to animation lag and the general gimpiness of the players’ flailing block moves. It lacks the intuitive flow of the offensive game.

If playing entire games – even with quarters mere minutes long – is too taxing, NBA Live 14 offers a “Big Moments” mode that recreates key game-changing moments from real NBA games. These tiny, situation-specific challenges like “score the winning free-throw” are probably noteworthy for avid NBA followers, but to the casual observer they’re only of minor interest.

NBA Live 14 review
NBA Live 14 review
NBA Live 14 review
NBA Live 14 review

The modes go on. Rising Star offers the opportunity to create a player and shepherd him (no girls allowed, because sports) through a career in the NBA, hopefully attaining success and fame. Player creation has limited customisability, but with a range of hairstyles and free name selection, you too can guide mop-headed Derpy McDoofus to megastardom.

Unfortunately, the gameplay in Rising Star is vastly inferior to the vanilla game. Instead of controlling an entire team, you control only your “star” (referred to as “Derpy” herein for expediency’s sake).

Controlling Derpy alone feels restrictive after the godlike team control afforded in the normal game, and again, it generally feels like it would be more intuitive to actually play the sport itself.

Worse, the camera is locked facing down centre court, placing a semitransparent backboard in front of the court and making it easy to lose sight of Derpy.

RPG-like stats are earned from each game, often from highly specific tasks that are hard to keep a focus on when Derpy is running back and forth just trying to stay in the game.

At no point does it feel like you’re part of a larger team, except when Derpy gets benched and Derpy’s team’s score increases dramatically. Meanwhile, Dynasty and Ultimate Team leave Derpy behind to focus on team-building.

In the former, you play the role of a coach/franchise owner and guide your team to success through a combination of stat-management and traditional gameplay. The latter is a fantasy-football style mode where you build teams out of players both current and past.

With both modes, expect lots of fiddling with stats in menus, and long delays due to downloads. NBA Live constantly requires downloadable roster updates, and other unexplained downloads that can be weighty. Some update procedures even caused game crashes while playing through for review.

NBA Live 14 review
NBA Live 14 review
NBA Live 14 review

In its presentation, NBA Live sits comfortably but unambitiously alongside its next-gen launch title sporting brethren. Crowds are rendered well and the court is appropriately shiny, while the fabric physics turn a pre-match warmup into a hypnotic flurry of shorts and singlets.

The soundtrack is loaded with inoffensive hip-hop, while commentators bleat out the usual statements of the obvious like “they’re scoring a lot of points here, which makes it much easier to win”.

It feels like the ESPN license – while surely lucrative for EA and ESPN alike – may actually be holding NBA Live (and sports titles in general) back: when the gameplay has to look like televised basketball, there’s a limit to the innovation that can be brought in. What would a first-person (possibly Rift-driven) basketball game look like? We’ll never find out.

NBA Live has seen a considerable publishing hiatus in recent years, and without having played its earlier incarnations it’s difficult to say how this title compares to them. Taken on its own, it’s uneven at best, half a spirited game loaded down with stat-management and license-driven extras.