A new contender is coming to the league of basketball sims, NBA Infinite, Lightspeed Studios and Level Infinite’s foray into the world of three-pointers and slam dunks. Following the continued success of NBA 2K Mobile and the sad demise of NBA All World, NBA Infinite is here to battle it out for the title of MVMP – most valuable mobile player – and with its combination of high-intensity gameplay, realistic player models, and varied game modes, it’s by no means an underdog going into its first season.
As you would expect from an officially licensed game, all the big names from the NBA are here. You’ve got Curry, Jokić, Durant, and countless others from across the 30 teams that make up the National Basketball Association. Considering this is a mobile game, the player models are incredibly detailed and much better than some of the Uncanny Valley sports stars I’ve seen from other games. LeBron actually looks like LeBron, straight from the set of Space Jam 2, and it makes the game all the more engaging.
The attention to detail surrounding individual players doesn’t stop at the visuals but extends to the individual playstyles of each in-game baller you can pick up. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the Exclusive Skill of each player. Take the Phoenix Suns’ Kevin Durant, for example. Durant’s Exclusive Skill is Drag and Drive, with the power forward pulling the ball back before lunging at the net to pick up two points for his team. Every player has their own Exclusive Skill, so you can get tactical with it. Whether you want to set up a team that shoots almost exclusively three-pointers, or a squad of all-rounders, the options are there.
In terms of picking up new players for your roster, it’s a card acquisition system similar to what you’ve probably seen in other sports sims. You rank up individual cards by trading in multiple copies of that player. So, if you want to get your Jokić to his max ability, you need a bunch of spare Jokić cards to level up. Due to my short time with the game, I didn’t get to see how frequently you pick up duplicates, but this method of enhancing your players at least makes use of any spare cards without relying on the player market.
The amount of game modes available in NBA Infinite makes for something more playable than other basketball sims, with PvP options including 1v1, 3v3, and 5v5 games. For 1v1 and 3v3, you’re battling it out street-style on a half-court, while 5v5 games are the real deal with the surrounding of packed stadiums full of eager fans. This mix of modes keeps it fresh, and with the two hours I had with the game, I had a fun time flipping between the different offerings and figuring them out.
If I had to pick a highlight, the 5v5 Dynasty Ranked mode takes the cake. With the whole court in play, it feels like the game mode where you can most engage with the tactical side of the sport, elegantly passing from player to player before unleashing a pre-rehearsed routine to break down your opponent’s defenses and scoring. I don’t mean abstract tactics, either. You can choose from a list of tactics for your team to employ, allowing you to approach attacking differently each time you make it to the other end of the court. 5v5 is also the longest mode, with two three-minute halves, compared to the three-minute games of 1v1 and 3v3 ranked modes.
The gameplay is pretty expansive for a mobile basketball sim, with plenty more options than just dribbling and passing. When attacking off the ball, you can call for a pass, set a screen, or attempt a breakaway, with each option offering your teammate another tactical advantage regardless of whether they choose to spread the ball to you or go for the basket. When you have the ball yourself, the options differ slightly, with the option to post up or befuddle your opponents with a crossover. Then, there’s defending, which is a whole different kettle of fish. We’ll come to that later.
If the stadiums and the quality of player designs didn’t make NBA Infinite an engaging enough sim, there’s also in-game commentary from ESPN’s own Mark Jones. It’s little things like this, plus the slow-motion replays after spectacular shots and dunks, that heighten the immersion while playing. If there’s anything to make going six points up on an opponent feel better, it’s a digital commentator reminding them just how well I’m doing as they watch the ball drop in the net again in a replay.
While there are a lot of great ideas in NBA Infinite, there are a couple of things I think could do with polishing post-launch. My biggest gripe is with player movement, which doesn’t feel as fluid as I’d like, considering I’m playing basketball. Especially when defending, players can feel a little stiff, and it feels almost as if there’s a bit of a bias towards the attacking player.
This attacking bias is pretty true to real-life basketball, as it’s a notoriously high-scoring game compared to the more defensive ball games like soccer and football. However, it does lead to occasionally frustrating moments when you’re defending your net, and it feels like you can do nothing to slow the barrage of two-point balls. This struggle to defend is especially true when facing a talented player with an Exclusive Skill that focuses on slam-dunking.
There’s also a bit of a learning curve to NBA Infinite that you can only really grasp through in-game practice, so you might struggle in your first few games. I didn’t realize for a solid 30 minutes that you need to hold down the defend option rather than just select it when facing an attack, so I had to watch on as LeBron walloped home another two-pointer while my player character did a strange sort of dance as he took up a defensive stance for a millisecond before allowing the Serbian MVP to keep on charging. It’s demoralizing, but once you get to grips with the controls, you feel a bit more in control. Fortunately, it works both ways, so you at least get to watch your opponents struggle to defend.
It’s worth pointing out that if you’re not into PvP play, this one might not be the basketball game for you. NBA Infinite puts all its eggs in one basket gameplay-wise, with little outside of training and three-point contests to keep you busy when you’re not feeling the intensity of online play. It’s hard to call this a fault, as this game is clearly for those looking for the PvP experience, but it would be a nice addition in the future for those who need a break from online play.
Before rounding up my experiences with NBA Infinite, it’s worth pointing out the elephant in the room. There already is an officially licensed mobile basketball game, and it’s called NBA 2K Mobile. Having played both, I can say that the games are quite similar, though it’s hard to think how exactly you could innovate the basketball sim genre without changing the sport it’s based on or introducing unnecessary gimmicks. If you’re a fan of 2K Mobile, my advice would be to give Infinite a go. Without any inside knowledge, I don’t know if the arrival of Level Infinite’s basketball game means the end of support for 2K Mobile, but while both exist, it’s really down to your personal experience where you choose to tip-off.
From the short time I spent with NBA Infinite, it’s hard to judge exactly how all-encompassing microtransactions might be on release, but there did seem to be a few ways to unlock new players without parting with your cash. We’ll have to see how this plays out following the release, but there should be enough here for both free-to-play gamers and those willing to spend a little extra in-game to enjoy PvP balling.
All-in-all, NBA Infinite offers basketball fans a realistic and engaging sim that almost matches the real thing in terms of white-knuckle sporting thrill. It might not be the most welcoming to basketball newcomers, and it’s still hard to tell how invasive any in-game transactions might be, but at its core, it’s a thrilling way to play ball purpose-built for competitive action.
There you have it, our NBA Infinite preview ahead of the release date on February 17. For more of our thoughts on upcoming mobile titles, be sure to check out our Zenless Zone Zero preview and Tarisland preview. Or, if you’re looking for something new to play on, check out our Nothing Phone 2 review and Google Pixel 8 review.