Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: Mad Dog Games
Reviewed on: Xbox One
There was once a time when arcade style, over the top basketball games were more popular than simulation titles like the NBA 2K series. One could argue that the NBA Live series fell from grace as it struggled to find a balance between arcade and simulation, allowing 2K to take over as the only quality option for those seeking a robust hoops experience. Aside from an effort by EA in 2010 to bring back NBA Jam, there haven’t been any options for arcade basketball fans for the better part of a decade.
NBA Playgrounds seeks to fill that void by refreshing the 2-on-2 arcade basketball formula. This is pure offense-to-defense game play with no fouls, back court violations, or time-outs in sight. This is as far from a hoops sim you will find. Players jump almost out of view of the camera when pulling off the more spectacular dunks, and players with a high three point rating are hitting them practically all day from anywhere within their team’s side of the court.
In fact, the first hour I played NBA Playgrounds I felt as if three point shots were too easy to spam, and I feared the worst when playing online. Thankfully, developer Saber Interactive thought of this and chose to counter the high success of three pointers with a few interesting mechanics. If a shot is made with perfect release, an extra point is granted. This also applies to timing an alley-oop pass or two point jump shot. Every time you score, block the opponent’s shot, or steal the ball, you partially fill your Lottery Pick meter (shoving an opponent completely drains the meter). Three pointers only slightly add to your Lottery Pick while dunks, blocks, and alley-oops greatly contribute. Once the meter is full, you are treated to a random special ability. These powers range from the obvious infinite turbo to the absurdly powerful score multiplier, ensuring everybody has a fighting chance against the abundance of Steph Curry abusers online.
The main attraction in NBA Playgrounds is Tournament mode. There are six tournaments to conquer, each in a new playground in a real-world city. Each consists of three matches with a length of three minutes, coming to a boss-like fourth and final game clocked at five minutes. All matches have an optional trophy up for grabs should you complete its associated challenge. As a completionist, these challenges gave me a reason to replay tournament matches I had already won just to check it off the list (and unlock new basketball skins). Another plus for the challenges is how they force you to select your players according to the skill set required in each instance.
There is a dark side to these challenges, however. Most are simple quests to score a certain number of three pointers or rack up ten consecutive two pointers, but the player is often not given context of what that specifically means. Perfect release shots net an extra point, so a perfect release in either of the aforementioned challenges would not count toward the goal. To make things worse, there is no progress indicator while playing, so it is impossible to even know if your attempts are counting or not.
In just a few hours I had beaten all six tournaments on the world map, and was a bit surprised at how unceremonious that really felt. There was no credits reel. I didn’t see a congratulations screen after beating Shaq and Allen Iverson in the final match. I replayed that match thinking I had misread the score and actually lost. I was simply sent back to the world map just like every other win, only this time I couldn’t find a newly unlocked tournament. Later I realized I had unlocked two new playgrounds for use in Exhibition mode.
Winning in any of Playground’s three modes (Exhibition, Tournament, and Online) also earns experience points and goes toward increasing your level. With every level increase, you are given a black five-pack of player unlock cards. Gold card packs (earned in place of black card packs once level 50 is reached) have a higher chance for Epic or Legendary player cards such as Magic Johnson or Lebron James. Repeat cards convert to XP, helping to level up that player. There are 250 players to collect and most players who should be here are. The most glaring omission (Larry Bird) will be added alongside fourteen other players in Saber’s next free update.
Visually, Playgrounds earns respectable marks. Players are caricatures of their real-world counterparts, and look right at home spinning and flipping in slow motion just before slamming the ball home. The dunk animations are completely ridiculous, as intended. Players are cartwheel leaping into 720° helicopter spins or spring-boarding off the rim and dunking on the way back down nearly every minute. The playground courts are vibrant and busy with detail throughout and look more Street Fighter than NBA Street; another great design choice by Saber.
Sadly, online play options haven’t been given the same modernization as the core gameplay mechanics. Only one player may play against another in online exhibition matches. There is no option to play online with or against a local or online friend. Another surprising absence is online tournaments. Both of these features are apparently being added by an impending update, though it is unknown to what capacity. Should you accept these shortcomings, online exhibition can be fairly enjoyable. Most matches I played were lost or won by within ten points. I certainly expected online play to be less balanced than it is. As long as you run with a great three point shooter and a player with decent dunk/rebound stats, there is hope for dealing with most pairs you encounter.
The hip hop/dance/trap instrumental music heard during matches is rather sterile. It isn’t inherently bad though, and since none of it is overly catchy or obnoxious, it provides an acceptable canvas for the more interesting in-game announcers as they rattle off quips and praise in response to your performance (or lack thereof). The main theme song is another story. This song is only played outside of games, but it is also the only song played outside of games. The theme sounds much like other basketball rap themes from a production standpoint, but the horrendously cheesy rap verse looped for hours becomes a total nuisance.
In its current state, I can’t recommend NBA Playgrounds to just anybody. For everybody else (myself included), NBA Playgrounds will apply a heavy-handed scratching to your arcade basketball itch. While brief, I mostly enjoyed my time in the main Tournament mode. Exhibition mode is regrettably the only local multiplayer experience. For better or worse, competitive games now largely live and die by their online options and community. Playgrounds has a few updates to go before it reaches its potential of bringing 2-on-2 arcade to today’s gamers, but that’s not to say that ballers from yesterday should have an easy time battling their nostalgia.
Windows 10 Pro 64-bit
Intel Core i5 CPU 650 @ 3.20GHz
8 GB RAM
AMD Radeon R9 280X, 3GB VRAM
Samsung EVO 250 GB SSD
Playgrounds will please many of us with its flair for action and new-to-genre mechanics, while poor online implementation and only one local multiplayer mode will keep many more of us away.