It’s been a while since we’ve seen a good old fashioned arcade basketball title released for consoles, and given the popularity of this sub-genre within sports video games in the 90’s and early 2000’s, it’s a little shocking that noone has been able to fill that niche. A couple attempts have been made, NBA Unrivaled which was released back in 2009 was by all accounts a disaster of a game. Shortly thereafter, the actual NBA Jam series made a return with NBA Jam: On Fire Edition in the following year, and it was, well, more of the same game that was so wildly popular all those years ago. Aside from these, there hasn’t really been a decent place for hoops fans to get their video game fix anywhere other than the NBA 2K series.
And for anyone that’s played that series in recent years, you know that it’s become an incredibly realistic simulation that has a higher bar to entry than ever before. Fans of that style of game would argue that it has never been better in terms of gameplay and realism, others could argue that it’s simply too much to be fun anymore. But before this review of NBA Playgrounds turns into an opinion piece on why NBA 2K isn’t fun for the casual player anymore, let’s talk about NBA Playgrounds. The arcade basketball title in the vein of NBA Jam takes modern cartoon-like visuals with limited rules and a simple control scheme and lets basketball fans have a little fun with this fast-paced over-the-top take on the sport.
NBA Playgrounds accomplishes its task of making basketball fun, competitive, and easy to pick up and play. It won’t take you but a game or so to get acquainted with control scheme and you can have fun with the over-the-top nature of the game in short order. To get you going, you’ll recieve a handful of card packs that contain what are seemingly a random selection of players. These are the players that you can pick from to field your 2v2 squad. At launch there are a ton of players for each NBA team, and this includes players from past and present. Simply play games, earn XP, and you’ll unlock new card packs which have new players to build out your collection.
On the court, the action is bigger than life. Players making impossible dunks and alley-oops, unlocking “Lottery Pick” power-ups that allow them to become unstoppable for a short period of time. You can throw elbows, push players to the ground, swipe for steals and block shots, there’s no pesky referee telling you what you can and cannot do, the only objective is to get the ball in the hoop and prevent the other team from doing so. The action is fast-paced, for the most part, you’ll earn power-ups by performing on the court moves which are easily done by using the move stick, which will allow your ball handler to do crossovers, spin moves, back-steps and other moves to keep your opponents guessing. There is some element of strategy to the game. It’s not quite as simple as shoving your opponents and stealing the ball eventhough that’s a huge part of it. You do have to manage a stamina meter for your players, so you can’t constantly shove your opponents down. It refills at just the right pace that you can’t hold the turbo button constantly, elbow your opponents incessantly, or push at will. If you’re constantly holding down the turbo button you just won’t have the available stamina to do those things, or make shots it seems. On top of the stamina meter, taking shots need to be timed correctly. You can shoot too early, or too late. Whether you’re shooting a full court heave or a lay-up, timing will dictate whether the shot goes in. Dunking on the other hand, seems a little bit easier as you just need to release the dunk button before getting to the rim. The timing mechanism in NBA Playgrounds is kind of unusual as there’s really nothing telling you whether you’re on the right track or not. Sometimes you get a perfect shot, and it’s a complete surprise. Other times you miss wide open lay-ups for seemingly no reason at all.
The only thing that ever slows the action down is the odd use of taunting which stops the game completely, sometimes for longer than it should. Say a player completes an incredible dunk, he’ll sit there and taunt the opposing team, preventing them from inbounding the ball. It’s one of the only design decisions that I have a problem with when it comes to the actual gameplay. I’m all for taunting in arcade basketball, but it shouldn’t slow the opposing team down. If you want to add it as a button to use while play is going on, great, but it shouldn’t impede the other player’s progress or affect the pace of the game.
Back and forth, each game plays how you think it would in arcade basketball. Impossible shots, moves you won’t see in real life, the general defiance of the physics of the real world. You can control a few options when playing against the computer, like the length of the game, the difficulty of the AI, and some other features like the court you play on and the ball you use. And there are quite a few ways to play NBA Playgrounds. You can play local or online multiplayer. You can play cooperatively with a friend. You can play in tournaments or exhibitions. Online tournaments are supposed to be on the way post launch, but they aren’t here yet. Whichever mode you choose, you’ll constantly be leveling both your overall XP, which leads to new card packs and players for your roster, and you’ll also be leveling your players. The reward for doing that is new moves as they progress making them stronger the more you play with them. You also have to tip your hat to Saber for not including microtransactions here. This is a game that could easily be filled with XP boosters, in-game boosters, cosmetic items, card packs, and every other shitty microtransaction you can think of. But it’s not there. You won’t find a button prompt or advertisement in the game that’s offering you a little something extra and that’s a refreshing change of pace.
On the presentation front, NBA Playgrounds is a good looking game. Far better than recent efforts by NBA Jam and most certainly NBA Unrivaled. There’s a nice fluidity to the gameplay, the dunks and alley-oops look amazing, and the game will often move into a slow motion for the most spectacular of plays. There are quite a few courts to be unlocked, and new basketballs can be unlocked by completing in-game challenges. The players themselves, while cartoon representations, look good, and you can easily tell who’s who on the court. The audio side of things aren’t quite as impressive. While they did snag Ian Eagle and EJ “The Mayor” to do the announcing work for the game, it didn’t take long for it to get somewhat repetitive. Eventhough, EJ adds some much needed spice to the commentary. The music of the game also leaves a lot to be desired. Especially since most hoops fans are coming from a game like NBA 2K, where the selection is far broader and touches many different tastes.
NBA Playgrounds Gameplay
You can find some gameplay of NBA Playgrounds in an Exhibition Match between Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony vs. Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant below: The end of the video also shows the opening of card packs.
Online play should be a big draw for NBA Playgrounds but coming out of our time with this mode on the Xbox One, there’s a few things that are concerning. It truely is hard to judge the online component of a game prior to it being released to the public, you just don’t know how well it’s going to hold up. Though usually, the problem that occurs is that we have a near flawless experience pre-launch and then see the problems after the game goes live. In the case of NBA Playgrounds our online exprience ran the gamut of excellent, feeling almost one to one with the offline mode, to being completely unplayable where players were warping all over the court. Furthermore, and I’m not 100% sure on whether Saber is going to tweak this going forward, but there seems to be no XP penalty for quitting a game within a certain amount of time. Perhaps I should preface that with the fact that there’s going to be a online ranking system that allows you to move up and down in divisions of the mode depending on how well you play. Win games you earn XP pushing you towards the higher ranks. Lose games and you lose XP potentially keeping you in a division that will keep you matched with players of similar skill. I was actually gaining XP for quitting during my time playing the game for review. It must be an oversight, because if it’s not, this part of the game is broken and needs to be fixed at launch to avoid players just quitting out of every game with no consequence. That said, when it’s all running perfectly, online matches are quite tense. Much more so than even the hardest AI. You earn quite a bit more XP as well, so unlocking card packs goes much quicker playing online than playing against the computer. This is the part of the game that needs to work, and I’m hopeful as once the game started to give live in different parts of the world I kept trying to jump into online games to keep testing. The good news is, even as more people got online it felt like there were less and less occurrences of serious lag.
The handful of complaints I have about NBA Playgrounds don’t really take away from fun this game offers as a whole. There’s definitely good times to be had, the progression system is worthwhile, and online can be incredibly competitive despite the potential for connection issues. NBA Playgrounds is the new king of the cartoon court, even if there isn’t much competition anymore.