When NBA Playgrounds was announced, nostalgia immediately hit. The game instantly put an idea in my brain that would mesh two classic arcade-style NBA games together. With it being 2-on-2, the initial thought was that the gameplay would mimic NBA Jam and feature the environment and atmosphere that was Electronic Arts’ NBA Street series. While NBA Playgrounds accomplishes this on the surface, once diving into the actual game, it’s clear that trying to mimic those titles is not what developer Saber Interactive set out to do. Many people will have expectations going in and will quickly need to take a step back. That’s not saying this isn’t a fun game, though.
Arcade basketball like NBA Playgrounds has not been done in a while. While EA released a revamped NBA Jam, it never quite had the charm of true arcade basketball. Saber Interactive injected some charm with Playgrounds. The cartoonish artwork looks fantastic as players have scrawny bodies and giant caricature heads. The environments are not arenas, but rather streetball locations from random cities. The crowds and environments are alive and animated and the on-court action looks smooth. From the outside looking in, NBA Playgrounds looks like a familiar experience, but is far from it.
The basis of the gameplay is 2-on-2 arcade basketball. Players have a Lottery Meter, much like a turbo meter, which allows for sprinting, pushes, steals, dunks and shots. The game also includes alley-oops and shot streaks. How this is executed deeply affects the flow of the game, however. While quarter time can be changed, the default is one five minute quarter and it goes by quickly. Shots are based on timing and the perfect release of the shoot button. If you release the ball at the perfect time, you get an additional point. This is strange and nothing consistent can be judged for when the perfect time is.
The Lottery Meter runs out quickly and takes forever to refill. Yes, doing a juke move with the right stick is great, but sometimes the direction is not what you expect and the Lottery Meter is instantly drained. What is the point of juking a defender one-on-one if you have nothing left to go to the hoop with to dunk? Another thing, good luck hitting lay-ups as it just does not happen. Many times this will get air balled, as do some shots, and it is much too often. It’s difficult to judge how to properly make shots since the results are so inconsistent. Lastly, the ball physics do not correlate well with the player physics. There are too many times where every player jumps for a rebound and no one gets it, or when chasing a loose ball it takes a second or two for it to register even if someone is standing over it. This seriously affects the flow of the game as shot clock violations occur, even with the A.I.
As for the A.I., it is brutal even on the lowest difficulty setting. If you managed to land a dunk attempt, half the time it gets blocked. It never misses shots or dunk attempts and rarely is there a lay-up. It just doesn’t attempt to push or steal, but makes up for it in perfection in other areas. Shot streaks do not necessarily mean getting on fire in this game. You are awarded a lightning shot that cannot miss if a separate shot meter fills up. Power-ups such as quick feet, double points, longer jumps, and more are available for a time limit, but are short lived. The games are also not high scoring due to the flow issues and game clock. Keeping track of the score is another issue, as there is no scoring presentation or overlay. I’m sure that has something to do with the streetball etiquette, but it is hard to keep up with the time left and the score (even though these screenshots seem to have them easily visible).
Aside from the gameplay of NBA Playgrounds, it is the setup that strays the game further away from NBA Jam and NBA Street. You do not choose a team and two of its players. Much like an Ultimate Team or Diamond Dynasty, you earn cards with different players. You can level these players up to a silver or gold tier making them better. You can mix and match teams to find the best mesh of players. There are current players, and more importantly, legends. The legends are also tied to that team’s jersey from the specific year. The legends really do make it all worthwhile. More card packs are earned from leveling up either online or offline. Players can choose Exhibition, Tournament, or Online mode. The Tournament is a four stage mode which unlocks each different court in the game. Exhibition allows players to jump right in, but opponent selection is either random or chosen by you. There is no latter to climb or anything like that.
Online play is vanilla at best. There is no matchmaking and not even any voice chat from my experience. You cannot view the opponent’s record or tendencies such as a rage quitter. The closest experience to NBA Jam, however, was in this mode. The A.I. is not able to cheap shot you, so playing a human opponent is preferable. It takes about a minute to find an opponent, and there’s no lag or server issues with the game online. Another bright spot is the commentary. The two commentators are entertaining and witty and could actually be the best part of the game. The banter between the two will make you forget about some of the repeat comments, although those comments are original and it’s really about how the commentators say it that helps fit the mood.
All gripes aside, I’ve had less fun with games that were full price. This is a 2-on-2 arcade basketball game with some replay value for $20. NBA Playgrounds attracts you on the surface but brings a different yet inconsistent experience to the table that somehow still manages to be fun. Leveling up player cards and playing as legends while landing some awesome dunks are the main attractions. There’s enough nostalgia combined with an entertaining aesthetic to make NBA Playgrounds worth a look for basketball fans.