Regardless of the fact that I am not an avid follower of the sport, I have enjoyed a good few basketball games in my time. NBA Courtside for the Nintendo 64 and NBA Street Vol. 3 on GameCube instantaneously spring to mind as soon as I say basketball games. But of course, as it would be for most, the one that trumped all was NBA Jam. Here, NBA Playgrounds takes a decent shot at invigorating the arcade basketball genre, but let’s make one thing clear before we go on, this is not NBA Jam.
Before I carry on, it is worth noting that this review reflects the recent update that added in the features that developer Saber Interactive had spoken about and promised us prior to the game’s release. I will go over the updates throughout this review.
NBA Playgrounds is a two-on-two, over-the-top arcade basketball game featuring outlandish slam dunks and super-charged big headed players. Already that sounds great and brings back loads of memories from all those years ago. The gameplay is simple to get to grips with as you would expect of a game of this ilk because, after all, it is a pick-up-and-play kind of game that has been designed for all players. I just feel like it is maybe a little too easy in some aspects.
The shooting mechanic in NBA Playgrounds is a little different to what most basketball games offer and by no means is that a bad thing, as the developer has gone for their own idea and tried something new. The bad news for them, however, is that the shooting mechanic here just isn’t particularly good. In most basketball games, typically, the top of your player’s jump is where you would release the shoot button in order to get the best shot, but here instead you have an onscreen bar that when shooting inside the 2-point zone, is far too big and it is nigh on impossible to miss.
When attempting a 3-point shot the onscreen bar is a lot smaller and, granted, it is a lot tougher to hit, but after a few tries, you get the feel for it. I was getting the vast majority of 3-point shots in and it was making some of my matches pretty easy. The onscreen shot bar was added in the recent update and you can turn it off at any point in settings if you don’t want it there. But without it, it had the complete opposite effect for me and actually makes shooting far too unreliable, especially when shooting from further out as it seems like it’s mostly just guess work at that point. There is a timing based system, you just have to be committed and learn it if you want to properly play it in this way.
If you have ever played NBA Street then you might remember the gamebreaker feature whereby you would be rewarded with bonuses during the game if you are doing well. Here you have a lottery bar that, again, fills up faster the better you do, so skill moves, dunks, etc. Once it fills you are given a timed random perk or reward such as being able to score long range shots much more easily or bonus points if you score a dunk. It’s not a massive game changer but it certainly adds something to the game because you have to also think about what reward your opponent has received through their lottery meter and try to stop them from using it effectively.
For me what saved NBA Playgrounds somewhat was the single-player mode. As you play games in this mode you level up. You then earn packs of cards that, when unwrapped, reveal diverse players from both modern and past eras. These players can then be used as you go through further sets of contests in the different playgrounds the game offers where you have to defeat other teams in short matches. During these matches, there are also challenges to complete such as scoring a certain amount of three-pointers or blocking a set number of shots. These challenges give matches something a little different as you might be somebody who only goes for certain types of shots so they make you want to try something else for a change. And of course, it makes matches a bit more interested in the fact that it gives you something else to beat rather than just trying to beat the opponent each time.
If you are a fan of the sport and keep up to date with the current rosters, then you will be happy to know that plenty of current players have been included here. If you prefer slightly more old school ballers, then it will also be a welcome sight that the game also includes players of years gone by. I cannot comment whether the roster on offer is good or not because my knowledge of actual basketball is limited but it is at least sufficient for me as there are plenty included and during the last update the developers added even more which should be applauded.
However, rather than providing instant access to NBA players past and present, they’re locked behind these packs of cards I alluded to earlier, which are earned by levelling up your account. Depending on your stance, this is either a good or bad thing. If you’re somebody that just wants to play a few basketball matches and you’re not really interested in unlocking packs then this is going to be a big problem for you as you might not be able to play as your favourite players. But others are going to love unlocking all the players in this way as getting them all is no easy feat and it will take a long time. However, I did find that once I found my two players that had a good combination of a guy that was good at 3-pointers and a guy that was good at blocking and tackling, I just stopped opening my cards because I had the set up I wanted and I had no incentive to change it.
The biggest inclusion in the latest update was online play. Online play is inopportunely basic but one might expect that with a game like this on a Nintendo platform. You are randomly assigned an opponent that is matched relative to your skill level, which is easier said than done. You can play with friends but it is awkwardly set up in a way that you need to enter a challenge code that your opponent then needs to enter too. I just don’t know why they couldn’t have just had an option to challenge one of your friends that you have on your Friends List.
It is a shame because more certainly could have been done to make it an amazing feature of the game and one that would have kept people coming back for more. What was impressive to me, however, was the ease at which I could find opponents. The day after the patch went live I found opponents within 30 seconds. But even a week later I was still constantly finding matches within 45 seconds, whether this keeps up in the coming months and years is hard to say for sure though. I also never had a single match that lost connection, of course, this might be different for others but for me, it was fairly silky smooth all round.
Visually, NBA Playgrounds has a vivacious feel to it and again is very reminiscent to NBA Jam which was the developers aim. It’s undoubtedly nothing special and there are better-looking games out there, heck, there are better-looking basketball games out there and there have been for years, but it positively does its job.
NBA Playgrounds is fun, of that there is no doubt. It’s just that the fun doesn’t last all that long. After playing a few matches I simply had no motivation to have another without taking a break from it first. If you’re a huge basketball fan and you’re planning on playing a lot of local multiplayer, it’ll be far more appealing to you. If all you want is a game that will ease the itch for an over the top street basketball game in the same vein as NBA Jam then this will satisfy it somewhat. Just don’t expect it to become your favourite ever basketball game, because it has some way to go.