If you wanted some excitement and style within an arcade basketball game, then you may not find everything you were hoping for in NBA Playgrounds. Much like the iconic NBA Jam series that popularized arcade sports games in the early 90s, NBA Playgrounds follows a similar gameplay formula. This is a fast paced, arcade-style basketball game with all 30 of the official NBA teams, based on the 2017 NBA roster. Though the presentation is lighthearted with its hip-hop soundtrack and stylized players, a barrage of technical issues and poor design choices ultimately kill its momentum and halts the fun.
The gameplay of NBA Playgrounds is almost identical to that of NBA Jam. You play quickly timed 2 vs. 2 basketball games spanning about 3 – 5 minutes. Since this is an arcade game, you don’t have to worry about all of the rules of traditional basketball. Instead it’s all about the big passes across the court, crazy dunks to the basket, and high scores by the end of each match. You have a standard Exhibition Mode, Tournament Mode, and Online Mode for multiplayer games online.
This simplistic approach to the game of basketball is a great compliment to the game’s stylized look, which takes a cartoonish approach to all of the biggest NBA players. Some players may look incredibly goofy and very silly, but everything about the game of basketball is hammed up to the extreme, making for a fun caricature of the NBA and its players. Unfortunately, the commentary during the game is nowhere near as exciting as what you hope. Ian Eagle and E.J. Johnson provide color commentary with plenty of one liners throughout a game, but the hype and momentum behind each line just isn’t there.
One of the biggest detriments to NBA Playgrounds is the extremely limited selection of players when you first start the game. You can’t choose to play as your favorite team or control you favorite players at the start, but instead must unlock them through Card Packs you obtain from winning games in every mode and leveling up your Player Ranking. You begin with a small selection of randomly chosen players from random teams. You need to play more to obtain packs in order to unlock additional players for your collection.
This is a huge issue when you are given players to teams you simply don’t want to use and it takes a long time to (hopefully) obtain the players you actually want. Each card pack you open is random, with the possibility of getting doubles of a player you already have. It feels like an unnecessary addition that locks out fans from playing as their favorite teams.
Once you get over the time it takes to unlock your favorite players, then you’ll become frustrated with other issues within NBA Playgrounds. While the core gameplay itself is totally fine, the additional Lottery Pick abilities and finer details during the game feel somewhat broken. Lottery Pick abilities are extra boosts you obtain as you score points and play defensively against the other team, such as stealing the ball or blocking a shot.
The time these abilities last is inconsistent in many cases, especially against the computer during Tournament Mode. Sometimes you’ll obtain a Lottery Pick ability after playing well, only to lose it moments later with no clear explanation on screen showing how. Meanwhile, the computer AI team will maintain its Lottery Pick ability gained even when it’s playing terribly against you. This happens time and time again across all modes with no clear in-game explanation or during the game’s brief tutorial mode.
Additional problems can be encountered with the stats of each player. When selecting a player before the start of a game, you can view their specific stats on their profile that showcase their specific attributes. You can see how well a player is at shooting, rebounding, stealing the ball, and much more. However, none of these stats seem to become a big factor at all during a game. A player that supposed to be terrible at making 3-point shots may actually land every single 3-point shot you go for, while a great defensive player might not ever block a shot during a game. This becomes problematic when choosing players according to a strategy you want to use, only to have it completely turned upside down when you see nothing go right during the game.
What makes this even more frustrating is how NBA Playgrounds requires you to take standard shots. You have to press the shooting button and release it at the right moment as you launch the shot in order to make it into the basket. Doing anything else will automatically cause your shot to miss, even if it’s an easy layup next to the basket. You might get a hang of this over time, but it feels like another unnecessary addition to an arcade basketball game where making shots should feel simple. The game rewards making perfect shots into the basket, granting an extra point on top of whatever shot you were aiming for. This feels as if the game is awarding additional points for no real reason, but how the game judges a perfect shot is very inconsistent. You can be left wide open on the 3-point line and land a shot in the basket, but it still won’t be counted as a perfect shot and won’t grant an extra point.
Playing online with NBA Playgrounds is average at best. Matchmaking can sometimes take a while to find a match, which can also be influenced by the quality of your internet connection. You can only play in two player competitive matches online, not like the game’s offline four-player co-op matches. This is a shame because it seems like a wasted opportunity to have crazy multiplayer games online with up to three other people. There are Leaderboards and Rankings for online play, but there isn’t much you get out of them other than the experience you gain towards your Player Rank to obtain more Card Packs. What is here is fine, but more could’ve been done to make the online mode exciting.
NBA Playgrounds may have some similarities to NBA Jam, but it doesn’t provide the same level of quality or excitement. The Card Packs that prevent you from playing as your favorite teams and players are unnecessary and should have been implemented in a much less restrictive way. The online modes do provide some fun, but are ultimately meager and unfulfilling. If you were hoping for something special within NBA Playgrounds, then you’ll be disappointed to know that you won’t find the slam dunk you were looking for here.
This review was based on a digital review code for NBA Playgrounds for the PlayStation 4, provided by Saber Interactive.