On the playground is where I spent most of my days
Yeah, now basketball is my favorite sport
I like the way they dribble up and down the court
I keep it so fresh on the microphone
I like no interruptions when the game is on
I like slam dunk, to take me to the hoop
My favorite play is the alley-oop.
NBA Playgrounds (PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: Saber Interactive
Release Date: May 9, 2017
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Is this like NBA Jam?” Sort of! Though it definitely takes more inspiration from the NBA Street series. It’s a two-on-two game featuring real stars with exaggerated proportions and some sort of whacky moves. There’s a turbo button, you can shove people, alley-oop, perform major dunks, get five points in one shot…you get the idea.
Don’t go into NBA Playgrounds expecting it to play just like those older games that paved the way. It has its own quirks and mechanics to get used to and those who do not adapt will leave frustrated. For example, I like to push in NBA Jam. Like, a lot. It’s my favorite. In Playgrounds, a player can generally push once per defensive possession, because it drains the stamina bar instantly. In fact, if said player recently performed some big dunk, they may not be able to push for some time!
Many moves drain stamina, indicated as a bar below each player. Using turbo, pushing, and performing crossovers will drain it pretty quickly. At first, the stamina bar feels very limiting, but I’ve come to enjoy the decisions it forces on the player. Going for a big dunk might net you those two points, but it strips you of a defensive push for quite some time. It makes the game a little bit smarter and strategic. If you ever lack the stamina to do something like push, the controller vibrates. And I mean it vibrates. Like holy hell I’m surprised each time it happens because it feels like someone hooked a vibrator up to a car battery.
There are of course some small intricacies to the gameplay as well. Shooting requires holding and then releasing the button; release too early or late and the shot misses. Timing a shot perfectly will net an extra point, as does scoring the very first bucket of a game. So shooting a perfect three-pointer as the first shot of the game can net a team five points at once! I do wish there were some sort of “free mode” to run around trying different shots, experimenting with characters, and attempting to nail perfect shots, because I still have no clue what it’s looking for there.
Often times I’ll feel as if I nailed the shot, and it comes up as late. It’s also frustrating to miss a dunk or easy layup because your timing was off. Seeing David Robinson miss a slamma-jamma dunk because I held the button too long just feels lame. I’m pretty sure the timings vary depending on the animation, but it’s impossible to know what animation is going to play most of the time, so I just end up releasing and hoping for the best.
There’s also this awkward wait time after every single basket. The game forces the scoring team to their side of the court automatically, and the inbounding team cannot move until that happens. This would be fine if it were always quick but it certainly is not. After either an alley-oop or a chaos-tier dunk, at least one player is usually splayed out on the ground. They then need to finish their animation, get up, and run back to their side of the court. It becomes noticeable way too often and slows down what is otherwise a break-neck paced game.
Performing moves like alley-oops, blocks, steals, and monster dunks begins to fill up a special meter. Once its filled, the game randomly chooses a bonus for the team. This could be as simple as “the next shot you take will go in” or something more interesting like “the opponent’s shot clock ticks faster.” It’s hard to say they are all equal in value, but at least nothing feels overtly “overpowered” since it’s all up to chance anyway.
While the moves in NBA Playgrounds are pretty zany and off-the-wall, I wish there were more options to play around with. The match options for exhibition games allow players to determine if they play for score or time, the level of AI difficulty, and the color of the ball. I would have loved to see things like infinite turbo, max/null all stats, or anything to make the game crazy for those late-night gaming sessions.
Other than exhibition, players can play offline tournaments against a slew of pre-determined pairings of players. There are six tournaments of four games each, all taking place at a new venue. This is the main way to unlock content. Completing a tournament unlocks the level and awards a card pack (more on those later). Each game in the tournaments also has a challenge, like scoring a certain number of three-pointers or blocking the ball X amount of times. This is a great addition because it incentivizes the player to mix up their team composition, though I wish the reward was better than a new ball color.
There are over 150 NBA stars, both former and current, in NBA Playgrounds. New players are unlocked through card packs, like collecting basketball cards in real life. Each pack has five players at random in it, and they are assigned values like Epic and Legendary for the more iconic players. Packs are unlocked by leveling up (aka playing the game) and beating tournaments.
As of right now, I see no microtransactions at all in NBA Playgrounds. There is no way to buy player packs.
As soon as I saw these cards, I whispered to my cat “oh shit, these are gonna be microtransactions.” Yet, I saw no way to spend real money here. It seems like a missed opportunity, but I’m not complaining! There is this line in one of the game’s press releases, though: “It should be noted that there will be hundreds more players to come after release.” No word yet on if these will be paid or not, but time will tell.
That being said, the basketball card collector in me loves this aspect of the game. Sure, it’s frustrating I don’t have Patrick Ewing yet, but as someone who still has their 1,000+ basketball card collection, I love opening these digital packs. What makes this even better is each player, once unlocked, has stats and facts about them players can browse at their leisure. Just like the back of the real-life cards! At times, it felt like the game was almost getting in the way of me getting more cards. I guess I’m thankful there are no microtransactions because I’d be the first to buy some packs.
Legendary players even have special moves that have to be discovered through play. I initially found it frustrating that I couldn’t just be told a player’s special move, but then it dawned on me how exciting it can be to discover one or even just know one based on player knowledge. Players can also level up by playing as them, which apparently unlocks more moves for the specific player, but I’m still not exactly sure what that means. A lot of this game could just use a little more explanation than what is given.
I also want to give a special shout-out to the main menu music. It’s the perfect level of corny. It has weirdly auto-tuned parts, lyrics that are simply hysterical in how bad they are, and best of all, doesn’t get old! The levels are also nicely varied; they’re just new coats of paint and all play the same, but time and effort was definitely put forth to make them feel unique from one another.
Playgrounds certainly has its faults. Some of its mechanics are strangely hidden in mystery as I continue to miss layups that no professional should ever miss. But, in terms of off-the-wall two-on-two basketball, it can be a blast. It has a decent amount of single-player content, online play (with more online modes coming), and a non-microtransaction filled player collection system. If you’re the type of player who enjoys basketball, even if it’s just the “good ol’ days,” and wants to see Anthony Davis hurricane-dunk over Walt Frazier with some friends, NBA Playgrounds offers up a great experience.
Plus, it allows me to play out my dream scenario of “Kristaps Porzingas being teamed up with someone halfway decent,” so that’s exciting.