NBA Playgrounds – Review
Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Oh, NBA Jam, you wonderful beast you. How many 20c pieces, hours and controllers have I churned through with you over the years? But then something happened. You left me, you disappeared and I was left with an empty void where you once stood. So I have moved on. I have found a new love. I have been seduced by someone more stable, someone that challenges me more than you ever did. They aren’t as flashy as you, but they are here now and helping me to move on. That new someone is NBA Playgrounds and our relationship is only just beginning.
NBA Playgrounds is, you guessed it, something of a spiritual successor to NBA Jam. It features two on two arcade basketball with over-the-top dunks and no rules gameplay. At first glance, I could even forgive someone for saying it was a straight copy of the arcade classic that I missed so much. Do you know what? I don’t think I would have been upset if that was even the case, but much to my surprise, NBA Playgrounds has tweaked the formula a little and has improved on many aspects of the Jam recipe.
The first thing I noticed when playing is that it is getting shots off is much more of a challenge, especially dunks. In NBA Jam dunking was simply a matter of running to the ring, pressing turbo and shoot and then launching into helicopter-backflip dunk city. In Playgrounds, dunks are executed in a similar way, however their success is determined by when the shoot button is released. Releasing the button at the highest point in the dunk is key and letting go too early or too late will mean a missed shot. When you have just done nine backflips, flubbing the landing is just embarrassing. This applies to all shots and creates a risk/reward scenario. The more complicated the dunk or difficult the shot, the harder it is to tell when to release the button. The reward for a super flashy ally-oop or jam is, however, a much bigger addition to the special move meter.
The special move meter (or “lottery pick” in-game) is a meter that is filled by performing actions in a match. Blocks, steals, shots and dunks all contribute to filling the meter. Once this meter is filled a random boost is allocated to the team. These boosts are real game changers and can be things like an unmissable shot, double point dunks for 30 secs or unlimited turbo. It is a nice system that I really appreciated when playing couch-multiplayer matches because it is a nice way to keep less skilful players involved in the match. It is, however, a little more frustrating against the AI when your 10 point lead is whittled to nothing thanks to a couple of double-point 3 pointers.
Speaking of playing against the AI there is a nice little single player tournament mode (that also can be played cooperatively) that took me about 5 or so hours to complete. Four matches in 7 different locations against a Variety of NBA players. It is certainly nothing super exciting but the surprisingly competent AI is a nice challenge and there are no instances of rubber-banding that I could see, something that was heavily prevalent in NBA Jam. While these sort of arcade games have always been about the multiplayer matches, it is well worth playing through this mode to unlock all of the different courts and a host of real life players.
Unlocking players is another new addition to the NBA Jam formula. Instead of playing with a set NBA team, Playgrounds allowed me to pick any two of my unlocked players, allowing me to mix teams, or even eras, to create my perfect duo. Players are unlocked through a card pack system, similar to games like Halo 5 or Gears 4, and these packs are earned through playing matches. Every match played gains points towards earning new card packs, creating that whole carrot-stick/gambling thing that seems popular in games these days. I am usually not a fan of it but here it works, simply because it has been implemented in a fair way. Playing matches also earned experience points for the players that I used, allowing me to level them up and get access to some more crossover moves and fancier dunks.
Sadly, at the time of writing, I couldn’t get any online matches going because for some reason on the Switch online multiplayer has been greyed out. I assume it will be added soon but it was disappointing that it wasn’t available on launch (I will update the review at a later point if its introduction changes my opinion on the game.) Couch multiplayer however is a blast and is where most of my future with this game lies. It has that same appeal that NBA Jam had all those years ago, a pick-up-and-play philosophy that means anyone can play. A party will never be boring if you have a copy of NBA Playgrounds and four controllers handy.
There are some things that I found a little lacking however. The graphics, especially on the Switch, are pretty rough. They seem very washed out and unrefined. Also, the commentary is nowhere near as entertaining as what is on offer in NBA Jam. It is serviceable at best and lacks the enthusiasm and humour that the Jam titles offered. Finally, positioning can be hard, especially on defence, as it is hard to accurately judge where to stand. This makes blocking and rebounding something of a challenge. All of this is easily forgivable though considering what the rest of the game does so well and that the entry cost is a measly $26 AUD.
NBA Playgrounds is exactly what I hoped it would be. While its presentation aspects aren’t as good as what NBA Jam offers, it improves on the 2-on-2 arcade basketball formula in small, but meaningful ways, to create an entertaining and accessible experience. If NBA Jam was ever a game you enjoyed don’t put it off grabbing this one any longer. NBA Playgrounds is a blast that will keep the boomshakalaka coming for months to come.