Giant heads. Two versus two basketball. From marketing down to visual appearance, everything about NBA Playgrounds screams NBA Jam. For the most part, Sabre Interactive harnesses the feeling of that nostalgia-inducing powerhouse, though Playgrounds falls short of improving the experience. Modern gaming conventions otherwise bring down a title that should be celebrated for pure and simple basketball.
The first thing you’ll encounter when booting up Playgrounds – apart from a lengthy end-user licence agreement, that is – is a screen full of card packs. Rather than providing instant access to NBA players past and present, they’re locked behind these packs, earned by levelling up your account. The question is, why do we have to do this? Those who pick up the title aren’t asking for FIFA 18‘s FUT. They want a casual, 2v2 basketball game. Nothing less, and certainly nothing more.
Card packs aside, you won’t even bother with the player select screen. It’s a nightmare, with players locked behind the teams they play for. Not known for my patience, I immediately went for the two available teams — and their single, unlocked player — at the top of my list. Both had terrible three-point shot stats, but that didn’t matter; after one or two games, I was able to use any player and nail three-pointers from halfway down the court. The skills of your players will level up as you play with them specifically.
Playgrounds’ controls are relatively simplistic, with dedicated buttons for shots, passes and elbows on offence and steals and a good ol’ push on defence. Timing elements are in play for alley-oops and dunks as well as two- or three-point shots. Dunks and shots are easy to get the hang of, though I continually struggle with the sometimes slow-mo, sometimes not alley-oops. A shot clock, seemingly hidden from view, will occasionally will chime at you, subtly hinting that you’re about to cause a violation. You’re at least able to see the game clock, though it can be out of view at the ends of the court. Not being able to see the amount of time left in the game is frustrating, especially when you’re trying to implement a time-draining strategy against an online opponent or the AI.
Gameplay is offered in three main modes – exhibition, tournament play and online. Tournaments are the bread and butter of the single-player experience, pitting you against AI teams with ever-increasing skill. In each tournament round, you’ll be tasked will fulfilling a secondary mission – nail four three-pointers or perform two steals, as examples. Performing these tasks helps to level up and provides the opportunity for more players. Most importantly, your first tournament win will unlock online play, in addition to another backdrop with which to play in.
The game’s online lobby isn’t very populated on Switch, though that’s because the feature is coming soon in an update. Online play was fun on Xbox One though, with minimal lag and a requirement to think and change your strategies during play. Against the AI, this isn’t needed – you should rely on three-point shots and nothing but three-point shots. Nailing those baskets provides many advantages; first, you’ll get an extra point for scoring first (so you’ll go to 04-00 right off the bat) and you’ll also build up your Lottery Pick bar. Essentially Playgrounds’ version of being on fire, you’ll be granted access to one of several powerups, making it easier to nail more three-point shots, gain speed or run points up with a multiplier. Rinse, repeat.
The entire experience is one that’s reminiscent of NBA Jam, but never provides the same levels of joy you’re after. Something’s constantly off, from ease of shots, to cheapness of player AI (not that it helps them if you’re nailing three-pointers) to the over-complications of card packs and a lottery power-up system. Players’ movements are robotic and are sluggish. To its credit, Sabre Interactive is listening to fans and seemingly working to correct these mistakes; a recently-released patch has already dealt with AI steals. There is still the (admittedly remote) chance that NBA Playgrounds can still be all we’ve hoped.
Bland and generic against the computer, Playgrounds is infinitely better with friends. Priced competitively at around the $30 AUD mark, depending on console, it’s worth a bounce if you go in with your expectations set at the right point.
NBA Playgrounds was reviewed using a promotional code on Switch, as provided by the developer. A purchased copy on Xbox One was also played for comparison. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.