There has been a long history of great arcade basketball games with Midway’s NBA Jam and Electronic Arts’ NBA Street being two of the most beloved series. Despite these successes, the genre has faded into the background in the past decade with simulation titles taking precedent. This has left a sizable audience waiting for a new game since 2010’s NBA Jam released, and now Saber Interactive is looking to cater to that crowd with a new two-on-two basketball game called NBA Playgrounds.
Taking clear inspiration from Midway’s iconic franchise, NBA Playgrounds will feel quite familiar upon booting up the game. It follows the basic formula that Arch Rivals established in 1989, and has players shooting audacious three-point shots, and doing dunks that would make Julius Erving blush. It’s a formula that has worked in the past, and it feels right at home here despite sometimes feeling like a knockoff. The biggest area where it goes for an NBA Jam feel, but fails is in its awful commentary. Instead of the announcer providing iconic one-liners, Playgrounds ends up having lame insults that talk about basketball star’s masculinity. Thankfully, this can be turned off.
Despite this familiarity, there’s a learning period to be had. The timing in NBA Playgrounds took me a few matches to really get used to (although the game helpfully will tell the player if they released a shot too early or late). After chucking up more air balls than I’d like to admit, I eventually began draining threes with such regularity that I never went for two-point shots unless I was dunking on fools. Defense has some complexity to learn as well, as I had to balance my stamina to use a highly powerful push to knock my opponent on the ground. This is the key to defense, as I could stop opponents regularly and cause turnovers. Overall, the gameplay feels extremely solid after a few hours, with only the blocking feeling stiff and awkward to do properly.
While there are a lot of similarities with classic arcade basketball games, NBA Playgrounds also has some new ideas that end up being a mixed bag. The big one is that it’s possible to gain extra points on shots by exhibiting perfect timing. I didn’t like the idea at first, but once I saw how much it added to the gameplay, I ended up coming around to it. Since players can possibly get four points from a well-timed three-point shot, it means that deficits can be overcome in mere seconds. I saw my team go on runs where I scored 12 points in just three possessions, and this sort of high scoring spin on basketball allows for some really satisfying back-and-forth matches.
One idea that doesn’t work is how the game implements items. Players get to use a random power-up by filling up a bar at the top of the screen, and while it sounds like a great way to incentivize exciting play, it just ends up causing balancing issues. The problem is that the power-ups range from useless (such as being able to automatically drain one shot) to incredibly powerful (a shot multiplier that lasts for nearly half a minute). Close multiplayer games can easily be decided with luck, and there’s no way to turn this off in the options.
Another area that leaves a lot to be desired is with how the game handles its roster of current NBA players and legends. Players unlock various stars by purchasing card packs (which are unlocked by gaining experience and beating the main single-player mode, not by paying money), and this works semi-well at first. My first card pack had me getting access to the fantastically stylish Walt Frazier, and there’s an excitement that occurs when opening a new pack. Sadly, this excitement is replaced with frustration when players spend several matches earning enough experience to purchase a card pack only to get four repeat characters and Nicolas Batum (not ragging on Batum, but you know what I mean).
It’d be a lot better if the player had some sort of agency over who to select (such as being able to guarantee a number of new cards, or being able to pick one character), since it’s currently totally random as to who the player can choose from. This is really disappointing as one of the most exciting aspects of the game was getting to check out NBA legends such as Allen Iverson (my childhood favorite) and Shaquille O’Neal. I don’t have either star despite having almost 100 players (there’s a grand total of just over 150), and imposing this sort of grind to unlock the roster really kills the appeal of playing as NBA legends.
By far the biggest disappointment in NBA Playgrounds is how bare bones the overall package is. Due to how the game locks away its NBA superstars behind a collectible card game, it’s essential for there to be enough modes to keep players entertained while slowly unlocking the characters they want to play with. That isn’t the case. Instead, the single-player consists of exactly two modes, one of which is just standard exhibition matches.
The other mode is called Tournament, and has the player competing in two-on-two matches around the globe against computer-controlled opponents. There are six tournaments to compete in with four matches each, which makes for a grand total of 24 matches. Lacking any sort of real challenge (I only lost a single time during it) or reason to replay stages (each level does feature a goal to achieve, but the game doesn’t offer any real incentive to complete them), I was finished with the main campaign in under three hours. Playing Tournament mode was also when I noticed that some of the player stats make no real sense, as even the best players of all-time will have extremely low stats in an attempt to balance the game. I get why this was done, but making it so Emmanuel Mudiay is considerably better at blocking shots than Dirk Nowitzki is not the way to do this.
While the lame amount of solo offerings was disappointing, the ridiculously basic online play is downright crippling. In one of the most baffling online choices I’ve ever seen, players can only play random matches against other players. There’s no invite system or any way to edit how a match is played, just jumping into one meaningless match after another. Considering the main appeal of NBA Playgrounds is to play matches against friends, it really destroys any longevity the title could’ve had. An “online tournament” mode is coming to the game in the future, which will hopefully add this feature in, but there’s absolutely no good reason for the game to be launched in such a barren state.
Second Round Pick
The debut installment of NBA Playgrounds gets the fundamentals right, but fails to impress elsewhere. From the shockingly feature poor online play to a single-player campaign that can be completed in a few hours, there just isn’t enough content to support the gameplay. It’s exciting to think about what a potential sequel could offer, but what’s currently being sold is a good, but definitely not great, arcade game that doesn’t manage to outdo its fantastic predecessors.
Review code for NBA Playgrounds provided by the publisher. Reviewed on PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.