The arcade basketball genre is one that used to be almost as big as the simulation games it parodied.
From NBA Jam to NBA Ballers, the fun was there with all of these games before they went the way of the Woolly Mammoth years ago.
Now in 2017, Saber Interactive looks to bring back this style of game with its two-on-two arcade title NBA Playgrounds. Boasting a roster full of past and present superstars and gameplay that can be exciting, it wants to be the game that fills the gap left in fans’ hearts by the departure of arcade classics.
But does NBA Playgrounds pull it off, or will it be smacked down by its self-inflicted shortcomings?
The game doesn’t offer much in terms of modes for fans to enjoy. There’s an Exhibition mode to play one-off games against the CPU or friends in local co-op; Tournaments, the main single-player option where you travel the globe to unlock courts, packs and power-ups; and Online mode to take on players across the World in some two-on-two action. Like I said, there’s not much here.
The cartoon visuals of Playgrounds is the absolute best part of the game’s presentation. Every player has something about their look or on-court actions that makes them stand out. Shaquille O’Neal has his signature two-handed slam while Magic Johnson sports his classic short shorts.
The dunks and ally-oops are absolute spectacles to witness as well. They are over-the-top, but not too the point where it looks campy. NBA Playgrounds takes that aspect of the game, and makes each dunk look incredible.
You have to find the scoreboard in the background to track both the score of the game and the fast-dwindling 12-second shot clock.
The game offers players six courts to choose from that all look different, but never feel any different. All it comes across as is just a re-skin of the same court each time with different backgrounds and scoreboards to experience.
Speaking of scoreboards, there’s no in-game score bug for players. Instead, you have to find the scoreboard in the background to track both the score of the game and the fast-dwindling 12-second shot clock.
The game boasts Ian Eagle as its play-by-play man, and while it was a great get for the series because of Eagle’s incredible skill on the mic, it just doesn’t work in this situation. His calls get repetitive to the point of annoyance because of the forced attempt at sarcasm and comedy. Repetitive lines are okay in games like this when they’re catchy, but nothing from this duo of Eagle and Eddie Johnson is catchy. Hell, even the in-game music becomes annoyingly repetitive.
The pick-up-and-play ability of NBA Playgrounds is so well done, that anyone from any age group can get into the action. The controls are simple enough to learn that someone who’s never touched a controller can easily find themselves pulling off amazing dunks and clutch shots. And while the gameplay can be quite entertaining, this is where NBA Playgrounds really starts to hold itself back.
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Aside from some signature features like Shaq’s aforementioned dunk or Allen Iverson’s crossover, none of the players really feel all that different. You can see the same game play out with Jeremy Lin on the court as you can with sharpshooting Ray Allen. There is no incentive to try new players after you find a pair you simply enjoy playing with. Instead, they just become a card collection that you’ll never touch as you unlock packs and open them up. Just like that Yu-Gi-Oh collection from 20 years ago.
On the court, the game struggles to get out of first gear. A quickly depleting stamina meter hampers the flow because everything you attempt drains so much of your energy. You try and go on a fast break, you run out before getting to the end of the court. Want to dunk? Well, you better not have tried to swipe the ball or shove your opponent before getting possession.
There is no incentive to try new players after you find a pair you simply enjoy playing with.
Literally everything you do drains stamina an unnecessarily large amount. It does a great job of killing the fun of the game. The game should be fast and action-packed, not spent worrying about if you have enough stamina left to even dunk the ball.
And that’s not the only problem with the action. NBA Playgrounds “utilizes” — and that term is used lightly — a timing system for shots without actually showing you what the timing of your shot is.
You just have to take a chance, and guess that your timing is on. The only thing to “guide” you is text that pops up saying either “early” or “late”. That’s it…really. Perfect shots give you an extra point, but you have no idea how close your release is from being perfect until the shot either goes in or doesn’t.
But wait, there’s more!
After a basket, you’re forced to stand underneath the basket to replenish your stamina for what feels like an eternity before in-bounding the ball. Again, the game just can’t get out of its own way when it comes to the flow.
There is a “Lottery Pick” system that fills as games go on before randomly giving teams a power up to utilize in game, but the options are so limited that even those become repetitive and dry.
Lastly, the AI in the game is atrocious. Your AI teammate rarely gets open, and listens to commands as well as a stubborn, untrained puppy. When you hold L2 + X (PS4), it should send your teammate in for an alley-oop. Instead, the AI will either stand still or walk back and forth a bit before finally going…and then you have to deal with the fun timing mechanic once again. As far as AI opponents go, they have little to no basket presence. The option for a wide open layup or dunk could be there, but they’d instead rather pass it away or run from under the basket.
NBA Playgrounds is a visually appealing game with some charming features to it, but it just feels incomplete. It’s a game that should be fast-paced and fun, but it gets crippled by its own restrictions far too often for something touted as a true arcade experience. If you yearn for the days of NBA Jam this game will help whet your pallet, but you won’t leave feeling fulfilled.
With only one main single-player mode, NBA Playgrounds comes off more as a demo than a full product. Sure, there’s a deep roster and online play, but depending on your system of choice, there just may not be enough of an online player base to utilize the latter much.
NBA Playgrounds has potential, but it just leaves too much in the locker room to be considered anything more than unpolished. At least there’s no micro-transactions in this one.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10
Note: A copy NBA Playgrounds on PC and PS4 was provided to Sports Gamers Online by Saber Interactive for the purposes of review.