As an avid sports fan, I’m a big supporter of alternative sports games. 2K Games, Electronic Arts and Sony San Diego keep everyone happy with their simulation style games; but sometimes you crave something different. It’s why gamers hold NBA Jam, NFL Blitz or FIFA Street so close to their hearts. Clearly inspired by the classic series NBA Jam…NBA Playgrounds hopes to capture that same fast and furious 2 versus 2 game play. While it has the league license, it comes from a relatively unknown indie developer. Let’s find out if it’s a slam dunk or an air ball.
It’s inevitable that any reviewer is going to compare Playgrounds to Jam…there are just too many similarities. With those similarities come some drastic differences, for better or worse. The first thing you will notice when you boot up NBA Playgrounds is that your entire roster must be unlocked by card packs. The game starts you off with a few handfuls of random players. There is a nice mix of current role players, superstars and legends. They all have various levels of proficiency in areas like: dunks, steals, 2 pointers, 3 pointers, rebounds, etc. Every player has a basic RPG style leveling system where new moves are unlocked as you level up. There is also an overall level for your profile and you will be rewarded with a card pack every time you level up. Card packs are also earned for completing tournaments, more on that later.
Opening these packs is my favorite part of the game; Playgrounds gives you the option to reveal them all at once, but I prefer to meticulously flip them one by one. Flip by flip, a handful of players are revealed and who you get is seemingly random. Sadly, I seemed to always get multiple duplicate cards; Playgrounds automatically converts every duplicate to 100xp for that player to soften the blow. I would have greatly preferred cashing in these duplicates for extra card packs, as XP for players I likely won’t use doesn’t mean much. I also feel it’s a bit disheartening to pay $19.99 for a game and not be able to play as my favorite players immediately. I’ve played through many tournaments and have only one player on the Golden State Warriors and none on the Houston Rockets.
The three main game modes are exhibition, online play and tournaments. What I found most unique about NBA Playgrounds is that you can pair up two players from any team. Ever wondered how Lebron James would play with Steph Curry? How about Magic Johnson teaming with Shawn Kemp? The combinations are very intriguing and led me to use players I wouldn’t normally use. Online is a welcome inclusion and extends replay value tremendously. Tournaments task your twosome to defeat four rounds of opponents. There are optional objectives in each round like: dunk 10 times, make 5 steals or shoot 6 three pointers. Doing so earns extra XP that makes the process of unlocking card packs go faster.
So how does it play? And the answer is….weird. Borrowing a shot release mechanic from 2K, shooting the ball requires you to release the button at the optimal point. Releasing too early or later will lead to incredibly wild shots. This isn’t much of a problem when it comes to jump shots, as I was able to convert them routinely. The problem happens any time I tried to dunk, which in an arcade game was a lot! My instincts tell me to run with turbo towards the rim, press the dunk button and hold it down for a gratifying slam. That’s not how things are done in NBA Playgrounds; instead like a jumpshot, I must release the button at the perfect time to land the dunk. This led to so many blown dunks that I just stopped trying. This means that every game turned into a three-point shooting fest. Not being able to perform outlandish dunks successfully really sucked the fun out of the game. Another quirk I hated occurs after every made basket. The player cannot immediately inbound the ball, instead you are forced to wait a couple seconds for the defense to get set before inbounding. This really slows down the pace of the game and there were even times I had to wait for an opponent to finish his long gesture before I could even inbound.
As the player performs cool moves and makes shots, a meter will fill at the top of the screen. Once filled, a random powerup will be useable for a short period of time. Some examples of these were: increased speed, two point and three point shots worth double points, and an “on fire” ball that always goes in. Adding to the craziness is the bonus point awarded for the team who scores first and if you happen to perform a “perfect” shot based on timing. Players can push, elbow and steal like you would expect, except a stamina meter means you cannot spam these moves. If you try too many times the controller will shake, violently. This was quite distracting on Xbox One and there is no option to turn it off; it did however get the message across as I adjusted my play style and chose my spots for steal attempts.
Graphically we have a cartoon style that makes some players look terrific and others unrecognizable. It’s a real shame that they chose Allen Iverson as the cover star, as his character model looks nothing like him. All the courts are outdoors, as the title would suggest, and contain a variety of locations such as: Tokyo, Las Vegas, London, and New York and more. The variety is nice and if you stop to check out the backgrounds, there are some appealing details there. I had no problems with the commentary or level music, but the main theme got annoying quickly. Games don’t take long to load and making lineup changes or navigating the menus is quick as well.
NBA Playgrounds is the definition of a game that’s a mixed bag. The roster of players is exquisite, pairing players from other teams is unique and it has a visual style that sets it apart. What keeps Playgrounds from being truly great is the quirky dunk mechanics, random character unlocks with many duplicates and the required waiting after making a shot. Despite all its shortcomings, I’ve been coming back to NBA Playgrounds and I still get excited when I open a new pack of cards. There is some fun basketball to be played here, just beware that Jam this is not.