It would be an understatement to say that NBA JAM & NBA Street devoured countless hours of my childhood. From preforming mind-blowing dunks, all the way to triple or quadruple alley oops, those games were fun beyond compare. NBA Playgrounds, by Saber Interactive, attempts to recapture the magic of these iconic games, and while they come close, they didn’t quite hit the target. That being said, the foundation they have built is extremely solid, and the future could be very bright for this new challenger on the court.
Out now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch, NBA Playgrounds allows the player to step into the shoes of over 150 current and past NBA players and compete in 2-on-2 tournaments for glory. Like NBA Jam or NBA Street, you can perform some incredible moves and rim-shattering dunks, though the pace of the game is slowed down a bit comparatively. While this takes a bit of getting used to, it actually allows the game to be a bit more than mindless dunkathons. You have to time your shots, and if you time them perfectly, you obtain an extra point. If you score first, you get an extra point. These small modifiers to tried-and-true gameplay adds a nice, fresh feeling to this genre.
You also have to be cautious and aware of many factors during your time on the court. For starters, you have a “Lottery Pick Meter” that climbs as you accomplish feats of great renown. Once filled, you can unleash a random power-up that can give your team a huge advantage. However, some are much better than others, and the luck of the draw, especially if you are on the losing end, can be brutal. Some of the power-ups are actually reminiscent of the infamous “Blue Shell” in Mario Kart. One will allow you to make a shot from anywhere past half-court, while another may double your points, which by hitting a perfect shot from beyond the 3-point line can turn the tides of the game instantly. While this leads to some truly fun moments, an assumed victory can soon become a crushing defeat.
Playgrounds uses the NBA License to a respectable degree and puts in all the flair and distinctiveness of legendary players like Shaquille O’Neal, who will throw down his iconic two-handed slam without so much as a second thought. There is a ton of love and care put into the characters, and while some fare better than others, justice was served in recreating some of the most iconic athletes in the world. While there are a few glaring omissions, like Michael Jordan, developer Saber Interactive has indicated more players will be coming with free, future updates.
While the modes in NBA Playgrounds are pretty slim, the ones included have some depth to them. There is your classic exhibition, online matches, and a more robust Tournament Mode. In the Tournament Mode, you are tasked with traveling the world and competing in four matches per location, such as Paris and Tokyo. Saber gets creative with the pairs at each location, such as reuniting old Oklahoma allies James Harden and Kevin Durant and University of Kentucky co-stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. It was always fun running into these pairs, especially if you have some prior knowledge of NBA history.
In each match, not only are you expected to be victorious, but challenges force you to change the way you approach them, such as blocking 7 shots or activating your lottery pick bar 3 times in a match. These all force you to think outside the box and carefully choose who you pick to join your two-man team. It’s fun to swap and pair together different players and find a winning combination.
This factor, however, brings me to my most love-hate relationship with this game. NBA Playgrounds perfectly captures the feeling of progression and unlocking more and more players. As you play, you level up and unlock card packs. These packs contain five players you can add to your roster. What is unique with Playgrounds, especially in this day and age, is that there are no microtransactions whatsoever. You can’t pay, with cash or in-game credit, to unlock more cards. This is at times wonderful and at times frustrating. Being from Cleveland, I wanted LeBron on my team, and there is no way to unlock him besides getting lucky in opening card packs. Even in Exhibition Mode, you can only play with the characters you unlock. I would have loved the opportunity to exchange cards for a player I really wanted. This is made worse by the chance you can receive duplicate players, and in two consecutive packs I opened, three out of the five were ones I had already unlocked.
With obtaining the duplicate cards, along with using the specific player in game, you can level them up. You start at Bronze, head to Silver, and end at Gold. With each level, you unlock new moves for them, but the game doesn’t tell you what these new skills are. Unlocking animations and special moves is a cool concept, but knowing what you can now do would make it a bit more special.
There are a few other minor annoyances in the game. One of these is the ease with which the CPU can steal the ball, including big men Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. These are great players, but stealing is not their strong suit. Also, playing on the Nintendo Switch is a good experience, especially with the portability factor, but the HD Rumble on the Joy-Cons took me by surprise with the strength of vibration when you run out of stamina or get blocked, and there is no way to turn that down.
NBA Playgrounds has a lot going for it, even though it is marred by some minor annoyances and frustrating moments. As I said at the beginning, however, these issues can be ironed out in the future and the next iteration could be something truly special. For $20, NBA Playgrounds has a lot to offer, especially if you have a few friends who remember the glory days of NBA Jam. While it doesn’t quite capture lighting in a bottle, it makes a valiant effort, and deserves a look.
Note: At the time of this review, Online is not available for the Nintendo Switch version. It is said to be here in “a few days” and this review will be updated when online is officially added.
NBA Playgrounds was provided by Saber Interactive for review purposes.