STAFF REVIEW of NBA Playgrounds (Xbox One)

Friday, May 19, 2017.
by Chad Goodmurphy

NBA Playgrounds Box art If hearing “Boomshakalaka” brings back great, nostalgic memories, then you and I have a lot in common. You see, although I didn’t own the game, I spent many hours playing NBA Jam with friends during the early and mid-nineties. Hell, it and NFL Blitz were also two of my regular go-to games whenever I was lucky enough to visit an arcade.

There was just something about the original NBA Jam that perfectly captured the elements that make up a great arcade sports game. Of course, it helped that its gameplay was pure, unadulterated fun that never got old, especially when you were playing against friends. Overall, it was a near perfect game, and still remains near the top of the arcade sports game podium close to two-and-a-half decades later.

In the years since, there have been imitators and spiritual successors, like the NBA Street series, as different developers have tried their hands at recreating the interactive icon. However, despite all of these best efforts, nothing has been able to top the original. Even 2010’s NBA Jam: On Fire Edition didn’t quite hit the same mark, despite being a quality follow-up and a very solid game in its own right.

Now, let’s fast forward to present day, where another balling competitor has entered the ring. That is, Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds, which is now available on the Xbox One, as well as a few other consoles. The first time I saw screenshots and video from NBA Playgrounds, I immediately flashed back to the days I spent playing NBA Jam with friends. After all, just by looking at it, it’s obvious that this is a spiritual successor that draws lots of inspiration from yesteryear’s gem.

NBA Playgrounds is based around a fun mentality, where all out, arcade basketball action takes place amidst colourful, playground-esque backgrounds. There’s London, which lets you play ball on a pontoon boat as it floats on the River Thames; Paris, with its café bordered court placed on a busy street with lots of onlookers; Venice Beach with its wooden backboards, and Japan with its cherry blossom trees. These are merely half of what’s available though, with each playground having its own unique look, feel and types of onlookers.

The players themselves are all designed in a caricatured way, with big heads on smaller bodies. Their defining features are made more prominent this way, and the result is pretty impressive. Then again, outside of being a bit dark, this is a solid looking game, which has lots of colour and a ton of personality. It even has a couple of licensed announcers, although their basic and oft-repeated commentary leaves something to be desired.

Still, at the end of the day this remains a basketball game through and through, meaning that what borders each court is merely there for colourful decoration. What matters is what takes place on the planks, where some of the National Basketball League’s best and most talented show their skills in visceral, arcade-inspired ways.

The whole conceit of NBA Playgrounds is that the player is a virtual card collector, who must level up and unlock new packs in order to earn new players. You start off with a couple of randomized freebies, then you're on your own. It’s not hard to unlock new packs though, nor will it take a lot of time before you’ll have a decently fleshed out roster.

One problem with this game, however, is that it doesn’t offer enough incentive to change things up roster wise. Its two-on-two gameplay promotes employing one good three-point shooter and one good dunker, but those can be found in your first couple of free packs. Sure, there are legendary players like Allen Iverson, Scottie Pippen and Walt Frazier to unlock, but even then a lot of their stats are similar to the rest of the league. I guess that helps with parity, but the downside is that it limits the excitement that comes with earning a new pack of players.

Granted, legendary players do have their own set of special moves, so you may be enticed to use them just for those. There’s nothing stopping someone from using their favourite modern players though, as I was doing great with both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Then again, as long as I had a good three-point shooter to use, I was more than fine.

There’s another caveat with NBA Playgrounds, which is that it’s simply too easy to drain threes once you get used to how the shooting mechanic works. After a while, I was able to win most games by focusing just on that, although I’d try to spice things up with the odd showboat jam. Of course, that’s where this game is at its most flashy and visceral, as its jams are impressively choreographed and a treat to watch. I could do without some of the lengthy showboating dances that come afterwards though, because all they do is slow down the game.

By taking advantage of the three point shot, I was able to complete the six ‘campaign’ tournaments without much issue. Sure, I lost a couple of games, but some of that was because I got too cocky and spent a lot of time trying to score from my own back court. There didn’t seem to be a difficulty option, which I found odd, though I can confidently say that there are such options for exhibition play.

It’s online where the most mileage lays, though. You will take on another player in the traditional 2 vs. 2 in terms of on-screen players. Lag was noticeable during the loading/introductory screens, but it seemed non-existent during gameplay. The online play is the same as the core single player game, just with another person on an Xbox One somewhere else playing against you.

What adds creativity to all of the above is the game’s lottery pick system. By filling up a meter through blocks, steals and dunks, you’ll earn a randomized lottery pick and gain a timed advantage. Examples include an automatic shot that gives you extra points, highlighted zones that can double, triple and then quadruple your scoring, and a power-up that halves your opponents’ shot clock. They’re helpful, to say the least, but the inconsistent AI means that you won’t always need to rely on them.

Although my computerized opponents would fill their meter two or three times during a five minute championship match (the regular ones are only three minutes long), I would be lucky to do so once or twice. What I didn’t realize was that by shoving my opponents in order to make them drop the ball, I was actually depleting my lottery pick bar. This was never taught through any of the in-game pop-ups that would offer tips and tutorials, but definitely should have been, even if they weren’t exactly necessary against the middling AI.

Defense was always a bit difficult to play, regardless of whether I’d try to shove, swat or block while in the air. The computer never seemed to have much trouble blocking my dunks and long-range shots, but I could never get it to work all that well. I’d usually rely on my AI peer to try for that, because ‘he’ was better at it. He wouldn’t always listen to me when I’d ask him to jump for an alley oop, but he wasn’t a bad defender.

Sometimes the players will also jump to the side while shooting, which is almost a guaranteed miss unless you’re the computer. I don’t remember landing one of those shots, but I saw quite a few go in for the other side as I made my way through the tournaments. Each time I’d try, it’d hit the rim or go wide, whereas 85% of my regular three-point shot attempts would go in. Hell, quite a few went in without touching anything, offering me an extra point.

It’s these inconsistencies that make NBA Playgrounds an occasionally frustrating game to play, and keeps it from being the modern day NBA Jam that it hopes to be. There are some great building blocks and decent mechanics to be found here though, which gives me hope that a potential sequel could end up being great. As it stands right now however, is that this NBA Playgrounds is merely a decent but unspectacular game with legs that will depend on how long its online multiplayer stays populated.

**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.**

Overall: 6.9 / 10
Gameplay: 7.3 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 6.5 / 10


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