STAFF REVIEW of NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 (Xbox One)

Thursday, November 15, 2018.
by Chad Goodmurphy

NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 Box art As a child of the 90s, I was able to experience the heyday of arcade sports video games. Through titles like NBA Jam, Mario Golf and NFL Blitz, I honed my skills and lost hours to over-the-top competitions with both game A.I and friends alike. Hell, one of my best sleepover memories involves an all-nighter (following one of my biggest birthday parties), a game of NFL Blitz and a cheating friend who scored multiple touchdowns on me while I used the restroom.

Sadly, those days are behind us, and so too are the best days of arcade sports, at least it feels that way. Developers and publishers have been trying to stoke the flame again, in an attempt to revitalize the genre and create a new instant classic, but none have been all that successful. Sure, there have been some pretty good games, like 3 on 3 NHL Arcade (which sadly never got a sequel), and the NBA Jam reboot, but nothing that stuck or created the same level of interest as in years gone by. NFL Blitz has gone downhill itself, and even the Mario sports games aren’t as good or as polished as they used to be.

During the spring of 2017, a new challenger entered this arena, that being Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds. An over-the-top baller, it tasked players with filling up their rosters by opening packs of cards that they’d earned through both time and progression. Every unlocked player could then be taken out onto one of the game’s exaggerated and themed outdoor courts for some relatively fast, arcade basketball.

Although NBA Playgrounds released to mixed reviews, and suffered from technical issues on Nintendo Switch, it was a pretty fun game. That said, it wasn’t something that stood the test of time, or that was a great replacement for the games I grew up with. After completing its limited tournaments, playing online and unlocking most if not all of its player cards, I lost interest and moved on. There just wasn’t enough to the game, and it got pretty repetitive after a while.

It was honestly a surprise when, earlier this year, I saw that they were making a sequel. One that would be affiliated with the NBA 2K series, thanks to 2K Games stepping in to help out. Upon seeing this, I assumed that we’d be in for an even better sequel, given the publisher’s pedigree and the monetary assistance it was probably provided, but that didn’t end up being the case.

To put it simply, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is a grind, and a long one at that. It’s a game where those who wish to unlock great players and flesh out their collection-based rosters will have to spend a lot of time playing, competing and winning. In-game currency is awarded in small amounts for victories (say 100-130 per win), and it can take 20,000 to unlock a former superstar like Vince Carter, for instance. It also takes thousands to unlock the good card packs, and even then you’ll need get quite a few of them in order to get every single player. There are no guarantees, and the cards are, after all, drawn at random.

If you do the math, it’s safe to suggest that to unlock a 5,000 credit gold pack, it will take someone approximately four hours’ worth of playing.

It would help if the gameplay was addicting, entertaining and fluid, but it’s not. Somehow, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 manages to be slower and more difficult than its predecessor, not to mention a lot more clunky. It’s really too bad, because the first game had some good pieces that could’ve been made a lot better with both time and polish. Instead, 2K and Saber Interactive chose to add shot meters into the mix, and also opted to make it harder to make good shots. This helps the grind, though, for a reason that I’ll explain.

Obviously, those behind this game want people to keep playing it. Moreover, they really seem hopeful that people will spend money on virtual credit that can be used to fast-track one’s collecting. For instance, someone could go out and spend $9.99 USD to unlock all of the game’s roster players and retro superstars, and doing so would make the game a lot more enjoyable. Meanwhile, those who want to do it the legitimate way are looking at tens of hours’ worth of grinding.

The developers have attempted to make things feel like less of a grind than they are, by creating a system in which every utilized player levels up. The player cards you earn start off low leveled, but as you use them they earn experience and level up to silver, then gold, and so forth. This makes them slightly better, but I didn’t see enough of a change myself. The two players I had unlocked for my favourite team (The Toronto Raptors) were OG Anunoby and Jose Valanciunas, and they were the only ones I had to use for the first while. Yet, despite both being decent to good NBA players, neither one could make many regular or three point shots, and they’d often flub dunks and alley-oops. The shot meter would almost always also be in the red and offer percentages like 20% no matter where I shot from.

After a while, I broke. We were admittedly provided with both a review code and a virtual credit code that gave me enough to unlock all of the players and many additional packs of gear (different fashions you can equip the players with if you don’t want to see them in their jerseys). I didn’t want to use it, and wanted to unlock all of the players on my own, but I broke. It was simply too much of a grind to do so, and earning enough coins to purchase good packs was taking forever. I also wasn’t enjoying the game very much, despite wanting to.

With better players at my disposal, I was able to then field a twosome of Kawhi Leonard and Vince Carter, which I thought would be a lot better. They weren’t that great in comparison, though, and I still had trouble with the shot meter giving me low percentages no matter where I shot from.

Of course, like in the regular NBA and in the proper 2K games, every player has his own list of detailed stats that rank them out of 100 in various categories. Things like blocking, stealing, three point shooting and that kind of thing. These in-depth ratings feel overdone in a game like this, one that is supposed to be arcade based, and the grind and frustration that they feed into hurt NBA 2K Playgrounds 2. Furthermore, they leave it feeling like a game with an identity crisis. Does it want to be an arcade experience or a more realistic affair? It doesn’t seem to know.

While the original NBA Playgrounds offered several different tournaments to play and win, all of which took place on outdoor courts, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 goes a different route. Instead of tournaments, there’s an abbreviated NBA season mode, which lets you pit your team of two chosen players against a scheduled team’s two, then it tasks you with doing so against every other team on your schedule. It’s a familiar archetype, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of creativity, memorability or even personality. It doesn’t help that the outdoor courts you play on feel like colour swapped versions of each other, with the home team’s colours (and mantras) being shown on both the court and the video screens around it.

One should be able to unlock all of the game’s players after one or two seasons, but that isn’t the case here, given what I mentioned above. It’ll take quite a bit of play in this mode to do that, and the same is true of the online arena, if that’s your preference. There is online play, after all.

Online, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 provides new courts that are more like that of its predecessor. For example, there’s a really dusty one that looks to be set in the Australian outback. This mode also has a tiered rating system, wherein players progress or regress based on their success, or lack thereof. Repeatedly winning will move you from the bronze tier to the silver one and so forth, whereas losing will hold you back. It’s a decent system that may become addicting to some.

The online gameplay was fine for me except for one instance where a spike of lag caused the players to momentarily disappear then reappear in a different location. Other than that, it was smooth and competitive.

In both local and online arenas, players can have a friend join them or they can go about it alone and control both of their chosen athletes. Both modes also allow for special power-ups that are earned with consecutive drained buckets and related streaks. These powers can provide one perfectly aimed (on fire) shot, poison the other team with a curse, limit the other team’s shot clock, or freeze the buckets. Complementing this system are x2 and x3 icons that sometimes appear on the courts, providing bonus points for every shot made.

NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 online experience also offers a three-point contest, which can be played both online and offline. Here, the shot meter really reigns supreme, by moving from left to right and tasking players with pressing X at the right moment. Most of the meter is red, and will result in a missed shot, while a small sliver is green. If you land in the green, your shot will go in. Conversely, landing right on its outer edge will result in a 0% miss. Needless to say, it’s more frustrating than fun. It doesn’t stand out in any way, though it had the opportunity to be a fun tertiary mode and diversion.

Nothing about NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 feels fluid or cohesive, and it’s kept from being the good fun that it could’ve been by questionable decisions and monetization. It looks decent and sounds alright, but even those aspects of the game feed into its lack of identity and unwillingness to decide whether to be an arcade game or a partial simulation with exaggerated player images and visceral dunks. It’s a shame, because there was potential for a rather good game here, using the first one, which was decent, as a building block and stepping stone. Instead, we received a decent looking and somehow tedious experience that has a few licensed songs and some caricaturized avatars.

If you’re looking for a fun and action-packed arcade basketball game, you’re unfortunately going to have to look elsewhere. NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is a disappointing and overpriced step backwards that suffers from the changes that were made to it, not to mention greed. As much as I looked forward to, and wanted to enjoy this one, I never found it to be all that fun.

Overall: 5.3 / 10
Gameplay: 5.1 / 10
Visuals: 6.3 / 10
Sound: 5.7 / 10


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