Video Game Review: NBA Playgrounds (PS4, 2017) promises old school fun, but fails to sink the shot

NBA Playgrounds aims to capture the fun of great games like NBA Jam and NBA Street that came before it. While it looks great, it fails to deliver the gameplay quality that either of the aforementioned classics did.

The first thing that stands out from the moment you boot the game up is its aesthetic. There is a clear understanding of what makes or made each player unique, from Wilt Chamberlain’s big smile, all the way to George Mikan’s signature round glasses. Certain players also react and play accordingly with signature moves, from Lebron James spread winged dunk, to Allen Iverson’s legendary quick crossover. It seems like a stretch that those who don’t religiously follow the NBA will pick much of this up, but the attention to detail here is above average for a game so stylised, helping add to the authenticity of the experience.

It’s obvious that NBA Playgrounds is a tribute to NBA Jam and NBA Street, proving to be just as easy to play as those titles. Learning how to play in just a couple minutes allows casual players to avoid the steep learning curve sports games usually carry. The controls and mechanics feel fluid and players move smoothly, adding to the great feeling you get when you block a dunk or cross over an opponent. The mechanics however , are much slower than something like NBA Jam, and this seems like a missed opportunity, as the fast pace and exaggerated abilities seemed to go hand in hand. Being slower pace encourages for slightly more tactical plays, making you feel as if you’re still somewhat human. It’s a weird combination given the drastically exaggerated abilities you have.

However, after being multiple hours into the game, issues that seemed like minor cracks at first grew much larger. Having previously mentioned the power-ups which work similar Game Breakers in NBA Street, players must perform high flying dunks and crazy manoeuvres to fill up a meter and unlock and array of power up abilities called Lottery Picks. The issue here is that once you have filled this meter, the Lottery Pick is chosen at random. This is an issue because some power ups are much more useful than others. For example players can get a one-time-use lightning ball that will go in no matter what and cannot be blocked. But there’s also an ability to have double points from a specific area for a certain amount of time. The lack of choice here removes some of the tactical feel the slower pace presents as a certain Lottery Pick gives a decidedly increased advantage.  It seems uneven seems like a missed opportunity to give players some tactical choice to equip a couple certain Lottery Picks before heading into a game.

The greatest issue of all stems from the gameplay mechanics. Everything controls relatively fine, except for the shooting. Shooting the ball feels unnatural, as there is no meter for a perfect release, nor a proper tutorial to explain how the ball should be released. After a few games I roughly understood when the shoot button must be released for best results, but even then the button release was not in sync with the animation on screen. Releasing the button almost a full second before your player releases the ball feels unnatural, and something I have not seen in any other sports game. To top it all off, the release can change from player to player, but the distance of the shot, making it that much harder to get a consistent rhythm going as I never truly understood what constitutes a perfect shot (which gives you an extra point) and what counts as a normally timed shot.

This lack of explanation also extended to the shoving mechanics, While it’s perfectly legal to push opponents over, this depletes the power meter that triggers your Lottery Picks. Not once was this explained in the opening tutorial which made it hard to win games as I did not realise until at least an hour in that this was happening. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that the normally stealing the ball can work just as effectively, making the shoving mechanic near redundant.

Given all these flaws, there is still much to like in NBA Playgrounds. The card collecting system used here works much like NBA 2K’s My Team, and the best part is that all cards can be collected through in-game means. This further helps establish NBA Playgrounds’ link to the old school NBA titles, something severely lacking in the sports games of today. Unlocking packs of cards to turn each card over one by one in the hopes of collecting your favourite NBA stars never gets old, pack after pack. The only issue here is that these cards are the only way players can be unlocked, and with the occasional repeat card of a player you already own means it can can be a frustrating task to unlock all available players.

NBA Playgrounds features an online mode that can be unlocked early on in the game, but doesn’t bring anything new to the experience that can’t be played in the single player modes. Single player modes consist of Exhibition and Tournament modes, with the Tournament mode taking you all over the world, competing against past and present NBA stars. Completing tournaments gives you gold packs of cards, giving you a higher chance to unlock some of the game’s more elite players.

A leveling system is also present, allowing you to not only level up yourself overall, unlocking you card packs, but players level up the more you use them, in turn unlocking more animations for a particular player. However, the game does not tell you exactly what you are unlocking, so you don’t even know what to look for until you see something that looks unfamiliar.

Overall, NBA Playgrounds functions as a mildly fun basketball title similar to NBA Jam and NBA Street, but fails to be as consistently fun or varied as either of those experiences are.  For what it’s worth, NBA Playgrounds is enjoyable in bite sized sessions, but fails to grab you as a title to keep returning to in the long run.

Score: 6.5 out of 10
Highlights: Visual aesthetic, card collecting, attention to detail.
Lowlights: Shooting mechanics, Lottery Pick system.
Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: Saber Interactive
Platform: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC.
Release Date: Out Now.

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.

This review was conducted on retail code provided by Saber Interactive.