While many games have tried to emulate the success of NBA Jam across multiple sports, none have ever found the superlative balance of gameplay, replayability and cultural awareness of Midway’s original. The latest to give it a shot is Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds, which feels like a mix of Jam and EA’s NBA Street.
Basketball fans have been waiting for an awesome arcade experience to come along. Is Playgrounds it? Let’s tip it off and find out.
Looking at the control map during load screens, it seems like Playgrounds has a lot going on, but in reality you should have a pretty good feel for it within a few games. It does a respectable job of being both approachable and offering a more precise level of control for more dedicated players. Sadly, it also has some real issues holding it back.
Let’s start with the big one: shooting. The game is ostensibly using a timing meter behind the scenes, but even after literally dozens and dozens of matches, we can’t nail it down. Sometimes shots go in at a near-perfect clip; other times they clang harmlessly off the rim. Maybe we’re doing something different. The problem is you can’t really tell.
A subset of the issue is that Playgrounds awards an additional point for “perfect” shots – e.g., a made shot from downtown with perfect timing will be worth four. That doesn’t sound bad until you realize your A.I. opponent can reap the benefit as well. And there’s little that feels more like cheating than the computer awarding itself a bonus point for timing its shot.
Playing defense feels like an exercise in futility as well. Unlike Jam, which gave you a healthy amount of turbo and made it easy to gauge blocks and rebounds, Playgrounds is stingy as hell with the boosters as seemingly every action drains the turbo meter. It’s also really hard to line up your player vertically on the screen to block or rebound.
Making matters worse, that meter is located below the player and tough to see on the fly, so get ready to time up a shove only to watch your guy stand still because his turbo is used. It also tends to happen on breakaways when instead of going up for a windmill dunk you launch into some awkward layup that misses 99.9 per cent of the time.
Despite all the problems that fill your own frustration meter, most of the possessions in a given game are pretty fun. The dunks are appropriately ridiculous, the alley-oops are easy to pull off and the right-stick crossovers are slick. It’s just unfortunate there are so many aspects that you can’t help but feel they should be executed better.
We’re not big fans of NBA Playgrounds‘ presentation. The animations are good, and the players have had some TLC in their creation, and yet there’s something about the art style or execution that just comes up short. It’s miles better than the audio, though, which reuses a very tight set of generic songs and some truly insipid commentary.
Like Jam, NBA Playgrounds is two-on-two arcade-style action. Rather than selecting a team, though, you’re free to choose any two players that you’ve unlocked. From there you’ll enter tournaments to face sets of two-man teams. These ascend in difficulty, concluding with a “boss” team that contains better players. Take them down and you’re on to the next one.
Each win gives you two sets of experience points: one for your overall rank and one for the individual players. The overall rank works toward acquiring packs of cards that contain more players — it’s the only way to unlock them. Individual players also can level up from bronze to gold, and each time they move up they’ll gain access to more moves and dunks.
It’s a pretty straightforward setup, but once again it’s undermined by annoying aspects. First up is how slowly you add more players. Clearing a location will likely net you 2-3 five-card packs, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the 150 available players, especially when you can get duplicates, and replaying tourneys affords significantly less experience.
Now, perhaps we were just unlucky, but even after hours and hours of matches we still hadn’t unlocked most of the guys you’d actually want to play as… LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and so on. Hell, Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t even in the game (but somehow Michael Beasley is)!
And all that leads back to this: NBA Playgrounds seems built to tease. We’ll assume it’s trying to keep you engaged by holding back the best players or stretch the experience by letting the computer get away with questionable stuff that costs you Ws, but guess what? It ends up pissing you off.
We’ve played multiple games against the computer when they didn’t miss a shot. Not one. No matter how off balance or well defended they are, every shot goes in. It happens with the game’s “random” power-ups as well, which are Playgrounds‘ equivalent of being on fire.
Here, triggering a power up means a group of symbols cycles through and whatever one it stops on is the bonus you get. Of course, the bonuses are wildly different in terms of value. There’s one for unlimited turbo, one for a can’t miss shot, one for doubling points in the lane, etc. It always seems the CPU pulls what it needs, though, including game-altering, minute-long shot multipliers.
There’s online play, but the less said about that the better. It’s a completely annoying mess where everyone tries to shove their opponent off the inbound. It needs be patched.
NBA Playgrounds can be a decent game, but it does too much to alienate gamers with the slow drip of unlocked players, absurd A.I. shot making and a frequent sense you’re being cheated.