Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds is an arcade basketball game trying to replicate the success achieved by games like NBA Jam and NBA Street. However, as much as the developer got a lot of things right, there was just as many that didn’t help the game reach its full potential.
NBA Jam’s menu, scenery, playgrounds and cartoon-ish players make for a wonderful and fun experience in the short term, but once you play the game for a couple of days, you realise the repetitiveness and lack of variety in NBA Playgrounds’ game modes. The game puts you first in a three-minute game that acts as a tutorial, after you finish it, you are rewarded with a player pack, which we will get to in a minute. Once you are done with the tutorial, the game unlocks Tournament Mode and Online multiplayer, and that’s pretty much it. All of the game’s matches are two-on-two, and the Tournament mode allows you to choose your favourite two basketball players and tour six major cities to conquer them all. The six major cities are Las Vegas, New York, Paris, London, Shanghai and Tokyo. To give credit where it’s due, Saber Interactive managed to make each location as distinctive as possible, and they were rather successful in doing so, as each location had its own vibe and distinctive background imagery while playing.
NBA Playgrounds’ is fast-paced and fun, but only when it’s working. The problem that I noticed while playing the game is its lack of consistency. For example, I used a lot of players during my time with the game but I mostly used a combination of a sold three-point shooter alongside a high-flying powerful dunker, and I found just that in my duo of Blake Griffin and Stephen Curry. With a player like Stephen Curry on my team I was expected to hit three-pointers from anywhere on the field, however, I found that as much as it depends on the timing of your shot, it also partially depends on luck. I would hit a three-pointer then go back to the same exact spot on the next attack and miss the shot with relatively the same timing as the previous shot which managed to go in. This inconsistency takes away a lot of the game when you are trying to win Tournament finals, and especially in Online play.
Your team-mate doesn’t always respond to what you are asking him to do. Cutting to the basket or flying high for an alley-oop dunk required more work than it should, because your AI team-mate would respond after clicking the allocated button several times, and it happened one time that he didn’t move at all. Stealing and blocking shots are a spam-till-you-get-it type of mechanism, especially in Online play versus other players. You have to keep spamming the steal button until your stamina runs out to have a chance at stopping your opponent’s attack, either that or just shove them off the ball, which is pretty fun to do actually. Rebounding is also another inconsistent element of NBA Playgrounds, an aspect of basketball that shouldn’t be harder than scoring points. The rebound animation on the players allows them to jump high to catch the ball, but the problem is the ball never rebounds to as high as the characters jump, which leaves you either frustrated or annoyed when your opposition just walks around the playground and manages to rebound the ball when he never went for it.
NBA Playgrounds features a massive roster of over 150 players from the NBA’s 30 teams, and they include Legends, Rare and normal players. Most of the players are attainable through completing the Tournament mode, as it grants you a pack after beating every opponent as well as a gold pack after beating the final of each city. With a roster this diverse, you expect to never get bored, but the problem is that Saber Interactive never utilised this to their advantage. I found myself playing with the same two players with no obligation to change whatsoever, after all, if I am winning, why would I change? I would have loved to experience half of NBA Playgrounds’ extensive roster, but with no incentive to do so, it’s very hard to accomplish.
For me, the most fun and exciting aspect of any match was the “Lottery Picks.” Many people think that it makes the game unbalanced and sometimes gives players an unfair, and rather long, advantage, however, this is exactly what makes it fun. Lottery Picks are power-ups that are granted after filling up its meter by passing, scoring dunks, stealing the ball and so on. Lottery Picks range from super-speed and a guaranteed basket from anywhere on the court to double points in the paint. However, what you are going to get completely depends on your luck, so you might be losing and suddenly turn around the game by scoring two baskets in the paint that will count as eight points just because you have the double points power-up.
All in all, NBA Playgrounds is a respectable homage to games like NBA Jam, and even though it lacks the flair to replicate the success of NBA Jam, NBA Playgrounds has its own identity. It is a fun game to play when you want your dose of basketball but with a sprinkle of arcade gameplay. The lack of variety of game modes and incentive to try out the game’s extensive roster leaves a lot to be desired, however, with the studio’s plans to release DLC and regular updates, this can change in the future.