An arcade basketball game with a full roster and tons of potential. Held back by untuned gaming mechanics and an unpolished implementation.
For the members of the Old Geezers club, two-on-two basketball will most likely be associated with Midway’s NBA Jam games, that ruled the arcades in the nineties. Apparently, the arcade cabinets were so popular they earned a cool billion in quarters. Now, developer Saber Interactive has come with their own, seemingly not so different, take on the genre.
NBA Playgrounds is very similar to NBA Jam in its core set-up. You play with big names from the NBA’s past and present (a 150 in total!) and play in two on two matches on playgrounds. Since play ensues on the playground ‘playground rules’ apply too. Which means there are no fouls, ever. Also, like in NBA Jam, the action is over-the-top and features superhuman dunks & jumps.
Everything seems to be in order then for anyone looking to fill the NBS Jam shaped hole in their lives. But unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. Let’s start with the most important factor, the gameplay. When you first start the game you need to start an exhibition match which serves as the game’s tutorial. Basic controls are what you might expect although you do have the option to push the opposition (because “everything goes on the playground”). NBA Playground
NBA Playgrounds has two gameplay characteristics that define how the game plays and unfortunately, their implementation holds the game back. First up is stamina. Most movements of note, dunking, running and pushing, cost stamina. While this makes sense your stamina is a very scarce resource in the game. It’s so limited in fact you can’t even run cross-court and do a spectacular dunk because by the time you reach the other side you’re out of stamina and a normal lay-up is probably all that remains. A lay-up that you’ll probably miss because of how shooting works. Which brings me to the second characteristic: shooting. Like NBA Jam shooting is handled by holding and releasing the shoot button with the desired timing. Timing your shot perfectly will even bank you an additional point! What this timing needs to be, however, is kind of a mystery. It seems to follow the NBA Jam approach that you need to release the shoot button at the height of your leap. While this might sound straightforward, in practice it really isn’t, because you don’t know what your ‘leap’ will be until you start it. Leaps can differ because you’re doing a spectacular dunk, which play in slow-motion or because the game thinks your shooting from a tough angle. Furthermore, the timing is different for each player and the level of that player. I was playing with LeBron James and upgraded from silver to gold which resulted in a completely changed timing for my three-point shots.
These two characteristics prevent the game from being the dazzling over-the-top basketball experience the developer intended it to be. While the superhuman dunks and block are the main draw executing them is a real risk. Because if you don’t have enough stamina you do a normal lay-up or shot which you then need to accurately time. Personally, I don’t think I scored a single normal lay-up yet. Because of this, I moved to sticking to predictable shots. It would have been really nice to have a proper training option where you can take the time to figure out the timing of your shots. I guess starting an exhibition game with four controllers and only use one could do this, but that is too much hassle.
When playing computer opponents (which is basically all I’ve done) things can get very frustrating. This is because the AI doesn’t seem to have any issues with the shooting and stamina whatsoever. Basically, especially in the later tournaments, they will hit you with perfect shots every time regardless of what player it is. So, defending them becomes very important. But defending is another mixed bag. You should be using steals but this is rarely effective. Even if you have an opponent cornered getting to the ball seems nigh impossible. And when you do slap the ball out of their hands getting your player to pick it up is a whole struggle on its own. The same goes for rebounding by the way. The computer AI doesn’t have these issues by the way, which adds to the frustration. You AI teammate doesn’t have all these abilities however and is highly unpredictable. At times they block and rebound like there’s no tomorrow but will turn around and defend a player on the other side of the court for no apparent reason.
Maybe the worst of it all is the core has a lot of potential. The shooting requires skill but it’s just too much of a mystery to really nail. The stamina adds strategy to the game but it still runs out too fast. Instructing your AI (like requesting an Alley-Oop) has no feedback telling you if the request is being honored or not. Furthermore, the action is pretty spectacular. It feels slower than I remember NBA Jam being but it suits the game. The game’s impressive roster of players is very cool but it needs to be unlocked by leveling up. While is sounds very good the unlocks are random and you can get duplicates as well. So getting your favorite player might take forever! I would have prefered it if beating a duo of players would have unlocked them.
The core gameplay needs a fair amount of tweaking to make the experience better. This is true for the rest of the game as well. The menus are slow and unresponsive. Maybe the worst offense is the horrible loading times. This really takes the pick-up-and-play nature out of the game. We played the Switch version and it was by far the slowest loading game on our system. Even beating LEGO City Undercover. The game just feels unfinished.
The game just feels unfinished. And I’m not even talking about the missing features. On the Switch there is no online component at all(other versions have an online mode, albeit very simple) but an announced update should add it in the future (and more advanced features to other versions). While not everyone might agree I can understand and even appreciate such an approach. But the game that does get shipped should be finished and polished which isn’t the case with NBA Playgrounds. Perhaps unfinished isn’t the right term to use as I haven’t had any bugs. Unpolished perhaps is the better term here. Shipping a game with a promise of adding features is fine as Fast RMX did it and even Nintendo have done it with Splatoon. But when the core game doesn’t hold up, nobody will stick around for those additional features.
NBA Playground isn’t the arcade basketball experience it could have been. It’s not only missing features that it will add in the future it’s missing polish that make the game frustrating to play. Updates are coming but perhaps a delay would have been the better choice. Available now for Nintendo Switch, XBox One and PS4.