Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds isn’t shy of showing that it sets out to emulate the great NBA Jam series, from the familiar in-game music to the big headed players (this time set as the default rather than a ‘cheat’ mode), but does it do a good enough job with the gameplay?
It’s clear from the outset that the game is built by NBA fans and that the heart of a fun 2-on-2 basketball game is captured well in NBA Playgrounds. With players from across NBA history, there are plenty of fan favourites to choose from and more are promised. The game itself plays very much like the classic NBA Jam games, with fast-paced action and trick shots, plus power-ups to use. Since the last NBA Jam was 7 years ago, it’s way past time that we had another arcade basketball game to replace it.
So Playgrounds gives players the option to choose from many different teams in the NBA and, unlike Jam, lets you choose players from different teams to make up your own team. At first the roster seems pretty small but winning games and getting points provides you with card packs that give you random new players. These soon bolster your roster and give you far more options to play with. The card thing is being used a lot in games recently (some may say it’s overused) but here it’s been implemented with thought and, more importantly, there are no signs of micro-transactions involved. You simply win for playing, encouraging you to play more and providing replay value in doing so.
Gameplay, while inherently the same basic 2 on 2 style, does have its differences to EA and Midway’s arcade games. There are still power-ups that give you over-the-top shots, double shots etc but this time they’re tied to a power bar and unlocked when it fills up. This also comes in to play with things like shoves, where they were once over-used, they’re now locked to the power bar, as is dashing. It does make the game more tactical, for better or worse. Shot timing is also something which has been added, with no indication of when you need to take a shot, it’s odd that the designers have created a fussy system with a heavy leaning towards punishing mis-timed shots. It does improve with practice, but it’s too fussy for my liking.
The players are well drawn, despite their dis-proportioned heads, and easy to recognise, the outside backgrounds (more like NBA Street than Jam’s indoor courts) have a lot of life and different courts have their own special touches like cherry blossom on trees, English policemen and a DJ on the side of the court.
The AI does a good job of ramping up the difficulty as you progress through Exhibition mode and Tournament mode is fun, allowing you to choose courts and players. Of course, just playing against AI opponents in single player isn’t really where the game is aimed and multiplayer on a single console is much more rewarding. On the Switch, the multiplayer is, sadly, only offline, with an online patch coming soon. Xbox One and PS4 have online modes from day 1, meaning that you’ll have plenty of opponents to play against. Of course the Switch does benefit from having portable play, though taking it out of the dock reveals a slightly blurrier picture than we’re used to. It seems to be 720p, which is standard for a portable game on the device, but something else is preventing this game from looking as good as it should when undocked. Does it affect gameplay? no, it’s still great fun playing on the smaller screen, even with 2 players and it gets there before the upcoming NBA 2K18 arrives to provide a great portable basketball experience.
The tactical side of things and the fact that the game seems to have a need for pausing after a successful shot, just to let players go back to their side, makes the gameplay slower than NBA Jam’s frantic runs up and down the court. Where Jam is lightning fast at times, Playgrounds seems to plod a little, which is a shame because it grates the more you play. It’s still fast enough during the times when either team has the ball, but those odd moments of slowdown are really felt in a game that is leaning to the arcade side of things and doesn’t really need to worry about being all that realistic.
These niggles aside, NBA Playgrounds is still a solid arcade game that seeks to bring back the fun and silliness of Midway’s classic in a new updated format and for the most part it succeeds.