Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PC, and Switch
Make no mistake about it, NBA Playgrounds – the latest NBA game from Electronic Arts, developed by Saber Interactive – is poised to be a continuation of the NBA Jam-style of basketball game shenanigans. While it may not carry the Jam title, it features a similarly bombastic announcer, 2-on-2 gameplay, and enough high-flying dunks to make Bill Clinton blush.
But this isn’t an NBA Jam game. It’s also not an NBA Street game. While a direct sequel to 2010’s NBA Jam (later rebranded as On Fire Edition) would have felt appropriate, the folks at EA seem to disagree. What we’ve got instead is a title that has enough similarities to appeal to fans, but enough differences to carry a torch of its own. Does the fire burn until the game’s final buzzer, or does it fizzle out on the court?
Back to Basics
In many ways, NBA Playgrounds does embrace what it means to be an arcade-style NBA game. Just like in Jam, you pick two players, which can actually come from any two teams, to take to the court. There is a nice selection of both current and older players letting you mix things up as you see fit. Gameplay consists of lining up threes and two-pointers, trying to perfect the shot-release timing, slamming down huge dunks, and swatting the ball out of opponents’ hands like a madman.
On a moment-to-moment basis, NBA Playgrounds left me satisfied. The action is fast and fun and I quickly got wrapped up in the showmanship of it all. The announcer has a similarly boisterous delivery, although I found myself missing the classic “Boomshakalaka!” I’d come to know and love.
It took me a handful of games to get the timing down on shots as it felt much more difficult to master than in previous arcade-style basketball games. Once you figure it out, though, it becomes easy to drain threes like crazy, leaving the relatively easy A.I. with no way of catching up. Spamming the steal button is also a viable strategy, as it’s nearly impossible to evade, especially for computer opponents.
What really sets this game apart the most is how it handles unlockable content. While you’re playing, your profile has an overall level and each of your player’s have a level as well. As you play the game you gain XP that levels up your profile, and your players, when used, gain XP that levels them up individually. Players get boosted stats when they increase a level, while you earn packs of player cards.
The cards are split into varying levels of rarity and quality and you can earn extra packs for winning tournaments and unlocking new levels. It’s a good system that did a great job of keeping me in the gameplay loop for a while, but it wears off after a few days.
At launch, all you’ve really got are the Exhibition matches, which are just one-off games, the Tournament mode, which grants bonus packs and new levels on victory, and Online matches. At the time of publication only quick matchmaking was supported, not inviting friends, although that’s expected to change.
Additionally, a representative for the game told me that Tournaments will also receive online functionality after launch, but not at this time. That would help with replayability, but doesn’t really remedy the core of the issues. Also, the Switch version of the game is supposedly launching without Online functionality, which seems like a pretty big oversight. That’s roughly a third of the game’s content missing temporarily if you buy the title on Switch.
Finding the Sweet Spot
At its best, NBA Playgrounds reminded me of my most favorite memories of playing NBA Jam games growing up. Yelling in excitement as you line up the perfect alleyoop or slam down a huge dunk is tempered by the heart-sinking sadness when your buddy drains a buzzer-beater three point shot right at the end of a game. That’s all here and if you’re a big fan of these games then you’re gonna find a lot to love.
But it missteps in a few places as well. For one, the power-ups feel unbalanced and poorly designed. Instead of becoming “on fire” when you make three baskets in a row with a specific player, your entire team has a power-up meter. Once the meter fills, you’re assigned a random power from a randomized lottery system. Sometimes it makes your feet glow blue, giving infinite boost, other times it makes certain spots on the court worth double points.
The power-ups themselves are mostly fine, but some feel out of place or needlessly obtuse. Reducing your opponent’s shot clock feels cheap and makes it nearly impossible to get down court fast enough to take a shot. That, combined with steals being next-to-impossible to defend against, it’s easy to exploit some of the game’s weaker design decisions.