NBA Playgrounds, developed by Saber Interactive is an arcade-style basketball sim and could be considered the spiritual successor to Midway’s NBA Jam and EA Big’s NBA Street franchises. As a fan of basketball, and an advocate of both of the older franchises, I’ve been praying to the gaming gods for an updated version. Luckily for me, every once in a while the gods are good and answer the odd prayer or two.
As the name suggests, NBA Playgrounds takes the action out of the confines of arenas and onto the streets. Instead of 5-on-5 with time-outs, substitutions and stoppages for breaking rules, NBA Playground opts for the streetball-like 2-on-2, with no fouls and fast and frenzied end-to-end action. The games are timed, with whichever team has the most points at the sound of the buzzer winning. Games are limited to a single three-minute period, which is perfect for quick sessions.
As Playgrounds is an officially licenced NBA product, all thirty teams and a huge day one roster of 152 current and legendary players are available. The roster is drip-fed in the form of trading card packs, with five players in each pack. Initially, the game provides you with three packs, which equates to fifteen players. Much like real trading cards, each contains the player’s stats based on their abilities to dunk, make three-pointers, block shots, etc. An in-game XP system offers further packs each time you level up, with XP acquired through winning games.
The game has three different play modes to get stuck into. Exhibition games are one-off matches, and also double up as the game’s tutorial. There’s an online mode that lets you play against other players across the globe, which is split into six leagues, and further split into sub-divisions. The main single-player mode is the tournament campaign, with the aim being to progress through a sixteen-team pool through to the finals of each stage (which have a longer five minute period), winning unlocks the next stage, a new power-up and a golden–coloured legendary player card pack. Each match-up also has a side-mission, such as performing a certain amount of dunks or steals during the game. Should you complete all of the side missions in a particular stage you’ll unlock a different coloured basketball.
Like its spiritual predecessors, NBA Playgrounds relies on style over realistic physics, with no look passes, ankle breaking crossover dribbles and gravity-defying slam dunks taking centre stage. Each player has a stamina meter, which is needed to pull of the flashier moves, with legendary players being able to pull off dazzling signature moves. Every player’s moves can be improved by winning games and levelling up a player’s skill levels. Skill levels can also be increased by drawing a double of that player’s card from trading card packs. NBA Playgrounds’ controls are simple to learn, although it did take me some time to adjust to how to perform lay-ups and dunks; as unlike any other basketball game I’ve ever played making these shots is dependent on releasing the designated button at the height of the player’s jump. Most other games only rely on this mechanic for standard jump shots, and I lost count of a number of shots I fluffed until I became accustomed to it. Still, this is a really odd decision by the developers, as all other games would require a tap or long press of the same button.
NBA Playground also harkens back to its ancestors with in-game power-ups, which build up with every alley-oop, dunk, steal or blocked shot. Once the power-up meter is filled the game randomly selects a power-up, known as a Lottery Pick. These range from a lighting ball (an unstoppable shot from anywhere on the court) to double points for every alley-oop and dunk to unlimited stamina and more. These power-ups can completely change the course of the game, as I’ve come back from a five-point deficit to a five point lead in a matter of seconds. Points can also be increased by hitting the first basket of the game or nailing a perfect shot, both of which add +1 to either a standard two or three point shot.
The graphics are presented with a cartoon-like quality; players are accurate caricatures of their real-life counterparts, and for the most part are well animated. I say this as I’ve noticed players’ limbs disappearing and reappearing when they collide on more than one occasion. The crowd are similarly well animated, although they are on a continual movement loop. Each court within tournament mode is located in a different city, with each having the distinctive look and feel of its real-world equivalent; Paris’ court is on a cobbled street with patisseries and brasseries in the background, whereas Tokyo has cherry blossoms and pagodas.
The in-game music is a constant hip-hop track, as the music style is well associated with basketball. A basketball themed rap song plays over in-game menus and looped beats during matches. As with the courts, each city has its own themed track, although I did find the combination of a hip-hop beat and accordions on the Parisian stage was an odd mix. In game play-by-play commentary comes from famed NBA Action announcer Ian Eagle. Eagle, along with colour commentator EJ (or DJ or maybe it’s CJ, I really couldn’t tell as the names are so similar) can be seen in the background of each stage, mics in hand as they offer up their thoughts on the game, with fourth-wall breaking comments should you fluff a shot with quips about soda having been splashed over the controller and suchlike. I did find that after a certain amount of time I heard the same phrases repeated again and again, which tended to grate on me, more so when I was losing.
Aside from an odd shooting mechanic and some incredibly minor graphical issues, NBA Playgrounds is a blast to play. Regardless of whether you’re a fan of the sport or not, the game’s arcade-style presentation is perfect for all levels of expertise due to the simplicity of the controls, game-changing power-ups and brief game periods. If you were a casual fan of either of the series that preceded it, give NBA Playgrounds a whirl, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.