NBA Playgrounds: review

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NBA Playgrounds is an odd little fella. It enjoys the blessing of the NBA – or the lawyers in charge of its franchising, at least – and as such, carries the names and logos of all 30 teams. The players included however are an almost random mixture of current and retired ones; and gameplay certainly isn’t going for realism. This is aiming to be a spiritual successor to NBA Jam, which is a worthy goal. Bafflingly, though, the game design is heavily influenced by the free-to-play market. All told, it’s a strange mix which doesn’t gel together that well.

Games don’t take place on a basketball court. They take place in… take a look at the title and make a guess… playgrounds! These are even smaller than standard courts, but it makes sense when you consider that (like NBA Jam) these games are 2v2 rather than 5v5. You might think that this means triple-figure scores are a regular occurrence but, actually, final numbers tend to be lower than real-life basketball games. Speaking as British chaps, that seems jolly sensible.

Of course, this propensity for lower numbers on the scoreboard isn’t to appease limeys like us. It’s partly down to some considerable bending of the rules. There’s no such thing as a foul in NBA Playgrounds. Overly aggressive steals won’t be punished, and you’re even allowed – encouraged – to push (when you don’t have the ball) and swing your elbows about (when you do). Players are therefore more likely to go for any and every blocking and stealing opportunity possible, safe in the knowledge that their only punishment will come from bad timing.

Dunk it like a motherloving biscuit!!

As you may have guessed, this isn’t so much a basketball game as a game based on basketball. Lack of fouls and less players are just the start of it, as hinted at by the caricature representations of players. Sure, you still get three points for making a basket outside of the D, and two points for scoring within it – and, of course, it’s the team with the most points at the end that wins. A “perfect shot” (achieved via perfect timing) from anywhere nabs you an extra point however, as does being the first team to score in a match. Dunks are often amusingly over-the-top. It gives you an undeniable fuzzy feeling to nail one after performing preposterous aerial acrobatics on the way, or to humiliate your opponent with a successful alley-oop.

Tougher AI opponents are more likely to make perfect shots regularly, and therefore harvest extra points. This bonus isn’t the sharpest double-edged sword, though. Each team has a “lottery pick” bar that’s slowly filled via actions such as scoring baskets and successful steals. Once full, this bar awards a randomly-selected temporary bonus. It’s the ‘random’ bit that can cause the issue. If for example you’re trailing the opposing team by several points with little time left, and you both have your lottery pick bars full at more or less the same time, they might get double-scoring three-point baskets while you get the relatively useless infinite stamina. It’s a feature that, sometimes, has a 50/50 chance of either completely turning a match around or allowing the winning team (AI or human) to completely obliterate the opposition. Unfortunately, there’s no way to customise the rules or features.

The most egregious design choices are arguably those made regarding the players themselves. Although this is a digital game with a price tag comfortably into double figures, Players are – incredibly – unlocked solely via virtual “packs”. You only get a few of these packs when you first start, and the more you collect – by levelling up and winning tournaments – the more duplicates you’ll see (this starts happening very quickly). Add to that the now inevitable rarity of “Legendary” players, and any hopes you may have had of jumping into a game that allowed you to immediately pair up Magic Johnson and Shaq are gleefully torched by the developers. On top of that, each player also needs to be levelled up by (slowly) earning XP. There’s not so much as a practice mode where everybody is unlocked and maxed out.

This may be a 2v2 game, but in terms of real human beings it’s unfortunately strictly 1v1. We can’t comment on the online mode, as at time of writing this has still not been added to the Switch version. You can at least play a friend or enemy offline and, like pretty much any game, it’s better with company.

The bottom line is that this attempts to weld the fun-loving craziness of NBA Jam to the soul-destroying grind of the average F2P experience (without actually being free), and it does not work. The final nails in this coffin are the aforementioned lack of rule and gameplay customisation, and – in a not unrelated matter – how winning or losing can sometimes feel like being more dependent on chance than skill. It’s good to see that more NBA players have already started to be patched in (on PC at least), but much more than that is needed to entice people to these playgrounds.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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