Sometimes, you’re just not sure if you should review a game. Sure, it seems like a good idea at the time, but then you play it, and you can’t be sure if maybe the game isn’t up to par, or it’s just you.
That was the dilemma I ran into with NBA Playgrounds. I almost never touch sports games… almost. One exception to the rule has been NBA Jam (as well as its predecessor, Arch Rivals), which I even played in the Blockbuster World Video Game Championships, and when I heard that this was essentially a spiritual successor to Midway’s legendary arcade B-ball title, I just had to give it a look.
Much like NBA Jam, NBA Playgrounds succeeds in taking the personality and flavor of the professional basketball scene and turning it up to a colorful 11. Rather than engaging other teams in two-on-two games of hoops in a traditional sports arena, however, you’ll instead be finding yourself on a variety of outdoor courts, ranging from the type of playground court Will Smith is famous for getting into one little fight on to carnivals and backdrops with a more foreign flair.
The game is full of past and present stars from the National Basketball Association, and if I’m being honest, I don’t know who any of these guys are — I think the last time I was familiar with more than a couple of specific big-name individuals was back in the early aughts, if not somewhere in the 90’s (aaaaand I’ve just dated myself. Then again, the Blockbuster reference probably did that on its own). I do recognize team names, though, so finding the Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors — hometown teams old and new for me — was pleasing, even if I had no idea who was actually on these teams at this point.
Incidentally, the roster of players and teams to choose from is pretty small at the start, but win or lose, you’ll be able to expand the number of selectable players by way of acquiring packs of NBA trading cards. Open them up, and you’ll find a small selection of new players that will help fill in the missing spots, which is how I was able to put together my hybrid Hornets/Raptors team that wasn’t available at the start. This is actually one of the more fun elements of the game.
As you can tell, though, I’m not big into the names — the game is the thing, and I was ready to go downtown on fire and boomshakalaka the glass off the back of some backboards.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it went down. At all. While NBA Jam felt very pick-up and play, NBA Playgrounds has overall more complicated controls and just an overall greater degree of complexity to it — Arch Rivals and NBA Jam had three buttons each (plus the joystick), but NBA Playgrounds uses just about every button on a modern controller, plus some combinations.
Add to that the actual act of playing, and it feels at the very least like there’s some noticeable degree of nuance to just how you play. Free throws and slam dunks came easily enough in this game’s forebears, but felt very difficult to pull off here, and the computer effectively trounced me repeatedly. I was worried it was just me, hence my apprehension at reviewing this. As noted, sports games are not something I tend to dabble in, and even with something like this, I’m practically an outlier from just about everyone I know. I mean, maybe someone more used to sports games from Electronic Arts and the like could find something here I wasn’t, right?
But looking around at other opinions of the game online, I realized it wasn’t just me, which emboldened me to follow my instincts and write this review after all. Sure, part of it may just be me — I imagine friends of similar skill level will have a good time with this, or someone who dedicates themselves to learning all the intricacies, but that’s a deeper rabbit hole than I ever imagined I’d be looking at going down when I first looked at this game.
There’s other stuff to consider, some of which may contribute to the feeling that it’s lacking in the field that it’s meant to be succeeding at. The gameplay feels comparatively slow, your AI partner feels even slower, and the attribution of bonus points almost feels like it’s derived from some of the more ill-received aspects of a Mario Party game.
In the end, I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say NBA Playgrounds is a bad game — I’m pretty sure it’s far from it. But as far as being a successor to NBA Jam — a position I’m not sure was coined by the developers or foisted upon it by others — I don’t think this is what fans of that franchise are looking for. If you want something you and some friends to just pick up and play, I recommend against it. If it’s something you’re willing to invest time and dedication to learning, on the other hand, there may be something here for you.
For me, I’m just hoping that developer Saber Interactive’s other upcoming basketball-related title, Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn, will prove to be more of a slam dunk.
All credit for the dek/excerpt goes to Funkstar’s comment on Eurogamer’s review. I wish I had come up with that one myself.
NBA Playgrounds was released for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC via Steam on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 at a price of $19.99.
A review code was provided by Saber Interactive.
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.