NBA Playgrounds Review: Jam Session
Ryan Bloom / Jun 8th, 2017 No Comments
NBA Jam is 24 years old this year — not quite old enough to attempt to recapture its youth during a mid-life crisis. Still, NBA Playgrounds is exactly what would happen if NBA Jam dyed its graying hair and bought a sports car in an effort to appeal to a younger partner.
The core is essentially the same. NBA Playgrounds is a two-on-two basketball title focused on fast-paced, high-flying action. There are over-the-top dunks, two-hand shoves and game-changing powerups. It tries to captivate a youthful audience through card-collecting — a staple of modern sports gaming — and goofy caricatures of current and past NBA stars.
However, arcade basketball is a delicate balance, and NBA Playgrounds doesn’t quite get the formula right.
When you first pick up NBA Playgrounds, it feels instantly familiar. Choose two basketball stars and you’ll be performing huge dunks within no time. The button scheme is minimal and games are only three- or five-minutes long, making it extremely easy to pick up and play NBA Playgrounds. Well-timed shoves and bonuses that are earned by filling up a “lottery pick” meter can change the course of games. The only thing missing is the sound of Tim Kitzrow yelling “Boomshakalaka!”
But as you continue to play, the wave of nostalgia quickly fades into a shore of failed dunk attempts and bad AI. Computer-controlled teammates wander around in circles, and it takes them way too long to respond to button commands for setting hard screens and going up for alley-oops. The action is not fast enough — players literally have to wait several seconds after each made basket until a whistle indicates the start of play again.
Shot timing is the biggest disruptor of the game’s flow, making it difficult to sink wide-open layups and mistime monster dunks — yes, even dunk attempts require players to release the button at the right time. This is a useless feature that becomes incredibly frustrating when Playgrounds decides to randomly enable slow motion while your character is flying through the air for a dunk. Just when you release the shot button, your player begins to float in mid-air and your dunk attempt is blocked by the rim.
Meanwhile, the timing mechanism is far too easy to master when it comes to three pointers. As a result, a game that should feature tons of rim-rattling jams and monster blocks becomes a three-point shooting contest. Way too often, big men like Shaquille O’Neal, who rarely set foot behind the three-point line in real life, was burying fall-away threes against me in rapid succession.
Shut Up and Jam
So many aspects of NBA Playgrounds negate its mind-numbing pleasure. From the start, you are left alone to figure out the game’s systems. Unless you’re paying careful attention, you won’t realize that executing a successful push empties your lottery pick meter. You won’t understand why opposing players are performing complex dribble moves that you can’t seem to pull off until you notice that you level up individual characters in the game as you use them.
I slowly began to pick up on these features as I experienced more of NBA Playgrounds, and it’s obvious that the game expects everyone else to do the same. Still, it’d be nice if there was some explanation of what leveling up characters actually does and how the gameplay systems work.
The lottery pick system is the perfect example of this, as it is mostly based on luck. Players fill up their lottery pick meter by performing moves during the game — alley-oops and blocked dunks provide the largest reward. When the meter is filled, players earn a completely random powerup. At first, the only upgrade available is an “on fire” like can’t miss shot, but more powerups become available as players level up. However, the game never explains what each powerup does, and it becomes obvious that some powerups impact the game much more than others. However, when you earn a lottery pick, the powerup rewarded to you is selected at random.
If you are lucky enough to earn a valuable lottery pick, it could change the game drastically. What makes NBA Playgrounds fun is that you are never truly out of the game, no matter how many points you need to come back. A few shoves, blocks and a solid powerup can quickly erase 10- or 20-point margins.
Despite this, NBA Playgrounds can feel like a grind. The way to unlock new characters is by collecting cards, which are earned by winning tournaments and leveling up. However, there are not enough tournaments to keep players coming back and collecting cards is not very useful because there is little distinction between players once they are on the court.
If NBA Jam is the Michael Jordan of arcade basketball games, NBA Playgrounds is like Jordan on the Wizards. There are flashes of greatness and we relish these moments because this is what we expect to see. However, these moments are thinly sliced and sandwiched between grinding mediocrity.
Pulling off impossible dunks and miraculous comebacks in Playgrounds is thrilling, and is especially rewarding in local multiplayer, but the arcade experience is hurt by an overabundance of three pointers and a feeling of repetition. NBA Playgrounds captures the magic of its arcade basketball predecessors, but it only does so in small bursts, and that is simply not enough.
NBA Playgrounds was reviewed on Xbox One with a code for the game provided by the publisher.
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