It has been quite some time since arcade sports video games were king, as the popularity of simulation style games, such as the NBA 2K series continues to rise. At one point in history, all major sports including basketball, baseball, hockey, etc. all featuring intense multiplayer arcade experiences. Without a doubt, NFL Blitz and NBA Jam were the cream of the crop, evolving past life in the arcades and flooding home consoles with multiple versions and sequels. Since the original title, there have been games that have taken the sport into new directions, be it having NBA all-stars playing pickup games in the streets or attempting to take the NBA Jam franchise into the third dimension. With EA still trying to compete with 2K, they have been neglecting one of the best franchises of all time, and thankfully Saber Interactive has taken up the mantle with NBA Playgrounds.
NBA Playgrounds has a familiar feel, taking me back to the days of spending quarter after quarter in the arcades, hoping to pull off insane helicopter dunks on my friends.Although the visuals have a certain charm to them, as well are presented with 3D character models of modern day and past NBA players, Saber Interactive has nailed the arcade feel. From the saturated, vibrant colors, to the enlarged heads of every player, one may mistake this game for a bonafide entry into the NBA Jam franchise. Matches take place on nondescript street basketball courts around the world, including Paris, Tokyo, and New York. In typical fashion, you’ll be performing insane crossovers, gravity defying dunks, and laying the smack down on your opponents to take the ball from them.
Stealing and shoving have always been a gameplay staple, but Playgrounds introduces plenty of ways to counter it from being spammed. Using the right analog stick, you can perform various types of dribbling crossovers and maneuvers to avoid contact and maintain possession. However, this costs a piece of your stamina bar, but at the same time, stealing/shoving always requires stamina. It keeps everything in check, preventing someone from spamming a single move. At launch NBA Playgrounds didn’t include a shot meter, requiring players to judge when to release the ball at the peak of your shot. Of course, it also takes in account where you are on the court and stats of said player. If you release the ball perfectly, you’ll be rewarded with an extra point. The same type of mechanic is used for dunks and layouts, making layouts some of the hardest moves to score with. Saber Interactive has remedied the outcry from fans by patching in a shot meter that features the best moment and percentage chance of making a shot. Magic Johnson, for example, can almost always shot from inside the 3-point line and have a shot meter that is completely green, but take him beyond the arc and his chances are less than ideal.
As you perform actions on the court, your Lottery Pick meter charges up. Spectacular dunks and alley oops are worth more than standard three-point shots, but once filled, it will rotate between any power-ups that you have unlocked. From unlimited stamina, a lightning shot (closest representation of being on fire from NBA Jam), a sped-up shot clock for your opponent, and more, these power-ups could truly turn the tides of a match. The random nature of them can work against you as well, especially when attempting to complete the game’s single-player tour mode. Here, it seems like the AI always gets the best power-ups, while the game works against you.
At launch, NBA Playgrounds only featured matchmaking online multiplayer for one player to go against another across PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. The Nintendo Switch version is still left waiting for the patch that will add online support. The other three platforms also received a patch that allows you to face off against a friend. Instead of using the platform level tools, you must create a custom code, and the other player must use the same code. It works, but I am still confused why I can’t just challenge others from my friends list. Even further improvements to the online infrastructure are in the works.
As you begin your NBA Playgrounds journey, you won’t have many characters unlocked. In fact, you’ll be at the mercy of the luck of the draw. As you level up and complete matches in the tour mode, you’ll earn new packs. If you receive a player you already have, it will provide experience points for that player. As legendary rank players from past and present gain ranks, they gain new abilities, yet the game doesn’t tell you. In fact, unless you already know what makes each player special you may never know. Magic Johnson can perform blind passes look easy while opposing players can lose themselves in Steph Curry’s ridiculous crossover. Saber plans to add new players to the game on a regular basis, and I have no problems with keeping them with the game’s random loot boxes unless they start charging for them.
NBA Playground feels straight out of the 90s arcade scene, with crazy maneuvers, and fast-paced two-on-two NBA action. The dueling commentators do make the occasional cringe worthy joke, that sadly will get repeated throughout the match based on the players competing. Saber has proven they are willing to improve the online experience and with regular content updates, NBA Playgrounds could keep fans clamoring for this type of arcade sports game playing for quite some time.
Note: NBA Playgrounds was reviewed based on a digital PlayStation 4 copy of the game, provided by the publisher.