Not quite the NBA Jam successor you were hoping for.
NBA Playgrounds was only announced in April and already players are able to download it onto their PS4, Xbox One, or Nintendo Switch. For those who haven’t heard of the title, let me give you a quick rundown. NBA Playgrounds has a fairly impressive roster of active and former NBA stars and allows you to unlock and pick your very own duo dream team.
Reminiscent of the 2 vs. 2 action of NBA Jam, Playgrounds is all about over-the-top dunks and alley-oops, special powers, and fast-paced play. And while Playgrounds certainly succeeds in being this generation’s Jam, it’s held back by some frustrating mechanics. Whether or not it’s worth picking up, however, depends on just how much you’re craving that arcade-style b-ball action.
Playgrounds has definitely got a solid roster of characters, and the blind pack unlock system provides ample reason for completionists to keep on playing. With Saber Interactive having opted not to sell these off through microtransactions, you can only unlock them by leveling up your profile and completing each of the game’s six tournaments. Each of the six tournaments offers up a gold pack, with a far higher chance of unlocking the biggest and best names in NBA history. It’s a great feeling when you finally get a solid pairing and watch as they tear up the opposition, though not quite as much as it perhaps should.
With power-ups, an eccentric scoring system which enables players to turn the tide of the game with one, perfectly-timed shot, and the ability to shove and swat your opponent’s out of the sky with a solid block, you’d expect it to be end-to-end action. However, these mechanics can take some serious getting used to, damaging NBA Playgrounds’ pick up and play appeal as well as the flow of the play in-game.
Timing the release of the ball from your player’s hands will determine whether you’ll sink your shot or not. However, it’s incredibly tricky to truly nail down a ‘works every time’ method. Calling for your AI-controlled teammate to go for the alley-oop feels almost luck-based, too. Seldom did they begin the animation when I first pressed the button. Only after a fifth or even sixth press did the command seem to register. Unfortunately, these are things that you will always have to deal with, yet the AI never has a problem in nailing a perfect shot and racking up additional bonus points in the process.
The AI is a devilish opponent though and will capitalize on every single mistake you make. One misstep and the AI will be breaking the backboard with a 5-point dunk made possible by perfectly nailing the shot and utilizing a 2x multiplier power-up. If you’re willing to deal with some frustrating losses on the way, NBA Playgrounds offers up enough fun when playing alone, but becomes far more enjoyable playing against someone else.
Having personally played the Switch version, I was only able to check out the local multiplayer which proved to be a far more balanced and enjoyable experience. If you’re looking to take on the world with your skills in Playgrounds or just reignite a rivalry with a friend or family member, it’s certainly a game that you’ll get solid mileage out of.
When playing on the Switch, NBA Playgrounds ran incredibly smooth, though it’s worth noting if you are planning on picking up this version, it does hang a little bit in the menus. This isn’t the case on the PS4 or Xbox One versions, though, so be warned.
Ultimately, your enjoyment with NBA Playgrounds will come down to how you intend to play it. With only six relatively short tournaments, Playgrounds won’t take you long to complete on your own. The best experiences, and a bulk of its replayability come from playing against others. It’s not quite the NBA Jam successor players were hoping for, but it’s good enough to tide you over in the meantime.