NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 on PlayStation 4
Last year’s NBA Playgrounds sought to re-capture the magic that made the likes of NBA Jam and FIFA Street so much fun. In regards to the over the top style, it was a slam dunk, but it was generally a pretty shallow experience. Now under the guidance of 2K, Playgrounds has returned for a second attempt.
By offering much of what was missing from the first game, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is a big stride forward, but some issues that will be familiar to core NBA 2K fans have made their way over, diminishing the effect of some of those improvements.
In terms of style, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 remains largely the same. As before, you play 2v2 matches with caricatured versions of real world players. Most of the modern day stars you’d expect are here, as are some of the biggest names from the sports’ past, letting you set up a ‘team’ that allows you to select your pairing easily before the start of a match. The licensing issues with legendary players are similar to those suffered by the simulation 2K games, so your favorite legend may not be in the roster, but everyone that’s there has been meticulously well designed. Every single big-headed player is instantly recognizable, and they look great on the courts.
The courts themselves are equally impressive. Scattered around the world, set up in locations such as the top of a hill over looking the Golden Gate Bridge or a rock in the middle of the Grand Canyon, the courts are busy, beautiful, and perfectly match the goofy, over the top style of the action itself.
The only issue regarding the courts is that they’re not celebrated in Playgrounds 2, as they were last year. Single-player tournaments are no longer set up to show off each location, so you need to change the Exhibition Match settings or hope the rotation favors you online if you want to see all of them.
The gameplay remains largely the same too, but not to its detriment. For the most part, the basketball is fun, simple, and easy to understand. In attack, passing requires very little thought, shooting is forgiving once you learn the basic timings, and AI teammates are quick to react to rebounds. The ease of play makes it the perfect game to pick up and play or introduce to friends. Within minutes, you’ll be scoring comfortably, and since simple jump shots and finger rolls are the easiest and most reliable scoring techniques, you won’t necessarily be blown away by more experienced players.
Playgrounds 2 still offers the possibility for the spectacular, though. Dunks, flying alley-oops, and crazy dribble moves are easy to pull off and happen smoothly. The animations don’t look or feel awkward. If only there was an instant replay feature that let you go back and see just how perfect each dunk was.
The only gameplay issues arise while defending. Stopping attacks is tough, not only due to the ease of shooting, but due to the lack of instruction on offer about how and when to attempt steals and blocks. With stamina, player switching, timing, and the direction a player is facing all important when attempting a steal, there’s significantly more to it than a quick counter attack. Also, due to the speed of players, it’s difficult to see when a perfect steal opportunity arises, and you eventually resort to spamming square/X to get the ball back in tight games. Either that, or you rely on an opponent’s error. The emphasis on attack isn’t necessarily a bad thing in such an arcade focused title, but you can often feel powerless when your back is to your basket.
Lottery Picks also return to add variety to the gameplay. They’re essentially power-ups that are awarded randomly as you perform well on the court, but they don’t feel as overpowered as they did in last year’s game. There’s still some imbalance, with some Lottery Picks being more useful than others (the super speed one being pretty useless), but they don’t play as much of a part as before, which makes learning the other scoring methods more important.
Arguably as important to NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 as the basketball action itself is the card collecting and progression aspect, and this is where the game disappoints. As you unlock new players to use, you earn XP by scoring points, winning matches, and completing challenges. The progression all works pretty well, with players progressing from bronze level to diamond, with their stats increasing as they hit each of the four levels. It’s pretty quick, allowing you to level up players after a dozen or so games with them so that they’re good enough for online play. You can also move onto other ballers so that you’ve got a full roster of powered up pros.
However, the act of actually unlocking the players is an unbearable grind that is alleviated by just one thing: microtransactions. There are two currencies at play in Playgrounds 2, one that is granted alongside XP and is used for buying packs, and another that’s slowly earned and can be used to unlock the entire roster, or packs as well.
A gold players pack costs 5000 ball tokens and contains four players, but it can take ten or more matches to amass that many coins. With hundreds of players available, you’ll have to play the NBA Season tens of times to get just a fraction of them. It’s completely different to the rate XP is earned and feels like you’re being constantly short changed.
Alternatively, you can spend 5000 coins (less than $10) to unlock the entire roster. You can unlock it by simply playing, but it’ll take an exorbitant amount of time. This unreasonable grind, that can be solved with a few dollars, is the unsavoury aspect that’s made its way over from the core NBA 2K games.
In terms of game modes, however, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is a far more complete package. The previous tournament structure has been replaced by an NBA Season mode that see you pick players from a real-world franchise and take them through a fifteen game season and the play-offs. It’s fun to see the progression of your players, but the mode is limited when it comes to map variation and surprises.
To test yourself and see more of what the game has to offer, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 features a full ranked online mode. As you win matches and get more points, you move up the divisions, and your history and full statistics are tracked. The multiplayer options in the original game were pretty barebones, but the sequel brings progression over to online modes that truly makes playing against other players worthwhile. It could do with a prize structure that alleviates some of the pack issues, but the online offerings have been generally changed for the better.
For the most part, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is an improvement on the original. The fun, over-the-top, and easy to understand gameplay returns and the online options make it a more complete package. However, while it should be the perfect game to pick up and play for a couple of matches, the player pack system means you need to grind a lot if you want to fill out your roster, unless you’re willing to part with some real-world cash.
Score: 3.5/5 – Fair
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