*The version used for the purpose of this review did not have online play at the time of writing.
The old school, 2-on-2 basketball scene was – until last Tuesday – an untouched market in today’s generation of games. NBA Playgrounds is the first attempt in decades to break away from NBA 2K’s realism and return to the gravity-defying, cartoonish fun of NBA Jam. Unfortunately, today’s era of sports games is focused entirely on recreating the experience as it is in real life, leaving players who picked up this new release with the subconscious expectation that it would be, well, a sports game. You wouldn’t judge a Mario Kart by its storytelling, nor would you judge Breath of the Wild by its online multiplayer, so when evaluating NBA Playgrounds, the only fair way is to look at it for what it is. Saber Interactive’s goal was not to develop another sports game – it was to recapture the childhood magic of arcade-style fun. They do this quite well, despite some initial frustrations with the steep learning curve and absence of key features. Assuming Saber delivers on all its promised updates, NBA Playgrounds will evolve from a decent $20 release to the well-developed 2-on-2 faceoff it was meant to be.
The initial minutes provide a quick tutorial, outlining the basics in a way that makes the gameplay look far easier than it is. Every jump shot, dunk, and steal requires more precision than you would normally expect, so it gives the game a feeling of unfairness at the start. The shoot button needs to be held, then released at the peak of your jump, but I found it more effective to simply experiment and get a feel for each player’s individual timing rather than relying on the animation. This, in conjunction with the shot type and the player’s shooting stat, decides whether the shot will connect. More complicated maneuvers, like alley-oops, crossovers, and leaning shots, require an even greater level of finesse, some of which I haven’t mastered even after 20 hours of play. In this way, NBA Playgrounds has an impressive level of depth, but it doesn’t demand a deep understanding to stay competitive. A little patience will lead to consistently-made baskets and solid defense, given that you’ve chosen a character duo with appropriate stats for both.
The available selection of NBA players is easily the most impressive aspect of the game. Each of the NBA’s thirty teams are represented with at least three members, consisting of both active players and retired legends. Despite my Seattle-born disappointment that the Supersonics don’t have their own roster, there are incredibly diverse choices here, with even more to come down the road. Every player is assigned rankings from 1-10 for the following categories: Dunk, 3-pt Shot, 2-pt Shot, Steal, Block, Speed, Stamina, and Rebound. NBA Playgrounds allows you to put some serious thought into the members of your duo, using the strengths of one player to offset the weaknesses of the other, and vice versa. Although some of the stats are arguable, they stay fairly true to the individual’s actual career, with the legendary players even boasting their own signature moves. From Hakeem Olajuwon’s turnaround jumper to the killer crossover of Allen Iverson, every gold-tinted maneuver is as effective in-game as it was in the NBA.
Saber Interactive had an ambitious venture on their hands with NBA Playgrounds. While a lot of its components are executed well, some of the drawbacks are difficult to overlook. It’s clear that the game had a premature release, between its forced alignment with the 2017 playoffs and the developers’ obligatory promises for future updates, but perhaps most crippling is the absence of online play on the Switch. Multiplayer is what arcade-style games do best, and Playgrounds is no exception. Additionally, a few imbalanced gameplay mechanics could stand to be remedied. The lottery pick system can change the tide in just a few possessions, making a hard-earned lead disappear with minimal effort from your opponent. Steals and blocks are generally hit or miss, so it’s hard to maintain any kind of consistency on defense. Still, none of these flaws are significant hindrances to the overall experience. It’s a current-gen representation of old-school 2-on-2 basketball that stands to be entertaining, despite its several shortcomings. Hopefully Saber will deliver on all its future promises, but NBA Playgrounds is an impressive accomplishment nonetheless.