Console: PlayStation 4
* Great casual basketball action on the Playstation 4
* Stylized look is awesome and adds a ton of charm to the title
* Unlocking players is extremely fun and rewarding
* Matches often seem unfair and cheap
* Timing is very difficult if not next to impossible to master in this game
NBA Playgrounds marks the first review of our new review structure. I suppose the main goal here is actually to lose a little bit of that old structure and make things a bit organic. To give a brief explanation for this change I would have to say that more often than not I see readers just jump to the bottom of a page and check out the final score leaving that as the definitive statement of a game. We have seen some other pioneers do away this system and I honestly think it’s the best choice for what I try to accomplish in my reviews. I do try to judge each game fairly and openly with as little comparison to other titles as possible, but most importantly I try to educate the reader on what they are getting for their money. Sure every review is based on my opinion, but the most I think about this system to more I feel it’s unfair to rank a game with a point value or even letter grade.
I typically enjoy most games I play more often than not so I tend to stick to the better letter grades. But what does that accomplish? Most readers want to know what they are getting for their money, do advertised systems work as intended and how long is the game. When people I know talk to me they ask these questions specifically and are usually looking for more information to assist them in making a judgement call on whether or not they should skip the game, give it a rent or is it worth purchasing. So with all of that being said, that’s the system I’m going to try out for the time being. Every game will get one of those three verdicts based on features, price point and execution.
With that introduction over, NBA Playgrounds… let’s get started…
I did in fact say that I do everything I can to not directly compare games against one another, but unfortunately with this title I have no choice but to compare this to NBA Jam. For whatever reason I just can’t help it… I was looking very much forward to this title and it instantly sparked that nerve that NBA Jam fueled for decades. So when Saber Interactive provided me with a copy for review purposes I was incredibly stoked and got to downloading right away, One good thing about this title is it sits close to the 7 GB mark so you don’t have to worry about it taking up much space on your hard drive or worry about it taking too long to download.
Once I dove into this title its departure from NBA Jam became more and more apparent. While NBA Playgrounds sets out to appeal to the casual audience it does away with the simplicity that made NBA Jam so brilliant. Sure it’s still pretty basic in its formula but it does rely on some sort of timing formula for shots that tends to defy any natural instinct or reflexes that your hands naturally have. I understand the reason for it’s implementation and the reasons for setting itself apart from such an iconic franchise, but I honestly feel that placing so much emphasis on this mechanic is a mistake. It’s not a deal breaker by any means and you can argue that it just take more time to perfect and master, but so many times I flop a simple dunk or lay-up because of this formula and then CPU responds by making half court shots with ease. This is on the easiest difficulty by the way.
The beauty of NBA Jam was that you have three buttons and while there were a few moments where you were required to time your release, you never felt like you were being cheated for no reason,. You always felt like you were a bad ass and if you lost a game, it was either because you were no good or just messed up. I never got the impression that the CPU was incredibly over powered and used cheap tactics to win. This doesn’t appear to be the case with NBA Playgrounds. More often than not I had to resort to finding a good three-point position and spam shots just to stay in the game. If this were NBA 2K I would say I’m just no good and need to practice more, but honestly I feel with the audience that NBA Playgrounds is seeking out it needs to be more accessible and save some of the cheap CPU tactics for higher difficulties.
This is perhaps my biggest complaint about the game though. If you can get past some cheapness and realize that this definitely isn’t NBA Jam I think you will be more than happy with this title. Maybe my distaste for some of these mechanics come from muscle memory and with it feeling so much like NBA Jam to me, it’s incredibly hard to overcome instincts and focus more on the shot timing. Just throwing it out there…. let’s move on.
NBA Playgrounds features both single player and multiplayer modes both local and online. This comes in the form of exhibition games and a sort of tournament mode that really is just a few exhibition games linked together. I enjoy playing through the tournament mode only because you are giving different rewards in the form of new courts and basketballs. Whether or not you are playing tournament more or exhibition you are rewarded with two different levels of experience points. There is the general profile XP that you use to unlock player booster packs (which is super addicting by the way). Once you unlock a new booster pack you are notified and have to exit back to the title screen to redeem these gifts. It really is just how it sounds too, you are show a foil booster pack that is ripped open and you flip over the included cards one by one showing your newly unlocked players. One other thing I really enjoy is that when you pick these players, you aren’t simply picking teams like other games of this genre. You simply pick any two players that you have unlocked regardless of team. This allows for some truly great combinations and a lot more versatility in match ups.
The other form of XP is linked to whatever players are being used. That’s right; each player has their own XP bar and the more you play the more they increase. While this doesn’t really increase the player stats, it does however unlock more moves and animations for each player. So the more you use your favorite player the more impressive they become.
The aesthetic of NBA Playgrounds is absolutely terrific. Not only do I get joy from unlocking some of my favorite players, but I looks forward to seeing what their in-game avatars look like. While they all kind of have that cartoon like look, they are mostly all immediately recognizable. Playing as these players and unlocking more moves and animations only fuel this experience. Seeing Lebron perform is signature tomahawk is awesome and look forward to continuing to level up other players to see what new moves are around the corner.
One other mechanic that is both cool and crappy at the same time is the slot machine style power ups called Lottery Picks that are usable once you build up your power up bar by pulling off moves like alley-oop or three pointers, etc. After you build up this bar you will see the different power icons cycle almost like a slot machine and then your random power up will be active for the allotted amount of time shown. This can vary from the Lightning shot which is a lot like the on fire of NBA Jam in the regard that pretty much any three-point shot will go in. Other power ups consist of things like…
- 2x in the Paint – With this power-up you will get a base of four points for any dunks made in the paint or any successful alley-oops.
- 2x 3-Pointer – Any three-pointer made while this bonus is active will net you a base of six points instead of the normal three.
- Speed Boost – Gain a limited movement speed bonus to move faster up and down the court.
- 12” Timer – The opponent’s shot clock will run down faster.
- Star Shot – Score from any starred location on the court to multiply the points of the shot. The first shot in a starred area is worth double points, the second shot is worth triple points and the third shot offers a 4x multiplier. Hitting all three shots within the time limit will usually net you 25 points depending on where the star points appear (inside or outside of the three-point line).
(Excerpt from Prima Games)
As you can see some of these power ups can be very rewarding but also very dangerous. Some of the other regular bonuses are the first score of the game get’s a +1, and if you nail the timing release of your shot perfectly you also get a +1 bonus. The frustrating aspect of these mechanics is that games are typically only a couple of minutes and with the CPU rarely messing up and the shot timing being so strict, it’s very easy for you botch simple shots then manage to nail everything, build up their meter and get some of these crazy bonuses very easily leaving you down by 10 to 15 points.
Everything I mentioned is really about the entirety of NBA Playgrounds honestly. Sure it’s not NBA Jam, but it without a doubt has its own charm will likely grow on you. Everyone involved int he game has made numerous statements regarding continued post launch support with added players and an online tournament mode. Most of my complaints I feel are very minimal and could very easily be patched in the near future, so I surely don’t feel that it’s a deal breaker by any means. I just think it’s important that you understand what this game looks like and what it actually is. The bottom line is that this title has a very reasonable price point of $19.99 on the PSN Store and fills a void of arcade basketball action on the Playstation 4. There is also plenty of content here in the form of unlockable players and courts. I greatly look forward to seeing what exactly the post launch updates will be and my greatest hope is that this will rejuvenate the interest of arcade style basketball on current systems because let’s face it competition is good for everyone!
Verdict: Worth a purchase