Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
There is a fun game here in NBA Playgrounds, but this is by no means the best version of the game. The other issue is that the game is a little on the shallow side. It is a shame really, because there is a fun title to be had here, but issues hold it back and the end result is a merely average sports outing.
I am not a big sports guy, and that translates to my video games. I can’t watch golf or basketball on television, and I have no interest in a simulation-heavy baseball game. Grinding through three seasons just so my character can be a free agent or my team can win a championship two out of three years.
So why am I covering NBA Playgrounds? Because arcade sports titles are a completely different beats, and one I tend to enjoy a great deal more. Give me Hot Shots golf over whatever pro graces the cover of an EA title and definitely give me two on two playground basketball game I can play with my friends over an 82 game season slog like what NBA 2K17 has. I know that Nick would disagree with me here (Editor’s note: Chris is right. I completely disagree with him here), but I would much rather spend fifteen minutes on an arcade style sports game with a friend than grinding away for hours on a career mode in a more authentic sporting title.
With this in mind, I was actually really excited for NBA Playgrounds. I played a lot of NBA Jam and NBA Hangtime in the past, and thought that they were great games. I also had a chance to play NBA Playgrounds on the PlayStation 4 and while not ‘great’, I thought it was ‘pretty good’. The issue is that the Switch version of this game is simply not as good. The framerate struggles at times and the online component is unavailable at launch. This feels like a rushed port, and that is a problem.When you put some warts on an experience that is only decent, you wind up with an average-at-best game as the result. This is a real shame, because there is some real potential here with NBA Playgrounds, it just has not yet been realized.
The actual gameplay is pretty slick, with an easy to learn control scheme. It is simple, with far less nuance than other basketball games. You have a button that shoots, a button that blocks (or at least tries to – admittedly blocking is pretty wonky), a button that steals and so on. There are not a lot of combos, there is no post-up game or pick-and-roll system. NBA Playgrounds is all about fluidity in the offense. Defense is mostly about pushing the other player or jumping up to block and hoping that your character manages to get between the dunker and the basket. But on offense you are running and gunning – launching three pointers, tossing alley-oops and throwing down dunks from a variety of angles. This idea of fast, fluid offense makes the sometimes struggling framerate more noticeable and that much more unfortunate on the Switch, especially having seen the title perform better on the PlayStation 4.
The offense is a lot more fun than defense. This shows up in particular with the power-up bar that gets boosts for flashy dunks or big blocks. Once the bar maxes, you gain access to a random power-up that lasts for a short period of time. These power-ups may range from unlimited spring to an unmissable shot to point modifiers and more. Obviously some of these are much more useful than others.
One of the game’s cooler features is the tournament mode that allows you to play at a handful of different venues. These locations look great and fit the cartoon style of the game, but also includes a challenge at each stage of the competition. These challenges start off really easy with objectives like hitting a three pointer or blocking two shots. The offensive ones are much easier to do than the defensive ones, and unfortunately that makes some of the later game tournament challenges frustrating. Getting six blocks in a game is brutally hard, even if I am using two players with a 10 rating of block. Getting seven steals is borderline impossible even if I’m using two players with a steal ranking of 9. The game is so heavily slanted towards offense to begin with, but having these escalating numbers while matching up against tougher opponents is rough. Given that the teams in your fourth tournament are already tougher than the first, I think the actual requirements should probably be somewhat lower. It turned a fun extra into a frustrating grind.
Luckily other parts of the grind process hold up better. Specifically I like the idea of opening packs of cards to get players, though not all teams are represented evenly. As a Michigan native, I am slanted towards the Detroit Pistons, who have the minimum roster size of five and what I consider questionable representation from a franchise with a pretty rich history of success. I love seeing other legends like Shaq, Iverson and Reed and hope to see the roster expand more in the future.