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Publisher: Mad Dog Games, LLC
Developer: Saber Interactive
Release Date: May 8th, 2017
Platforms: PC [Reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch
Disclaimer: A Steam code was provided by the developer for review purposes on PC.
The NBA brand has been a big deal in the gaming world for quite some time now. Many studios have created licensed titles over the years for both casual and hardcore fans. Personally, I’ve never really cared for real basketball, let alone videogames based on it. In all honesty, the most fun I’ve had with a basketball game was the minigame featured in Wii Sports Resort. Despite that, Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds intrigued me when I first saw a trailer, so much so that I wanted to review it. In short, this has been a mixture of fun and frustration.
NBA Playgrounds brings the brand back into the realm of ‘arcadey’ titles. The most popular series is NBA 2K from 2K Games, which is much more of a simulation. As a result, Playgrounds is more akin to past titles like NBA Jam and NBA Street. In fact, every time I’ve seen the game mentioned, those other two titles have also been brought up. I have no experience with either of them, but I did play the demo of NBA 2K13 a lot on Wii U. From my time with that game, I have to say that I’m surprised how many realistic factors Playgrounds has despite being an over-the-top arcade title.
With its huge roster of players (with more being added via regular updates), chances are your favorites are in Playgrounds. Each of them have different stats, making the experience different depending on who you pick. You can take control of two players at a time, swapping between the two during a match. New players are unlocked by means of packs of virtual trading cards, which are obtained by leveling up your profile. At the end of the match, you gain experience and so do the individual you play as. There are three ranks: bronze, silver and gold. Ranking up will add some moves to your players, but the stats will not change. There are times where you will repeatedly get the same players when opening packs, but the game turns this into a good thing by adding 100 XP points for repeats. Some players are good at making three-pointers, while others are better at dunking. Finding players that suit you is the key to really getting the most enjoyment out of the game. There are historic players as well as modern-day stars, so the variety is pretty huge. As expected, they all belong to their real-world teams from the NBA , sporting the sleek uniforms. Not only do each of these players have different stats, but they also have different classes: regular, Epic and Legend.
The only real difference between the three classes is found with Legendary players. They have ‘special moves’, which differ depending on exactly who it is. For instance, Shaquille O’Neal’s special move is his iconic dunk, while Dirk Nowitzki’s move is pulling away from a defense player just a split-second before sinking a shot. Practice is needed to activate the moves of each player consecutively. Having said that, here’s the main problem I have with Playgrounds: with so much mechanics, little is explained.
There’s a lot of mechanics in this game, but you’re mostly left to figure it all out yourself.
I have to admit that my first few minutes with Playgrounds were not very fun. It took me a while before I got used to the shooting system and its many small details that need to be taken note of. The main issue was trying to time shots. The game basically stated that getting a shot requires you to release the button at the height of your jump, but some of the wackier animations are far too over-the-top to read correctly. As a result, I ended up counting “1..2..3” in my head, in order to try and get a fair idea of when the timing was right. Thankfully, doing that actually worked and I was able to find a decent groove in shot timing. Even so, there were still many moments where I wished there was a much better visual aid. Ironically, one was added to the game right before I started writing this review.
Just like the many other NBA titles, Playgrounds finally got a ‘shot meter’, which properly shows the timing needed for making a basket. I would love to know why feedback from the community was necessary for Saber Interactive to realize that this is something that should have been added to the game from the get-go. Interestingly enough, one of the original developers of the game actually made this suggestion early on in development, but the rest of the team decided against this feature. I’m glad they realized the error of their ways when the game was released, but common sense should have told them to keep it in the first place. I was going to take a point off due to the lack of it, but even though it’s now here, I still think it’s fair to penalize the developers.
The reason why I’m thinking that way is because as mentioned before, there are a lot of technicalities in Playgrounds. Small changes like stat and height differences between players change the experience during the gameplay. Distance from the basket and even the angle you shoot at also make a difference. There’s a lot of realistic mechanics at play here, and you only really start to notice and learn them by playing the game. This is supposed to be a casual, arcadey, ‘pick up and play’ title. It fits that bill now after the update, but it was much more of a hybrid between arcade and simulation prior.
Some of the AI matches were incredibly intense. I can’t tell you how many times I had to restart a game while playing in Tournament (career) mode. The AI can make a mistake, but there were some matches where it was basically flawless. That was further emphasized by the constant ‘Perfect Shots’ that were being made, thus giving the opposing team extra points. The game does tell you how to make a perfect shot, but it’s much easier said than done. The window is incredibly tiny, and I’ve only managed to do it accidentally on a few occasions. Even with the shot meter now being added, it’s still not totally clear on exactly how to do it. Add this to the game’s Mario Kart-style power-ups and you have yourself a pretty stress-inducing experience when playing against the AI. There’s also defensive moves like stealing, pushing, and blocking. Easier AI players make defending feel alright, but the harder ones are next to impossible to defend against, yet their offense against you is through-the-roof. I can’t count how many times my shots were blocked or stolen, while I couldn’t lay a finger on the opposing team. You can say it was my fault, but I honestly believe it’s just unbalanced.
The game’s AI can be pretty tough sometimes. Prepare to lose—a lot.
Speaking of Tournament mode, there are six locales from all over the world, each featuring four matches . This gives a total of 24 games for the whole mode. Each match also has its own set of ‘challenges’, like scoring consecutive three-pointers or performing [X amount] of blocks, for instance. Completing all of them will give you different-colored basketballs to use in Exhibition mode, which is basically Free Play. It allows you to pick which court you want to play on, the rules of the game, and of course which players you want to ball against. There are two locales available here that are not featured in Tournament mode. There’s also an online mode. Matchmaking between friends was just recently added to the Steam version in the same update that tweaked the gameplay. It ran smooth in the few matches I was able to play, but it was hard to find a game. I guess the game’s community isn’t big enough yet to have a steady stream of online matches unless you go against your friends.
Beyond the gameplay, NBA Playgrounds is a pretty solid package. It’s visually stunning, featuring vivid colors and smooth textures. Its ‘cartoony’ look definitely fits the arcade genre, and makes the characters look comical, but still very much like their actual selves. The exaggerated big heads and static facial expressions with mouths always open almost makes everyone look like movable bobbleheads, but it’s not too jarring. The animations are definitely the main visual-pleaser, as some of the moves look like something you’d see out of the most intense sports anime. In addition to the sleek animations, there’s also cloth physics applied to the players’ uniforms and the basketball net, which add to the ‘realism’ factor. The various courts also look very nice and stay very true to the real-world locations they’re based on. Crowds are always present and even their models look pretty good.
Speaking of the different courts, now would be a good time to bring up the game’s audio. Each locale has its own song, resulting in eight different tunes in total. They all sound decent, but are mostly forgettable. My least favorite would probably be Paris, while Las Vegas was the catchiest one in my opinion. Each song fits the theme of the locale, so none of them seem out of place. The game’s main theme song which plays while you’re hopping around the main menu is alright, but gets old pretty quickly. At this point, I’ve started to tune it out. Beyond the music, there’s also the two announcers who speak throughout each match. I haven’t really been annoyed by either of them and actually enjoy some of their harsher quips when I’m performing poorly. They can be disabled if you want, but I found them to be enjoyable and they really made it seem like it was a real match being broadcasted on TV.
How do I sum up NBA Playgrounds? Well, like I said at the beginning of this review, it’s a mixture of fun and frustration. The tweaks that have been made to the gameplay in the new update have definitely made things easier to understand, but I honestly feel that the developers should have added that from the very beginning. The fact that it was even suggested by one of the team members and rejected is just strange to me. Even so, once you get the hang of the game’s surprisingly deep mechanics, it’s definitely a fun experience. The power-up system, experience points and different classes also add depth to the game. The presentation is solid, making for a decent overall package. Since I don’t have much experience with any of the other NBA titles, I can’t really make a proper comparison between them and Playgrounds. So, from my standpoint, I’ll say that it’s a fun but flawed game. Despite its issues, I would be lying if I said I haven’t enjoyed my time with it. If you’re into the more arcadey titles and want to enjoy some NBA action before the release of the beefier 2K18 this fall, then I would definitely say go ahead and pick-up Playgrounds.