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NBA Playgrounds

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Sports
Publisher: Mad Dog
Developer: Saber Interactive
Release Date: May 9, 2017

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.

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PS4 Review - 'NBA Playgrounds'

by Brian Dumlao on July 19, 2017 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

NBA Playgrounds is an officially NBA licensed arcade-style basketball game featuring both active and retired players.

Buy NBA Playgrounds

Ask people to name the best arcade-style basketball game, and you'll likely get NBA Jam as an answer. The original, Tournament Edition, and the last two entries from EA are all remembered as bona fide classics. They're also rather influential, as they served as the inspiration for other Midway titles that couldn't use the game for legal reasons and EA's NBA Street series. The series spawned catchphrases that remain part of the pop culture lexicon to this day. We haven't gotten a new NBA Jam in some time, so Saber Interactive has taken it upon itself to create a title influenced by that legendary series in the form of NBA Playgrounds.

The moment the game starts, you immediately get the notion that this title wants things to be much different. Before you get to the main menu, you're given a chance to open a few booster card packs. The cards are randomized, but they also represent the players you can start with. There are over 250 players represented here, including current superstars like Steph Curry and Dirk Nowitzki, classic players like David Robinson and John Stockton, and legends like George Mikan. It also means that everyone's starting roster is going to be different. However, this does increase the chance of your favorite team not getting represented. If you're a Miami Heat fan, there's a really good chance that you won't have a single player from that team when you start.


After you've opened your packs, you begin actual gameplay with an exhibition match that's designed to teach you the basics in a 2v2 environment. If you're thinking of NBA Jam's simple three-button setup of pass, shoot/block and turbo, then you'll do OK here. You'll need to learn some of the more advanced elements, like commanding your AI teammate to go for an alley-oop or flicking the right analog stick for a crossover to bait your opponents. The idea behind having a tutorial match is sound, but the implementation is quite terrible, as the action stops at the most inopportune times to give you instructions on a move you've already done or are nowhere near completing. By the time you finish, you could be more confused than before.

By the time you finish the tutorial, you're introduced to something that's standard in almost every game: leveling. You have an overall leveling system for your profile, and each level gained nets you another card pack. Get to level 50, and those card packs start to become gold ones, which give you a better chance of getting top-tier players. The packs are all obtained via gameplay, as there is no option to pay real money to buy more booster packs. Leveling also occurs for your individual players, so they can unlock more moves for their dunks and crossovers; this ends up being more about aesthetics than actually making the player improve stats. On a side note, the game does a good job of addressing the chances of you getting repeat cards, as the copies are automatically redeemed so that player gets a boost of 100XP.

Finish the tutorial, and you can play Tournament, the main offline component. Here, you'll be able to select any two players to go to any city for a four-round tournament with varying time limits and unpredictable opponent AI. Winning unlocks the next city on your list and a bonus gold booster pack. Complete the optional set of challenges, such as executing X number of blocks or three-pointers or steals, and you'll unlock a new ball color scheme, a decent but not particularly exciting reward.

Completing at least one tournament match gives you the chance to play online in either ranked or unranked matches. For the most part, the performance is good and the community is quite healthy, as the wait time for match searching isn't very long at all.


Getting to the point where you've unlocked all modes gives you a good idea of how the gameplay works. The gameplay is held together by parts that have very differing degrees of quality. The core is the very familiar 2v2 game without a score limit. Matches consist of three to five bouts with a 12-second shot clock, so it plays with rules that are heavily truncated from what you see in official NBA matches. Making the first shot of the game also gives you a bonus point, so it's similar to a fighting game where landing the first punch gets you a meter bonus. Instead of getting an "on-fire" mode by making three consecutive shots, you build up a meter by making blocks, shots and steals. The meter gives you a random power-up, such as firing off an unblockable shot, getting a spot on the court where points are doubled, or accelerating the shot clock for your opponent.

Some of those changes and tweaks are good, but the rest can leave players bewildered or disappointed. Your partner AI is downright awful. He'll decide to set up for a rebound half of the time or get open for a shot in case you get into trouble. Call him for an alley-oop, and he'll take his sweet time to get into position, making you opt to make the basket yourself. Just about every move drains a significant amount of stamina, a meter that doesn't refill quickly enough. Though the justification for this is to reduce constant spamming of the steal button and make shoves devastating if you miss, those were already addressed in NBA Jam, as jamming on the steal button meant that you stood still. Letting a simple swipe drain almost half of your meter makes it doubly punishing for those who want to play defense. The score and shot clock aren't prominent on the screen, which is odd since those are the most important things a player needs to see.

The shooting and dunking mechanics will throw off players completely. Think back to the original arcade game, and you'll find both things were easy to execute. Press the shoot button anywhere on the court, and let go to fire off the shot. Use turbo and the shoot button when you're close to get a good lay-up or some flashier dunks. Here, the mechanics are tweaked so you have to press the button a second time on the shot to let go or press it a second time on a dunk to execute it. You can get rewarded with a bonus point if you hit the button at just the right time, but the timing on getting the shot right even if you aren't aiming for perfection is rather nebulous. Even if you finally figure it out for one player, you'll have to feel out the process to master the timing differences for another player. It's maddening enough that you'll often see spectacular dunks or sure-fire shots in the paint completely miss or hit the rim. It can be forgiven in a simulation game, since that would be about getting everything just right. For an arcade game that's designed to be a pick-up-and-play affair, such precision can be an outright deal-breaker.


If the review were based on the game's condition at launch, then this would settle in the basement with Tecmo's NBA Unrivaled. Fortunately, the developers have been patching the game constantly, and there have been some pretty big changes. The first is the expansion of the overall roster. One of the early complaints is that some of the stars in the game were only represented by their current team standings and ignored their glory days, while others were outright missing. The patches have added many of those players, so you can play as legends like Larry Bird and Dennis Rodman, and newer guys like Klay Thompson and Giannis Antetokoumnpo are in rotation. You can play as Shaq in the Orlando Magic, Jason Kidd in the Nets, and Derrick Rose on the Chicago Bulls. More importantly, there is the option to show a shot meter, which makes the shooting mechanics easier and removes the guesswork from the process. The real takeaway is that the developers are listening and are still willing to work on the title.

Graphically, NBA Playgrounds is fine. It runs at a stable 60 fps, though it does so without any jaw-dropping effects during shots or dunks. The animations are exaggerated greatly, but that fits with the game's arcade style that values flash over substance. The courts are done well, with decently sized crowds looking on and some other background elements to give the game life. Where people's opinions will differ is on the ballers themselves. The big head and disproportionate limbs are fine, but the players' faces are caricatures. The intent is to have a more cartoonish look in the game, but unfortunately, some players look nothing like their real-life counterparts.

The audio is also good, but only in parts. The soundtrack is fine, especially as it tries to match up with some of the environments, but it isn't memorable. The effects are good, but the announcers are less than desirable. The delivery of lines feels wooden and lifeless. It also doesn't help that the lines try to evoke humor by constantly breaking the fourth wall, but the jokes just aren't funny.

NBA Playgrounds is not the new NBA Jam replacement. It adds just enough complication to the basic mechanics so it isn't a game that anyone can pick up and play without experiencing one or two matches. The game is fun once you get used to the quirks, and even if the roster unlocking process isn't optimal, it ensures you'll have a reason to keep coming back. For arcade sports fans, NBA Playgrounds is worth a look.

Score: 7.5/10



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