Reviews May 19, 2017

NBA Playgrounds

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Reviewed By: Andre Thomas
System: Xbox One (Also on PS4, Switch, PC)
Genre: Sports
Rated: E
Players: 1-4 (2-4 Online)
Cost: $19.99
Release Date: 05/09/2017
Publisher: Mad Dog Games
Developer: Saber Interactive
                
I remember growing up as a kid, having diverse sports titles to play on any given system. Basketball, football, hockey – you name it, there were different versions of each sport that brought their own spin to the genre. Nowadays, thanks to the monopolizing of licensing deals via select companies, we don’t see nearly as many sports titles being released. As cool as it would be to have another arcade styled NFL game (or a game that’s able to fairly compete with Madden), EA’s grip on the license keeps that from happening. Thankfully, that’s not the case with NBA titles…

Enter Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds, a title that looks to bring back the days of arcade basketball fun. You know, with cartoonish NBA stars competing in 2-on-2 games on an assortment of courts – at first glance, it would seem just like the classic arcade title, NBA Jam. Its look is as about as far as the comparisons go though. NBA Playgrounds seemed to go for the more casual fan of basketball while, at the same time, provide a challenge for long time enthusiasts. The big head ball players make it easy to feel like you can jump directly in and be a pro at this game. I was one of the many victims who assumed I could just hold the turbo button and go for broke until I got shut down at the rim.

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This was a good thing at first. Being able to jump in and play made the game approachable to people who’ve never played arcade basketball games. It was able cool to be able to get better, utilizing skills learned from basketball sims like NBA 2K. That said, it wasn’t long before I noticed how these too concepts weren’t working the way they should. Taking shooting for instance. With most basketball titles, the release point of the shot is extremely important because it dictates your chances of getting the ball into the basket. Games that have this featured usually do a good job of explaining when to release the ball. That’s not the case here. NBA Playgrounds offers a basic tutorial on how to shoot, but it isn’t as clear as it should be. After each shot, the rim shows you if the timing of your release was good/bad but it never seems consistent. Throw in the fact that the timing varies from player to player based on their position on the court and you can see how shooting three’s can be frustrating at times.  

What makes this worse is that perfect shots, for those who somehow master the inconsistency, reward the player with a more points. A three pointer nets four points, sometimes. This inconsistence can be also seen in the arcade side of things. Building up a meter via blocking shots/other skill based moves, leads to power ups. The thing is, these powerups are random in nature. One second you’ll have something decent like increased speed. The next you’ll get a boost to your three pointers, making all of them worth six points. The game can feel more chaotic than it needed to be, is what I’m getting at.

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What also hurts this game is the lack of fluidity between events. Every time someone scores, for example, there is an odd pause that doesn’t allow you to pass the ball in. In a sport like basketball where the game is extremely fast paced, stoppage can literally change the entire momentum of a game. In a pure NBA simulation title, the game only stops for free throws, timeouts, and reviews of shots in crucial moments in the game. But in a game with none of that stuff, what is the point of stopping the ball every time somebody scores? I can understand the need to keep players from being overwhelmed, epically if the other team gets getting power ups. But because the game doesn’t move as it should, the moment to moment gameplay can wear on the experience.

With all of that said, I still had fun at times. Doing super dunks, forcefully stealing the ball, making an impossible shot (when you’re lucky enough to do so) harkens back to the days when arcade sports titles were numerous. This isn’t a new NBA Jam or NBA Street, but it is decent in its own right. There isn’t a huge roster of current or historic players in the game but Saber is expected to add more players later. Most fans will be pleased with stars like Lebron James, Stephen Curry, Allen Iverson, and Magic Johnson though.

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If you’re looking to scratch that nostalgic NBA arcade itch, then there’s no reason to not pick this game up. I was certainly excited when the NBA Playgrounds was announced. But with NBA 2K already such a huge hit, I don’t think there is much room for NBA Playgrounds. Or rather, basketball fans aren’t as hungry for an arcade styled b-ball game as Saber had hoped; it’s still hard to find matches online. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have options when it comes to our sports games. This just means that the developers are going to have to rethink things before trying to tackle this issue.   

Gameplay: 6
It can be fun at times, especially if you play with friends. That said, the inconstant gameplay hurts the experience.

Graphics: 8
The cartoony design of the players and people surrounding the court, blended with modern-ish graphics allows the game to feel familiar visually even though most of these people haven’t played in years.

Sound: 6
Decent…nothing of worth to note.

Replay Value: 6
Playing with friends locally is fun. There isn’t many people playing online though.

Final Score:

6.5