Review: NBA Playgrounds (PS4)

Formats:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One
  • Nintendo Switch
  • PC

Format/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4
  • HDTV

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: NBA Playgrounds
Format: PSN (7.40 GB)
Release Date: May 9, 2017
Publisher: Mad Dog Games LLC
Developer: Saber Interactive
Original MSRP: $19.99
ESRB Rating: E
PEGI: 3
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
Attempting to recreate the feel of NBA Jam has been difficult. EA tried to reboot the franchise a couple years ago with mixed results and now in 2017 Saber Interactive is taking its shot at making arcade magic.

At first glance, it’s hard not to compare NBA Playgrounds with NBA Jam. Everything from the player designs to the two-on-two fast-paced action feels like an attempt to capture the style and feel of the original juggernaut. Unfortunately, it lacks the magic and gameplay that would make it a spiritual successor to NBA Jam.

One of the major issues is the shooting. Using a system similar to other basketball games, the key is to time the release of the ball. For three point shooting the timing is simple and easy to pull off, but it’s very inconsistent when it comes to layups and dunks.

This is frustrating because while this type of game is made for flashy dunks, pulling them off is just too much of a bother. So for the majority of my playtime I stuck with shooting threes to win which was effective, but boring.

There are also perfect shots, which are supposed to be perfectly timed shots that reward an extra point. The problem is that I don’t know what the game considers a perfect shot. I would get perfect shots, but I didn’t understand why one shot was considered perfect and another was not. It’s these type of inconsistencies that get in the way of being consistently fun.

Stamina is important on offense and defense with every crossover or steal attempt draining a player’s stamina bar. It’s a smart system to have since it prevents players from spamming the steal button and causing games to look like fights. The timing issue also pops up here, but after playing for a bit the timing for steals and blocks is easier to learn.

If you are playing solo, you will jump between both players on your team as you’d expect. The problem I had though was with how unreliable the A.I. can be. With a press of a button, your teammate is supposed to come over and help you jab for a steal, but it rarely ever happens.

… You can’t just select your favorite team or players from the start …
I don’t know if there’s a timing issue or deeper mechanic than hitting a button, but the game doesn’t explain it. Another frustrating thing with the A.I. teammate is rebounding. Often I would watch my teammate miss easy rebounds as if they forgot what to do or expected me to take control of them just to grab a rebound.

One of the unique things in the game is the Lottery system. As you perform dunks, steals, or blocks you build up a Lotto bar which, once full, unlocks a power-up. These can be anything from making your next shot a guaranteed hit, quickening your opponent’s shot clock, or making your dunks worth double points.

As a concept this system is cool, but losing games because an opponent got a lucky string of random power-ups is annoying and if you have issues with the dunk timing then you will rarely get power-ups.

When it comes to game modes, the game is pretty bare bones. With only one real mode, two on two, it’s very limited for a $20 game. You can play two on two with a friend offline or play solo in Exhibition or Tournament mode.

The Tournament mode pits you against pre-selected teams on what’s essentially a tour. Playing four different teams in six cities, the mode is standard two on two with some optional goal added for each game.

What might be an annoying aspect for some is the game’s trading card system. You can’t just select your favorite team or players from the start, you need to unlock them using trading card packs. You are given a couple of packs at the start and you’ll then have to work with what you’re given to unlock more.

You gain XP after each win and every level you achieve unlocks a new pack of cards. Each pack can contain stars from today or the past and any duplicates are used to level up that player’s personal XP level.

Players will unlock cooler moves as they level up but they all seem to have the same set of moves. At this time there is no way to purchase packs with real money.

… it doesn’t have much of a lasting appeal …
Visuals:
For its presentation, NBA Playgrounds looks similar to the NBA Jam EA Sports brought to the PlayStation 3. The character models have have big heads, more elongated than bobblehead, and their animations are outlandish and cartoonish. The backgrounds are bright and colorful and really pop with life with each one decorated like a famous city.

From a technical standpoint, the game runs quite smooth, the gameplay is fast, and the animations can look cool when executed right. I still think more can be done to help players learn the timing for releasing the ball from a visual standpoint, but regardless it has a nice presentation.

Audio:
Now while the visuals deliver the audio is lackluster thanks to a poor commentary team and mostly forgettable music.

The commentary feels flat, often sounding lifeless with the dialogue being straight up bad. The commentators try too hard to sound cool with lines that are impossible to make sound cool. I shook my head more than I laughed from dialogue that was meant to be funny.

The music is fine. From what I can tell the songs are original tracks or at least I hope so. The songs featured in the games are trying to capture the vibe of 1980’s and 1990’s rap.

It features the right kind of cheesy to at least get a smile out of me, but it doesn’t have much of a lasting appeal. Plus there aren’t a lot of songs in the game so after awhile I grew tired of them.

… it needs some fine tuning to get out of mediocrity …
Online/Multiplayer:
Currently the most frustrating aspect is the lack of multiplayer features. The game has online play, but it lacks basic features one would expect from a game with multiplayer in 2017.

The biggest miss is the complete lack of an ability to invite friends to a match. You can only connect to random players and even that isn’t reliable. The idea that a game would come with online multiplayer and wouldn’t feature the ability to invite friends is baffling.

I checked the developer’s Twitter feed, @TweetsSaber, and saw that I wasn’t the only one asking about multiplayer. They have been tweeting to people that they will look into adding friend invites in future updates.

Another annoying thing is that there’s no way to challenge someone to a rematch. After a game the only option is to quit to the main menu. I played some really close games against people online that I would have loved to play against again, but i wasn’t able to do so.

I know it might be asking too much from a game that lacks friend invites to have a rematch option, but seriously, why ship without these capabilities?

Conclusion:
NBA Playgrounds has the potential to fill a void missing from the modern day sports game genre but it fails to capitalize on that and its NBA license.

The gameplay is okay, but it needs some fine tuning to get out of mediocrity. Add that to the grind the game expects players to go through just to play as their favorite team or player and it makes the game more of a hassle than a worthwhile experience.

If you need a local multiplayer basketball game it’s fine for that because it isn’t broken by any means, it just requires a little bit of learning to nail the timing. I have a hard time though getting over the lack of game modes and online capabilities. The ability to invite a friend is a major thing to not ship with and waiting for a patch down the road makes the game skippable.

Score:
5.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Michael Cwick

Michael Cwick

Just a nerd from the Windy City. I’m actually really bad at describing myself because I get all self-critical and self-conscious. Follow me on Twitter, @The1stMJC, to see my borderline insane rants on tv shows and other non important subjects. If I’m not tweeting I’m probably just watching Buffy or Firefly for the millionth time.

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