- Released: 2017
- Played on: Nintendo Switch
- Also available on: PC, Xbox One, PS4
- Time to get into: 10 minutes
- Time to complete: 5 hours
- Multiplayer: yes, both local and online
The sport of basketball has lent itself well over the years to over-the-top video game versions. From NBA Jam through NBA Street and now NBA Playgrounds the combination of a sport that is already pretty spectacular and that has a fairly small playing area have made it ripe for injecting some crazy into our consoles. Playgrounds does not let this tradition down with sensational dunks, fast paced action and power-ups galore. Where it does fall short is that it doesn’t do enough to reward performing these eye-catching feats versus just playing basketball in order to win games. But despite it’s flaws it keeps you coming back for more monstrous blocks, quick counter attacks and flying alley-oops.
No bricks allowed
It feels fair to be reviewing this game now, after the release of a patch that fixed a few issues. Of course, a game should really be complete upon it’s release but since that moment has passed now I shall only consider the game as it is now. See here for my first impressions post from a few weeks ago for a few more details on those things.
Nothing but net
The main bulk of the single player game is a Tournament mode. Here you play through a four-game competition on a few courts from across the globe against increasingly difficult opponents. Offensively you have available the typical run, pass and shoot stuff along with buttons to push your opponent (ie elbow them in the face!), perform a cross over and start an alley-oop with your teammate. The combination of all these things = huge fun! The search for more and more over-the-top ways of smashing the ball into the basket never gets old and as you level up your players they’ll have more different moves to enjoy. Whether dunking or shooting, there’s a shot meter that is very intuitive to let you know when to let go of the shoot button and the change in difficulty between dunking with a player with high dunk stats and trying a three-pointer with one with low shooting stats feels right. One way or another, scoring is very satisfying. On Defense you can push your opponents still and you get to use steals and blocks as well. Naturally, none of this is as fun as getting baskets, although blocking a huge dunk in mid-animation is a pleasure as well.
All this fun will carry you most of the way through the single player mode before things start to get frustrating. Unfortunately, with increased difficulty the tension at the heart of NBA Playgrounds is revealed: all of that crazy fun isn’t actually the best way to win. The game attempts to reward your efforts at pulling off stunts with a Lottery Pick Bar. For every cool thing you achieve you get part of the bar filled and when it’s full you get rewards such as an unmissable shot or speeding up your opponents shot clock. The problem is that not enough of these bring you additional points to balance out simply consistently sinking threes. I went back after completing the final match in Tournament mode and played it again to test this theory. The first time, when aiming for fun, I had just won. However, by looking only for three-pointers and ignoring the lottery pick bar completely I absolutely destroyed the hardest single player match in the game – scoring nearly twice as many points as the CPU. Basically for all the fantastic, bombastic play, the best way to win is still by just playing normal basketball.
Coast to coast
This conflict between having fun and just winning carries over into online matches. There aren’t a lot of options here, you select your players and are then sent into a five minute ranked match against a random opponent. One of my early games I went in without a good shot blocker (a mistake I won’t make again) and was destroyed by someone who just went for threes the entire game. This is not a criticism of the online play – I’ve found it as consistent as local play and although it can take a while to match and load up it’s not long enough to make you bail. In fact this is where the game can shine the most – the matches when I’ve played against someone who also values the fun aspect over pure winning have been the most enjoyable of all.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed NBA Playgrounds. There are a few niggles to go along with the conflict described above that together should leave it as a flawed game. But if you can find your own balance between the desire to have fun with the need to win then the core gameplay just doesn’t get tired: an alley-oop is a pleasure to execute even the umpteenth time! If the price you have to pay for this is the occasional frustrating single player game or online beat-down, then it’s a price I am very happy to pay.