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May 25, 2017 / Jett

NBA Playgrounds Review (Nintendo Switch)

[NOTE: This reviews the current version of the game that does not have online play. It was not available at this point in time and based on recent comments from the developer, it’s not coming in a timely manner. As such, I’ve chosen to publish the review without online play.]

Coming out just as my beloved Toronto Raptors get bounced from the playoffs yet again, NBA Playgrounds arrives just in time to ease the pain of another failed attempt at the championship. Unlike the simulation-based NBA 2K series, NBA Playgrounds is a throwback to the arcade insanity of NBA Jam. Is this new take on a classic play stile a somersault slam dunk?

Players will take part in frenetic games of 2v2 basketball. You’ll be throwing down rim-rattling dunks, chucking scorching hot threes from almost half court and tossing sick alley-oop passes for your teammates. If you’ve ever played NBA Jam, the general framework of the game should be immediately familiar.

What will feel alien at first is the way that shot accuracy is determined. You’ll have to hold the shoot button to shoot, then let go at the exact moment. Getting the timing down is so important that the game will give you an extra point on your shot if you release it perfectly.

While the game does tell you if you were too late or too early after the fact, it’s really tough to get a sense for when the timing is just right. This applies for all shot types, including dunks, which is unusual for a basketball game. At first, you’re going to miss everything, from long threes to brain dead dunks.

After a few minutes, I got a feel for how to shoot threes and dunk, but layups still mystify me. With so many different layup animations and with them occurring so quickly, it’s very easy to miss what appear to be the easiest shots in the game. As such, it looks really weird when players can jump 30 feet and dunk the ball with ease, but repeatedly clank iron on simple layups.

With the overall depth of the game being fairly shallow, the strict timing windows are probably best for long-term replayability. That said, I wish the game gave players more feedback on when to release your shot. Even veteran gamers can struggle to get a feel for the system, while casual gamers may quickly grow frustrated after bricking on a series of shots.

Once you get a feel for how shooting works, NBA Playgrounds is a serviceable take on the classic arcade basketball formula. The action is exciting and it’s awesome to see players from the past and present together on the court. Maybe with the exception of layups and fadeaway jumpers, you’ll be dunking, shooting, and blocking just like old times.

The game’s biggest diferentiator is a feature called the Lottery Pick. As you perform good moves, you’ll build up a meter. When it’s maxed out, you’ll randomly be given a limited-time power, such as a one-time shot guaranteed to go in, double points on dunks, or special hot spots on the ground that can give you a ton of bonus points.

These special powers can go both ways. A team that might be suffering from a deficit can make an epic comeback with a perfectly-released 3-pointer from a 4x multiplier hot spot for 12 points. On the other hand, these same powers can be used for the winning team to bury the opposition quickly if they get the right roll. I like how they can change the complexion of a game, though their effects can be a bit too dramatic.

As of this time, online play is not available on the Switch. It was originally promised to come out days after, but it’s been weeks now with no luck. Really disappointed in this, as I finished all of the campaign challenges ages ago and it’s boring to grind against the computer for more card packs.

The core of the game is a Tournament mode, where you’ll work your way through different teams playing on different courts around the world. Beating them will help you unlock new courts and new basketball styles.

Despite my general enjoyment of the Tournament mode, the AI is actually quite wonky throughout. At a certain point, it will steal the ball from you every single time you try to make a beeline past half court. In other instances, particularly the Chris Paul and Blake Griffin match in Paris, the difficulty spikes to ludicrous levels. I found that the best way to counter it is by exploiting the computer’s inability to guard the 3-point line by bombing repeatedly from outside. Exploiting the AI in this manner was almost as bad as the feeling of the computer exploiting me.

What puts the solo experience over the top is the game’s card system. At the start of the game, you’ll get three packs of five cards, each representing a playable character. You’ll have to play the game in order to gain XP, which will then get you access to more packs. I greatly enjoy the experience of unlocking new players this way, which keeps me motivated to play. Better yet, the game doesn’t appear to have any sort of paid DLC infrastructure in place, making it so that you can unlock everything just through standard play.

NBA Playgrounds tries hard to modernize NBA Jam, but its execution falls short. At its core, the fast-paced action will surely get your blood pumping just like old times. However, there are a number of gameplay quirks and issues that stop it from reaching an all-star level. I have played this a lot because I enjoy the core of the game and I’m also a diehard hoops junkie, but I have a hard time seeing anyone outside of that demographic getting their money’s worth out of this one.

[NOTE: There is a major patch on the way, which appears to address most of my criticisms of the current build of the game. I don’t plan on updating this review, as it’s meant to cover the game in its original state. However, I may do a follow-up post once the the update goes live.]

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