NBA Playgrounds Review

By Mark Delaney, 2 years ago
Every year, just as a particular sport is about to begin a new season, gamers are treated to their video game counterparts in true-to-life sports simulations. Franchises like Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K all dominate their fan bases, even reeling in fans that may otherwise not play video games. If you find the seriousness and the deep systems of these annual sims detracting, the infrequent arcade alternatives might instead be the right kind of game for you. If that's how you feel, you can hardly do better than NBA Playgrounds.

Logos

NBA Playgrounds is an arcade basketball game played with teams of two. At the onset of the game, you're given several digital trading card packs to open up and reveal players. Right away this feature scratches the child-like itch of seeking your favorite athletes inside and what's even better is that unlike the sport sims that base their trading card games around microtransactions, NBA Playgrounds rejects them entirely. The card packs are earned strictly through winning tournaments and leveling up.

The roster of players that can be found inside packs totals something around 200 and features current and past superstars. You can recreate duos you love from past or present — Paul and Griffin, Kobe and Shaq — or you can combine two players that have never played together, each in their own team jersey. The roster is one of the game's best attributes because it has essentially everyone you would think deserves a spot in the game with few exceptions. The NBA license really helps put Playgrounds over the top.

He's on fire! — I mean... It's electric?He's on fire! — I mean... It's electric?

Soon after you get onto the court, the undeniable fun of NBA Playgrounds is plain to see. At first the game felt too fast and button-mashy, like it presented an NBA where defense was not a concept and players just scrambled around for the ball recklessly, but within a few games, the deceptive depth of the gameplay came to light. Each player is given attribute rankings across several areas like two- and three-point shooting, stealing, stamina, and blocking to name a few. These differences really matter, especially in the increasingly difficult tournament mode. Taking on two dunking experts with undersized point guards isn't going to end well for you. It's best to get familiar with several different players and essentially create team "builds" like you would cast a character in an RPG.

The ridiculous slam dunks and alley-oops would be acrobatic if they weren't physically impossible — and that's what makes it all so fun. Players' body proportions are out of whack, like you're playing in big head mode, so their caricatured faces beam with personality. Within a few three or five minute games you'll probably have a good handle on things and can start getting the most out of Playgrounds.


Players can be leveled up individually to unlock more moves, including some that mimic real life versions of players, like a smooth Steph Curry crossover or a Dirk Nowitzki pull-up jump shot. The XP system is unfortunately too simplistic, however. Depending on which mode you're playing, most of your XP gains and all of those for players are standardized, so a triple-double from Russell Westbrook may net you 100 XP in exhibition mode but so too will a scoreless game from the same player. There is also a general level bar and an online ranking that helps reward you with cards to collect and similarly skilled opponents.

Player XP gains are overall more bountiful, although still standardized, when you play online, but doing so actually reveals the game's most egregious flaw — there's no unranked mode, which means there's no invite-a-friend option. Playgrounds excels whether you're playing solo, or a local co-op or competitive game, but taking it online is terribly hurt by the lack of an option to play with whom you'd like to play. Saber Interactive has promised a patch will address this problem as well as add tournaments to the online portion, but their current release date for the patch is stated vaguely as "TBD". If unranked, invite options were in the game at launch, Playgrounds would be one of the best games of the year — and thus maybe a surprise hit. Instead it's a great game with a major flaw that desperately needs fixing.

Opening packs and collecting your favorite players and teams is an untainted thrill without microtransactions.Opening packs and collecting your favorite players and teams is an untainted thrill without microtransactions.

Sonically, the game remains a hit. Whether you're on the court or in the menus the soundtrack is the perfect companion to the game's cartoonish style. Ian Eagle is featured in the commentary duo, which brings a level of authenticity to the otherwise absurd version of the NBA. Across six different street courts, each of them in a different city around the world, the music changes to reflect the location. You'll be blocked from accessing all the courts offline until you unlock them across six tournaments, though, and they get very hard as you go on. From the color palette, to the music and the animations, everything about the game is done in the name of fun and not only does it aim for that, it almost perfectly achieves it too.

The achievements will take some grinding, but along the way it should remain fun. To unlock major milestones of players, like the 100 and 150 marks, it'll be quickest to play online even if the achievements don't call for that directly. Offline, achieving milestones like 100 slam dunks or 150 three-pointers is easiest in exhibition mode, which quickly gets too easy once you get the hang of things. If you want the completion, good luck winning all six tournaments — they aren't going to be easy. If you're very skilled on the playground, you could feasibly finish off the list in under 20 hours, but it will require a bit of luck given the randomized output of the card packs.

Summary

NBA Playgrounds follows in the footsteps of games like NFL Blitz, FIFA Street, and (of course) NBA Jam. It takes a simple premise — over-the-top arcade sports — and nearly perfects it. It misses an easy layup by excluding invitation options online, but hopefully the promised patch arrives to bring this game closer to an all-time great. Everything else, from the aesthetics and the music to the gameplay and the special wrinkle of wallet-free card collecting, is an uncontested slam dunk.
4 / 5
NBA Playgrounds
Positives
  • Awesomely fun gameplay
  • Huge roster of current and past NBA stars
  • Local and online multiplayer
  • Addictive card collecting component with no microtransactions
  • Great soundtrack and colorful visuals
Negatives
  • Simplistic XP system
  • No online invitations or unranked games
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent five hours on the various courts of NBA Playgrounds, dunking, draining threes, and having the ball stolen from Chris Paul. He unlocked 6 of 13 achievements for 300 gamerscore. An Xbox One copy was provided by ID@Xbox for the purpose of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves most kinds of games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of gaming, he likes bicycling, binge-watching, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.