NBA Playgrounds clearly attempts to pay homage to older games in the genre such as the iconic NBA Jam or EA's popular NBA Street franchise. In some ways, the best aspects of those series have been revitalized and still hold up today, but there are a few things that hinder Playgrounds and make it a far more frustrating experience than it needs to be.
Playgrounds features a massive roster of over 250 current and former NBA players. Whether it be older legends such as New York Knicks retired center Patrick Ewing, or current athletes such as Carmelo Anthony, there are players from every era to play with. In addition to the impressive roster, I really enjoyed the aesthetics as the cartoonish style of the character models does an excellent job of highlighting the athletes' key features such as Anthony Davis' "brow".
You can unlock more players by opening cards packs you earn throughout the game. These cards typically have three or more players with different stats. There's a touch of RPG elements here as your players can level up to increase their stats and unlock new crossovers, dunks, etc.
Developer Saber Interactive has made the game pretty accessible for casual players. It does away with the intricacies of a basketball simulation game such as the NBA 2K series and adopts a more arcade-like approach. Games are played 2v2 with each team trying to outscore the opponent "by any means necessary." In other words, there aren't any fouls, free throws, etc. Exaggerated dunks, ridiculous blocks, broken ankles, pushing and shoving -- just about everything goes -- and it's a lot of fun when everything works as intended.
Each team has a lottery meter that fills up as you play. This meter can be filled up by pulling off some of the games' skill moves such as crossovers. It can be used to unlock random powerups that can turn the tide of a game or extend your lead. The "electric ball" powerup guarantees that anywhere your player shoots, he'll score with bonus points. Another powerup, the "star shot," places 3 stars on the court that give you bonus points if you score from them. This system is akin to NBA Street notorious "Gamebreaker" mechanic and definitely increases the intensity of the games.
While playing, there were a few annoyances such as simply shooting the ball. In order to increase your chances of making jump shots or dunks, you must release the ball at the height of your jump. This system is fine in general, but I found it to be very inconsistent at times, especially with the lack of a shot meter. What's even more frustrating is that the computer AI seems to always have great releases, rarely misfiring. Some matches feel very unfair as a result.
Inconsistent AI also is another frequent issue I ran across. AI teammates can be hard to rely upon as most of the time, they just run around with no intent of actually making a play. In one game, I ran around the court for the full shot clock, waiting for my teammate to get open and try to make a play, but instead, he stood in the corner helplessly. Other times, teammates wouldn't attempt rebounds, blocks, or steals during crucial close games. On the other hand, when the AI does work in your favor, NBA Playgrounds allows you to pull off some cool moves especially in the dunk department.
Exhibition, Tournament, and Online are the three featured game modes. Tournament mode allows you to participate in a series of games, each with increase difficulty, in order to win rare card packs and gain experience. These packs are usually where the best players are found. Online mode allows you to play online against people, but as of the time of this writing, playing online with friends hasn't been patched in. Online play also doesn't support four players and is limited to two. Basic features like this are expected in online games, so the lack of support so far is disappointing.
NBA Playgrounds does a solid job of filling the void left by the NBA Street and NBA Jam series. There is a deep roster of players, and the game's cartoonish visuals look great, but the bare-bones online play and frustrating gameplay mechanics sometimes make the game feel more like a chore rather than an enjoyable experience.
Writer for Darkstation since 2014. I've been playing games my whole life and starting writing about them in 2010. Outside of gaming I enjoy anime and watching my Philadelphia Eagles let me down every Sunday. Follow me on Twitter @jsparis09