Addressing The Elephant In The Room
Before I begin this review of NBA Playgrounds (Nintendo Switch), developed by Saber Interactive and published by Mad Dog Games in earnest, I feel the need to address the elephant in the room. NBA Playgrounds is not NBA Jam. While the comparison between NBA Playgrounds and it’s arcade classic counterpart was the reason I bought this game in the first place, I reviewed NBA Playgrounds on it’s own merit.
An article spent comparing one game to the other would not be a fair review. With that out of the way, the review starts here.
Pick A Card Any Card
NBA Playgrounds matches play out in a two versus two format. You choose your two man team from a roster of up to 152 NBA players past and present.
Players are unlocked in groups of five by opening up packs of player cards. Packs of cards are obtained by either levelling up your in game profile or by winning tournaments in Tournaments mode.
At each level up, you are awarded either a bronze or silver player pack. Winning a tournament grants you a gold player pack.
Each pack contains either standard player cards, epic player cards or legend player cards. The colour of pack determines the likelihood of obtaining a legend or epic card. The cards obtained by opening player pack are completely at random, and should you get a card you have already unlocked, you get 100 experience points for that player.
The fact that cards can be repeated means the task of obtaining all 152 players and completing the card collection is a mammoth one.
It also means you will have to invest many hours of gameplay to unlock the likes of LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
Each player has three levels, bronze, sliver and gold. You level up each player using experience earned from using them in games. Once a player reaches level gold, signature moves for that player are unlocked.
Settling This On The Court
While the gameplay in NBA Playgrounds is best described as overall having an arcade style, you score each basket with timed button presses.
Whether you are trying to sink a three pointer, a lay up or are going for a slam dunk you will need to time your button press or your attempted score will miss.
For the first few games, this will act as a source of frustration but once you begin to master the timing, it is quite rewarding. Shots the game deems to have perfect timing will also be granted an additional point.
Power Up Lottery
Power ups in NBA Playgrounds come in the form of the Lottery Pick system. The Lottery Pick is a bar across the top of the screen and once it fills up, your team is granted a power up.
Power ups range from double points, unlimited stamina and unmissable/unblockable shots. The Lottery Pick bar is filled up by scoring, stealing the ball from the opposing team and blocking shots.
Ways To Play
NBA Playgrounds has three game modes. Exhibition, Tournaments and Online Match. In Exhibition, you choose your team and two opponents from the pool of players you have unlocked from opening packs of cards.
Tournaments mode consists of six tournaments consisting of four matches each. Each of the opposing teams are made up of gold level players.
In addition to trying to win each match, there are optional objective for you to complete. These optional objections are anything from blocking a certain amount of shots to scoring a certain amount of dunks.
Upon winning each tournament, in addition to being awarded a gold pack of cards, you will also unlock a new arena for use in Exhibition mode.
Unfortunately, I was unable to try the Online Match mode for this review. To date it is unavailable in the Nintendo Switch version of NBA Playgrounds.
There are a number of issues with NBA Playgrounds which dragged the quality of the game down.
For starters, the decision to make the scoreboard part of the background of each stage is a strange one. One large scoreboard centre court and two smaller scoreboard at either end of the court. Why not have the score near the top of the screen like other sports games?
The Lottery Pick system also seems to always be weighted in the CPU team’s favour. I have been ahead in many tournament matches only for the CPU team to be awarded more favourable power ups which then shifts the tide of the game against you.
The frequency in which the CPU team scores perfect baskets (scores that award an additional point) also seems to increase when you even have a slender lead.
Another gripe I have is that, there isn’t really any incentive to experiment with player line ups. Once your team consists of one player with a high steal and three point statistic and the other with high dunk and 2 pointer statistics, there is really no need to change your team.
A Nintendo Switch specific issue with the game, occurs when you play the game in tablet mode. The graphics become blurry, as if you were looking at the game through murky water.
My experience with NBA Playgrounds has been a mixed one. It has been nice to have an arcadesque sports game to play on the Switch. And getting that sports game at a €20 price point has been great too.
But couple the issues with rubberbanding in Tournaments mode and the reduced graphical fidelity in tablet mode and NBA Playgrounds goes one for two at the free throw line.