NBA Playgrounds is a bold attempt at bringing back the long forgotten genre of fast paced, 2 on 2 basketball. Trying its absolute best to step into arcade style sports genre and compete with juggernauts like NBA Jam, it took a backcourt hail mary by trying to maintain arcade style gameplay while also introducing a complexity completely unfamiliar.
Unfortunately, NBA playgrounds missed the net by a mile.
Honestly, I really wanted to love this game. When it was shown off originally, I thought it looked brave and exciting — a sincere return to form. A resurrection of a genre that has been nearly forgotten by the mass public. It was also on a VERY short list of launch window Nintendo Switch games. Switch needed this game to be good to prove the machine’s worth and intrigue others to develop for the console. I bring that up because the Switch version is the one I played. While it is the same core game as the versions you’d find on PS4, Xbox One, or Steam, Saber’s Switch iteration failed to deliver key features. After months of existence, are only NOW beginning to see the light of day.
I’ve put off reviewing Playgrounds for some time, hoping desperately that the gameplay would improve based on the promises of Saber. While it did get better, it’s still not even close to something I would consider good, complete, or playable. Before I rip this game to shreds, let me describe just what it is.
NBA Playgrounds is a cartoony, over the top, basketball game. If you have ever played NBA Jam or NBA Street, you will see the obvious comparisons. You select a team of two (I assume) famous players in the current NBA roster. Pitting them against another team for some quick paced movement on the court. Crazy three point shots, ultra violent slam dunks are meant to be the objective as you ignore the official rules of the sport and opt for an ultra ‘street rules’ style of ball.
Characters are acquired via loot box style drops, given in the form of sports trading cards packs. It’s a neat attempt at mimicking the uber-saturated microtransaction market, while not actually charging anything. I don’t really know much about sports, so I can only assume these are accurate caricatures of the players which they represent. They are disproportionate, unrealistic nightmare creatures that would be put in some sort of freak show if their existence were real. That’s what these type of games are all about though, so points for that!
Playgrounds sports a number of modes you’d expect to find in any sports games. Exhibition modes and tournaments are the norm for a game of this type. They all work under the expectation of progress style unlocks. The more time you put in, the more you will get back. You’re rewarded not only with new players, but with new courts representing various parts of the globe.
Okay, I said some good stuff… Now it’s go time.
Approaching Playgrounds in critical conversation is very difficult. Mostly because the game has been out for months now, and despite multiple attempts to hit the mark, it doesn’t even feel like a complete game. That would be fine if it were advertised as an early access title, promising more to come. But it’s not. It’s being sold as a complete title, ready to go out of the gate. Saber eventually recognized this lack of completion — yet even after constant promises to add more to the game, or even to optimize it in a way that is progressive, it still feels empty and at a stage that should still be some sort of early demo. I can only speak to the quality of the Switch version here, but here is a seriously heinous example — Getting into a game requires a load time somewhere in the ballpark of 2 minutes. At launch, its file size was larger than Mario Kart 8! All the while, completely omitting the online mode that was expected by everyone which Saber (as far as I know) did not acknowledge until after launch. While it was eventually patched in, you have to take into account people purchased this game with the intent of being able to play with their friends, only to find it was impossible unless it was a local multiplayer scenario.
That. Is. Ridiculous.
I don’t mean to sound dramatic here, but NBA Playgrounds fails to deliver on a scale only rivaled by the likes of games such as No Man’s Sky.
Where’d it go wrong? Well, you need to recognize what Saber was trying to go for, which was an arcade game meshed with the depth you’d find in a more hardcore Sim. An arcade party game should expect imprecision. It should allow you to feel like you’re succeeding without really having the expertise needed to be a professional. That’s not to say that arcade games can’t be competitive.They absolutely should! But in order to be a great game, you should make the inexperienced player feel like they’re doing a great job. Elevating your audience’s enjoyment by giving them a simple task. NBA Playground instead expects you to be precise from the outset. It does this by giving you nearly zero room for error. As you might expect, it fails on all fronts — instead, producing a game which would make modern era Sonic blush.
I’d like to move it move it…
On a mechanical level, you would expect a sports game to give you responsive controls. After all, you’re in the shoes of a professional ball player. The skill of that character needs to be reflected in their movement.
Player movement feels imprecise and clumsy. Moving your guys up and down the court works well enough, but the response from your input somehow gets lost in translation from your thumbs to the tv, leading to players that just kind of… lack depth. Player actions like swiping for the ball or pushing fail frequently. You will try to make contact with another character on the court and just sort of miss. Not because you weren’t lined up with the character, but because you weren’t exactly positioned where the game expects. In single player, this leads to frustration by being dominated like sad cuckold. In multiplayer it’s a little more forgiving, but only because it’s funny to watch multiple people mash around the court like they’re doing the electric slide instead of playing basketball.
On top of that, the game has some very strange movement pacing issues. Not with the character movement themselves, but with the boundaries the game seems to think are necessary. For the love of god, this game is meant to be fast paced and exciting… STOP MAKING ME WAIT UNTIL BOTH OPPONENTS ARE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COURT BEFORE PUTTING THE BALL BACK IN PLAY.
In a game of basketball, the most important part is getting the ball into the net. You would think this would be the most integral part of the game.
Almost as if walking hand in hand with the player movement mechanic on a sort of mechanically autistic tinder date, shooting the ball feels imprecise on an unforgivable level. Given this game has no room for error, your timing has to be inexcusably perfect in order to land a shot out of anything other than dumb luck. At launch, this was exacerbated by a lack of any sort of indicator. You would just mash the shoot button, then let go and hope you were within the window which the game deemed acceptable for the character you were currently controlling. They have since patched the game to show a shooting indicator showing your timing. While it is an improvement, the shooting still feels frustrating and confusing.
Remember how I talked about the game’s unlock system being based on the amount of play you’ve given? Think about how discouraging it must be to play a game so completely and utterly broken. Now think about how frustrating it must be to not really unlock anything because you can’t stand how broken the game feels.
That’s been my experience with NBA Playgrounds. There are dozens of players I can unlock to create the perfect team. There are a number of custom courts which look stylish and colorful. Unfortunately I don’t get to experience ANY of them because the game is unbearable. Honestly, I would have expected better from the studio that brought us that absolutely sensational HD remake of Halo 1.
What we expected was a great time slammin hoops. What we got was a car crash on camera for 5 minutes at a time. Between the clumsy movement, the imprecise shooting, and thrown together loot box mechanics, this thing is less than a bomb. It’s a burrito poop.
I really do wish I had positive things to say about this game. And despite the negativity I’ve poured out here, I do still hold hope that the game will improve based on what I know of Saber as a developer and the continuing promises they are making for the future of the title. Is this game for you? Maybe if you are a much more patient and understanding person than myself. Otherwise, look elsewhere — preferably far, far away.