I’ve never been a sports video game player. I’ve certainly dabbled around with this and that and have fond memories of Ken Griffey Jr’s Home Run Derby, but I’m not a devout worshiper of the yearly updates to the popular franchises. Still, I totally get the appeal, and I appreciate the steps that big companies have made towards making their games more realistic and updated, trying to really get the full experience of the big game onto the small screen.
NBA Playgrounds isn’t attempting to do battle with the juggernaut of NBA 2K18, which will drop on the Switch some time later this year. Saber Interactive, to their credit, has been incredibly transparent with their roadmap for the game, the struggles they’ve experienced in development and the speed in which they’ve acknowledged problems that players have had and dissatisfaction that some people are expressing. Playgrounds is a simpler game, focused on taking a slightly cartoony approach to the game of street basketball, with simple two on two matches between real (if sometimes lesser known) basketball players. You’ve got five minutes of a single match to do all you can against either another person or the computer, and you would be surprised how fast or slow those matches can go.
The mechanics of the game are inherently simple if you’re aware of basketball, with a lot of nice finesse thrown in for those who master the basics early on. Crossover moves with the right stick are essential to fake out the AI, and, poor sportsmanship aside, a well played shove or elbow makes sure that you let the other team know who’s boss. The ref is nowhere in sight, so don’t worry about penalties or being out of bounds, but keep an eye on your stamina. Sprinting, crossovers and offensive moves are all tied to the same energy bar, so you have to decide how you play the game before going nuts, or you run out of energy quickly. If you’re playing single player, the AI on your team is relatively level-headed, and can perform their own offensive moves by calling to them. Again, they also are locked by stamina, so you can’t just keep mashing L and hope your CPU costar will murder the competition.
NBA Playgrounds offers a tutorial level in the first match that can be absolutely brutal if you pick the wrong AI to spar against. Having not watched a serious match of basketball since Larry Bird retired I just picked a couple of random players and ended up getting dominated while trying to figure out the buttons. I still gained some experience (points) from the game, but came away with a different experience (feeling) that the game was trying to humiliate me into not playing. A second go proved that, while not necessary, knowing who you’re playing against is a significant advantage (thanks Google!). After that, I got a lot more comfortable with the game. There’s a strong focus on button timing when it comes to shooting; a quick release means faster play, but also lower accuracy. Holding the button too long can also result in bricking and giving up a rebound instantly. If you manage to really get down the perfect timing, you end up with bonus points for a “perfect shot,” which means dunks could be 3 points and long shots could be 4, a huge game changer.
As you play, you also charge up a secondary meter for all your successful moves and can eventually unleash a temporary power ups, which spins a roulette of potential advantages. I got a “guaranteed shot” that allowed me to make a basket from half-court, which was ridiculous, and also a “sweet spot” that made getting shots from a glowing area worth double. There are definitely several others that I just wasn’t lucky enough to get, but it gives that hilarious over-the-top vibe of NBA Jam, which is what I feel a lot of people are saying.
New players can be unlocked through a series of random chance booster packs that are awarded as you level up. The packs are totally randomized, and getting duplicate cards power up the existing players you already have. Hopefully there isn’t a level cap, because Saber Interactive, for better or worse, confirmed there will be no micro transactions. So if you’re desperately hoping for Kevin Durant (thanks Google!) you might need to play a LOT until he drops. I personally appreciate this approach, as micro transactions tend to hamstring a game and give advantage to people who don’t mind throwing money at something until they get what they want.
Speaking of NBA Jam, I would like to point out that the commentary is optional and can be turned off. If you’re having a good game, the chatter can be fun and only slightly overbearing. But when you’re losing you start swearing at the TV and I’m glad I don’t throw controllers anymore. The voices are great and add to the atmosphere, but you might want to save the trash talking for someone who’s in the room with you.
The current lack of online play for NBA Playgrounds is a huge disadvantage, but the devs have said it’ll be coming in a near future update, along with new players added that people are missing. That is something that may not sit well with early adopters: the lack of a fully flushed out game. NBA Playgrounds can’t go online, is currently the largest game on my Switch (nearly 8 GB) and the load times are LONG. In an effort to beat the big show (NBA 2K18), we have a game that is more than half-baked but still not as fully developed as some may want.
Fans of short play sports will absolutely love NBA Playgrounds. It’s great for a pickup match, has some good design and ideas and really is fun. If the developers can keep with their promises and roll things out in a timely fashion (and maybe optimize the game a bit more), this could be a sleeper hit that I certainly didn’t see coming. At the current time, $20 is more than fair for a good local play, and, when the online drops, it could be an absolute steal. As for non-sport gamers, I’m sorry to say that I don’t think this’ll change your tune, and that’s ok. There’s still plenty more on the Switch for everyone.