Game: NBA Playgrounds
Release Date: May 9th 2017
Developer/Publisher: Saber Interactive
NBA Playgrounds, for anyone old enough to know, is the 2017 version of NBA Jam. In fact, it probably could have been called NBA Jam Street, but I'm guessing Saber Interactive would have gotten hit with a couple of copyright phone calls on tha one.
There are a couple hundred characters to choose from, and NBA Playgrounds keeps the best part of NBA Jam while adding its own signature style. One of the most immediately obvious change, gameplay wise at least, is the renders of all the players. Big head mode is full go in NBA Playgrounds, but that's not all. Each of the characters in the game are portrayed to how they are in real life. Shaquille O'Neal is gigantic and can monster dunk with two hands, while Allen Iverson pulls off crossover moves reminiscent of the early 2000's. Not every character is as accurate as it should be, even if they are caricature versions of themselves. For example, Chris Bosh looks really off, but if you are in anyway familiar with the NBA I think you'll give Saber Interactive a pass as Bosh really isn't the easiest person create digitally.
The animations in the game were really fun to be honest. More times than I remember I found myself messing around with the ball solely to see if I could get the player to pull of some crazy looking move. It's not just the characters either, as the ball and crowd movement also saw their game enhanced. If you remember the old NBA Jam, the players hand would move only so slightly and give the indication that they really weren't dribbling the ball. That totally changed with NBA Playgrounds as the characters surprisingly move as fluidly as those in an NBA 2K title. This really added a lot to the depth of the game for me as it kept you involved in the game more.
Each arena and court you unlock also has its own crowd. Some are standing, others are talking while even others are just sitting in the stands and watching. They all have their own reactions and do so accordingly based on what is going on in the game. It was impressive that a game based on cartoon caricatures of NBA players was so in depth with the minute details, and I really appreciated the extra effort that Saber Interactive went to in creating an immersive experience.
Before every game you'll pick two players to compete with. These don't have to be from the same team and can be mixed and matched between active and retired players. Every single player, all several hundred of them, have their own individual abilities and attributes. Lebron James and Shaq can dunk, Kyrie Irving can hit crazy three pointers while others specialize in blocks. A new addition, and extremely awesome one, is in game power ups. Aptly called Lottery Picks (after the NBA draft), these boosts are earned by leveling your in game power meter. They range from unblockable shots, shots worth more points than normal (such as 5), shots that won't miss etc. They do come with a price though. As you'd expect, playing defense is not necessarily the flair part of NBA Playgrounds. That's left up to Shaq doing the worm on the court after a dunk, as you can see in the trailer below. You do still need a bit of defense, however. You can steal or shove in the game, but shove depletes your power up meter a bit each time you use it. Your best bet is to just try and steal the ball as there are no fouls in the game and the move is more than strong enough. Of course, if you are ahead enough it is also a little fun to have someone like Iverson shove Hakeem Olajuwon down to the floor.
Your soundtrack is exactly what you'd expect. It's an NBA game, so the obvious hip-hop vibe is present and it flows really well with the animations. Whether your player gives a little shimmy to the beat after dropping a 3 or a chest pump after a hard dunk, the sound track seemed to be on point with the game at all times. Speaking of audio, although Tim Kitzrow doesn't re-up on his NBA Jam announcing prowess, there are two announcers in NBA Playgrounds. One does a bit of sarcastic color commentary while the other adds the anecdotal, exciting one liners that you're used to. Actual NBA fans will recognize the sound of Brooklyn Nets announcer Ian Eagle as the main announcer. It's not BOOM-SHAKA-LAKA or THE NAIL IN THE COFFIN!, but NBA Playgrounds adds its own piece that fits in perfectly with the flow of the game.
One of my favorite parts was actually opening up packs in the game. With all 30 NBA teams represented, each team having up to a posible eight players to choose from. You start off with "free packs" to get your initial players, then earn more as you go. There are absolutely zero microtransactions in NBA Playgrounds, which could have broken the game if included. All you have to do to unlock new players is simply level up. This is done fairly quickly with nearly a level gained every match. There are a bunch of characters already, and Saber has promised hundreds more post launch via DLC. A fun, little animation also comes with every pack opening which added to the anticipation of what characters to hope for.
There are several game modes to choose from as well, including online. Luckily we didn't have any connection issues online even though we played beginning release day. There solo, two player and four player offline mode with online mode currently limited to solo and two player. The four player online mode will be coming soon post launch according to Saber. Regardles of how many players you choose, you have the option to pick from Tournament, Exhibition and Online play. Not only can you level up your current characters to unlock new moves, dunks, animations etc, but you also get bonuses for beating various tournaments. Beating each one gets you a new court, special gold pack with high chance of legendary players and a new power up. Rules changes lets you play to a certain point level, most points in a certain time, change the difficulty level, color of the ball etc.
My favorite part about NBA Playgrounds were the little things that the game doesn't tell you. For example, a legendary player's special move has to be figured out. There isn't just one button sequence that unlocks a different move for each player. You'll need to do something different to unlock Olajuwon's move than you will for Magic Johnson. This was really fun and added a fun yet juvenile sense of anticipation to the game. Not too much negative stood out about NBA Playgrounds. Gameplay wise it's much better than NBA Jam, but on the other hand it isn't as in depth as NBA Street. One of the fun moves in Playgrounds I also found to be slightly counter productive. After each basket, especially a huge dunk with your opponent (or you) wiped out on the court floor, the players go through a special animation. It's usually something corny but fun like getting up shaking their head or dusting off their uniform. While it's fun to watch, it slows down the gameplay a bit because the other team can't inbound the ball until they get up. This wasn't in NBA Jam, which is probably the reason I noticed its absence. While fun to watch the animation, I would have liked to see Saber let us inbound the ball or continue playing. After all, one of the bonuses of wiping out your opponent is to be at an advantage on the other side of the court. On the other hand, beggars can't be choosers, yeah yeah I know.
Even with the Tournament mode taking about 3-4 hours to complete, I was still very pleased with the overall depth of the game. The content alone was admirable, and the price point of $19.99 made it even more appealing. Single players will have more than enough offline fun discovering all of the moves for each player, but the real fun is onlline. With so many NBA players to choose from, you never know who you're going to go up against next or what their special move is going to be. Post launch content has been promised to be massive, and I can only look forward to what Saber Interactive is going to add into it next. Overall, NBA Playgrounds is a great arcade style game that maintains what made games like it wildly popular while also adding its own flair to the mix.