Though the gameplay and style of NBA Playgrounds conjures the 2v2 insanity of NBA Jam, and its open-air courts mimic those of NBA Street, its best to view the game as it's own entity. Part of that is to avoid disappointment, as Playgrounds simply can't match the quality of its counterparts. That being said, NBA Playgrounds is a fun little experience that builds on the arcade basketball genre in a number of interesting ways.
One of those interesting additions is the game's timing-based shooting. Releasing the ball even a smidge too early or too late will most likely result in an air-ball or a brick, while scoring a "perfect" shot grants three points, even when inside the three-point line. This mechanic adds a much-appreciated level of skill into the mix, but I found the timing windows to be not only narrow, but confusing. While I quickly discovered the precise timing for a standard shot, "perfect" shots continue to elude me, and seem based on the selected player and distance from the hoop. Likewise, dunk and layup timing feels like a moving target that I could never master, resulting in some pathetic-looking open court layups.
Things get a little zanier when power-ups are thrown into the mix. Each player has a power-up meter, which is filled by performing alley-oops, blocks, steals, three-pointers and more, and when it reaches capacity, a randomized power-up is awarded. These power-ups include things like an Electric Ball, which cannot be missed or blocked if it is shot within the near side of the court, a power-up that turns three-point shots into six-pointers, and run-of-the-mill speed boosts. Some of these power-ups can be obtuse and poorly explained, and I found there to be some balancing issues. For example, I lost multiple games, despite a double digit lead, due to the opposing team receiving overly-powerful abilities with less than 10 seconds on the clock. It's frustrating to play a near-perfect game, only to have the victory pulled out from under you with seconds on the clock.
Tournament Mode is the closest thing to a "season" mode in NBA Playgrounds, and sees players competing in various courts around the country. Each new location (there are six in total) tasks the player with winning four matches in a row. Doing so will unlock the corresponding court, reward the player with a "gold pack" of cards (more on that later), and a few levels of experience, which unlocks new power-ups for use later on. It's a fun distraction, but took only 3-and-a-half hours to complete, and offered very little reason to return. As a compliment to a fully featured single player mode, Tournament Mode would work well, but it feels inadequate as the game's only solo offering.
That leaves multiplayer as the meat of the experience, and unfortunately, it's highly limited across all four versions of the game at the moment. Switch owners have it the worst, because online multiplayer simply doesn't exist on Nintendo's console (Saber Interactive has promised a patch "a few days after launch" to correct this). In other versions of the game, online multiplayer is limited to 1v1 matches (with an AI teammate on each team), and players cannot invite their online buddies into private matches. Again, the developer has promised an imminent patch to correct these limitations. We will update this review once the full scope of online multiplayer is available.
As previously mentioned, players can earn card packs by winning tournaments, exhibition rounds, and online matches. Each card pack contains an assortment of player cards, and once collected, each of these players can be used in-game. Each team features 3-7 players to unlock, and the collection includes "legendary" players like Magic Johnson and Allen Iverson, as well as current league players. Each player card can be leveled through repeated use of the player, and acquiring levels unlocks an assortment of animations for that player. Definitely a welcome layer of depth.
I quickly found that the prospect of earning new card packs, and in turn, new players, to be my primary reason to keep playing. It was thrilling to watch as the cards slowly flipped over, revealing some of my all-time favorite NBA players. Even better, there are no micro-transactions anywhere to be found, so playing the game is the only way to earn new packs, bucking the trend of nearly every trading-card-based game in existence. Kudos to Saber Interactive for ignoring the quick buck for a fair, more rewarding experience.
Perhaps the worst part of NBA Playgrounds is the color commentary, which is equal parts cringe-worthy, dull, and just plain lame. It's clear the game is trying to be "edgy," but it comes across as sad and pathetic. Players will be treated to such gems as, "he should go back to playing Atari" and "is his button sticky?" As if hearing the commentary once wasn't bad enough, it repeats multiple times throughout each game. Trust me, it doesn't get better by the third, fourth, or fifth time. Compounding the issue is that the announcers have all the excitement and enthusiasm of coma patients. There's no inflection in their voices, and it feels as though they know how bad the lines are and are simply phoning it in to get out of the booth as quickly as possible.
On the Nintendo Switch, the game runs in sub-720p resolution in handheld mode, and what appears to be sub-1080p in docked mode. On the Switch's screen, the game looks very blurry, to the point where it's difficult to make out the game timer in some courts. Even more concerning are the frequent frame rate dips that accompany the low resolution. I found the dips occurred when special effects, like lightning, filled the screen, or when multiple players jumped at once near the basket. While not enough to impact gameplay or ruin the experience, it's disconcerting to see such a poorly optimized game.
Then, there are the loading times. Even a single player exhibition match can take anywhere from 30-60 seconds to load, and simply selecting "replay match" leads to more of the same. To put that into perspective, it's nearly one-third of the total game clock. When combined with the sub-par performance, I found myself asking, "is it even worth starting a match?" In my time with the PC version of the game, loading times were improved but still far too long, especially when running on a blazing-fast SSD.
NBA Playgrounds has a lot of potential, but it's held back by poor performance, a weak single player offering, a lacking (or non-existent) online multiplayer mode, and atrocious commentary. Those complaints aside, I did have fun with the game, and found myself hooked on earning card packs and unlocking players. If Saber Interactive can fix some of the performance and multiplayer issues, NBA Playgrounds could serve as an NBA Jam/NBA Street replacement. But right now, the game far from glass-shattering dunk.