In 2017, NBA Playgrounds came out of nowhere and slam dunked its way onto the PlayStation 4, giving basketball fans a solid alternative to the ultra-realistic simulation the NBA 2K series offers. It was something we hadn’t seen since NBA Jam’s last entry in 2010, and while it wasn’t perfect it did provide a lot of fun. It seems that Saber Interactive got set to working on a sequel almost immediately, however a major delay of the release coupled with publishing being taken over by 2K Sports showed signs of trouble. Could NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 suffer from the dreaded sophomore slump?
The original gameplay loop of playing matches to earn in-game currency and buy card packs to unlock new players is still here and has been majorly beefed up this time around. The player roster has increased significantly, and practically any player you could ever want to see in cartoon form is here, from Michael Jordan to World B. Free. With the first game there was a serious lack of players, and we found that once we had played through the entire single player mode we had unlocked most of the best cards. Here that isn’t the case and players who enjoy the loop of unlocking new players will have a lot of fun. For those that are impatient or just can’t seem to find the players they want, there is an option to buy a special card pack that unlocks the game’s entire roster, and you can buy individual players too if you’re just after one specific guy.
The incredibly wordy NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 also looks to address another one of the major complaints of the original: there just wasn’t enough content to keep players invested. Single player is focused on playing through NBA Seasons now, instead of the tournament format from last year. Players will pick a team from either the Eastern or Western Conference and then play one game against each of the 14 other teams in their region. Once you complete the regular season you go through the playoffs in the hopes of winning the NBA Championship and being awarded an “epic” card from your chosen team. Giving players a reliable way to unlock cards with great stats is a handy addition, particularly for those that want to jump online and be competitive.
However, the NBA Season mode gets old quick. At a minimum, you’ll be playing 23 games per championship victory, and even though games are only 3 minutes long this adds up. Once you play a season or two the motivation to keep playing drops dramatically and the whole thing gets extremely repetitive. Last year’s game at least had optional challenges to complete during the tournament games, which was a neat way to spice up games and keep you coming back. Replacing this with chasing after an epic card each season seems like an upgrade, but in reality having to play at least 23 games in a row to get a card you might never use isn’t too thrilling. For those doing the maths, you need to play at least 690 games to unlock all 30 epic cards here.
A much more enticing reason to replay the NBA Season mode is that it can now be played in co-op with a friend online. This is a much more enjoyable way to play through each season after your initial playthrough, however you obviously need to have another Playgrounds player in your friendship circle to get the most out of it.
While there has been a definite focus on giving players more to do, Saber Interactive has neglected to improve fundamental aspects of the gameplay that were lacking. This time it's included a handy shot metre, making shooting less random and infinitely more fun. Unfortunately, that’s where the gameplay improvements stop. Defence is still completely lacking in nuance, and your best bet is again to just spam the steal button until you get the ball back. AI opponents will almost never miss a shot unless you block them, which feels a little unfair considering your players will regularly miss dunks that you’ve timed almost to perfection. Similarly, rebounding is once again frustratingly bad. Lining your player up under the ball is ridiculously hard and you need to be just about pixel perfect, so leaving all of your rebounding to the AI teammate is still your best bet.
The 'Lottery Pick' system returns which sees you gaining special abilities by filling a metre with various on-court actions. Which Lottery Pick you get is still completely random and this can drastically affect the outcome of a match. A number of these are completely overpowered, and if you get the less powered ones while your opponent gets the higher tier abilities you’re at a massive disadvantage. It’s still a solid idea in theory, but its implementation feels cheap when you lose games purely because of bad luck with this system.
For players who want more of a challenge, you can enter the Playgrounds Championship, an online mode that sees you moving up divisions as you win more and more games. Highly skilled players will get some fun out of this, but it’s questionable whether players will burn out on the gameplay of grinding to get good players before even reaching the online portion. In addition to having to acquire good cards, you then need to level them up from bronze to gold level, as their base stats are ridiculously poor. This takes a while and will probably mean you’re stuck using the same two levelled-up cards most of the time.
NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is a lacklustre effort after last year’s promising start. It attempts to address some of the issues but these end up being unforced turnovers that makes the game actively worse. When you couple this with only one of the major gameplay problems being addressed, you find yourself with a disappointing sequel. This is a series that definitely does not need to be on a yearly cycle, and most people who bought the original last year will find they have already had their fill.