NBA fans have been spoiled in recent years, being treated to arguably the most accurate virtual sporting experience with the NBA 2K series. However, the rise of realistic sims has seen arcade basketball games become a thing of a bygone era. The 90s were jampacked with these types of games, while the early 2000s saw its fair share of titles like NBA Street and NBA Ballers. In fact, the PlayStation 3 iteration of NBA Jam was the last time we saw arcadey basketball action – until now.
NBA Playgrounds is a spiritual successor to the NBA Jam franchise, borrowing the cartoony style, over-the-top action, and two-on-two gameplay. However, there's enough here to set itself apart and freshen up the genre. The biggest change is the increased focus on timing the release of your shots. Scoring buckets in arcade-style basketball games is generally based more around luck than mastering any kind of in-depth system, but in NBA Playgrounds timing your shot is crucial. Thankfully, this is still kept relatively simple as it mainly boils down to releasing the shoot button when your player is at their highest point, which means it's easy enough to pick up and play.
However, while this mechanic works well for three-point jump shots, which is what you'll be mainly using, when it comes to two-point jump shots and layups it's less than ideal. Timing one of these shots feels like complete luck and just reinforces that dunks and three-pointers are the way to play this game.
Luckily, the dunking is where much of the exciting gameplay comes from. Slam dunks and alley-oops, as well as blocks and steals, fill a meter, which when full gives you a 'Lottery Pick'. These represent a temporary power-up that can range from unlimited stamina for a short time, a multiplier whenever you score a basket, or a one-use shot that can't miss. These power-ups create many hectic moments, while also adding an extra layer of strategy in how you decide to utilise them.
Before you can properly jump into the game, though, you're taken through a pretty extensive tutorial. This comes in quite handy as there's actually a surprising amount of things you can do on both offence and defence. Aside from the usual shooting, dunking, and alley-ooping, you're also able to string together dribble moves with the right stick to dance around defenders and can swing elbows to create separation. Similarly, on defence, you can literally shove your opponents to the ground if the regular option to swipe the ball away just isn't cutting it.
Learning to play defence properly is crucial as this is such an offence-heavy game. Practising the timing of your blocks and knowing when to take a gamble on going for a steal is the difference between winning most of your games or losing most of your games. Just like real-life basketball, rebounding is crucial, too. Unfortunately, for something so crucial to the game, in NBA Playgrounds rebounding is a struggle. Timing your leap for a rebound is almost impossible no matter how much you practice, and it slowly became apparent that it's smarter to just let your AI teammate go for it.
The other major addition that sets this apart from the plethora of NBA arcade games before it is an idea borrowed from 2K's NBA series. In NBA Playgrounds you unlock packs of cards containing players, much like 2K's MyTeam mode. You receive a few packs upon starting the game and will quickly unlock more as you gain XP by playing games. Almost all of today's top NBA stars are present in the game (although there are a couple of glaring omissions), alongside many NBA legends from yesteryear like Shaquille O'Neil, Allen Iverson, and Wilt Chamberlain. Developer Saber Interactive has also promised free content updates with new players to keep packs from eventually becoming pointless.
You'll unlock gold packs that have a higher chance of containing top players like LeBron James by playing through Tournament Mode. Here you have six tournaments set around the world, where you'll play against various two-man teams across four rounds. These get progressively harder, as you start out playing against the mediocre players of today and working up to legendary pairs. Additionally, each round of the tournament features a specific challenge, which tasks you with things like scoring 12 consecutive three-pointers or scoring a shot from beyond half-court. These provide a good challenge, but a few of these are a little poorly thought out and are unrealistic to achieve. The most egregious is the challenge asking you to get 15 steals in a game. Keep in mind that you're asked to do this in a game that lasts three minutes and steals are tough to pull off.
Once you've mastered the tournaments you can go online and test your skills against other players. Unfortunately, for the time being, there's no option to play against people on your friends list, so you're limited to couch multiplayer only. This isn't too bad, though, as NBA Playgrounds is the perfect kind of game to enjoy on the sofa with pals.
NBA Playgrounds is a good modern take on the old-school arcade basketball game genre. It brings enough new ideas to the court to keep things feeling fresh, but at heart, it still retains the charm and accessibility that made NBA Jam such a beloved franchise. There are a few kicks with the shooting mechanics and rebounding is less than ideal, but the gameplay is strong enough in other areas to ensure it's still an overall slam dunk.