Not so much a “boom-shaka-laka!”, more a “what was he thinking?”
NBA Playgrounds: Enhanced Edition
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch
Also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC
Price $29.95 (Enhanced Edition free for existing owners)
I bought NBA Playgrounds a few months back on the Nintendo Switch, and I’m still not entirely sure what to think of it. It kind of wants to be the new generation’s NBA Jam, but also wants to have more serious gameplay mechanics, so it doesn’t quite have the accessibility or frantic feel of its inspiration.
Playgrounds actually launched in May on the Switch, but it wasn’t immediately ready for prime time- in particular, it had no online play, while the Steam, PS4 and Xbox One versions launched with online play ready immediately. It got to the point where the developers announced that Switch purchasers who had bought the game early would be compensated with a free copy of Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn once that game is released. (Given that Shaq Fu has been delayed for months now and the Facebook page hasn’t been updated since May 2017, I’m not holding my breath.)
The ‘original’ Playgrounds has now disappeared from the Switch eShop, replaced by ‘Enhanced Edition’. The new version allows you to play on your existing save, but supports the extra addons that were available for the other versions and is also 2Gb smaller. If you bought the original Playgrounds the Enhanced Edition shows on the eShop as a free download, so full credit to the developers for doing the right thing and continuing to support their Switch customers with updates. (Not everyone does, sadly.)
Playgrounds is NBA Jam, basically. Two-on-two basketball, five-minute games, 14-second shot clock, players have 20-foot vertical leaps and there’s no referee to stop you clearing out or just shoving opponents to the ground. Rather than just one court, there’s a selection of stages- Tokyo, London, Las Vegas, etc- and the game has a sort of single-player campaign involving four-round tournaments. Win a tournament and you unlock the next stage, as well as a pack of basketball cards.
Basketball cards are vitally important- you can only add a player to your team if you have their card. The game gives you 5 packs (25 cards) to start off with, and in addition to tournaments you can level up just by playing the game to get more card packs. There are also legendary cards- Allen Iverson is the ‘cover’ athlete and there are cards for players like Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, and so on. Seeing Robert Parrish in a Bulls jersey might be a bit jarring for some, though.
The levelling to get new card packs, however, is a grind, and if you aren’t consistently winning you’ll won’t be seeing very many new players. Worse still, you can get duplicate cards. The game turns duplicate cards into experience points, but you only get the equivalent of one game’s experience for each duplicate card. And if you get, say, Al Horford while your opponents are rocking Bill Russell and Scottie Pippen, well, it’s going to be a long day. I did get three new card packs for downloading the Enhanced Edition, but got the two commentators and a bunch of YouTubers rather than actual players.
The Enhanced Edition adds an option to immediately unlock the entire roster rather than grinding for random card packs- that will run you another $13-$15 of real money, depending on what system you own. This purchase guarantees you unlock every ‘free’ player that is in the base game, but players in any paid add-on packs- such as the Hot And Frosty pack, which adds three new stages and eight 2017/18 NBA rookies (including Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz), are presumably not included; that group alone will set you back another $14.95. These had already been available for months on other platforms, but at least the Switch version is feature-complete now.
The agreement you click through when you start the game also says they reserve the right to start charging for card packs at some point. However, given that the concept of random packs of digital stuff bought with real money (“loot boxes”) is becoming rather unpopular, they might just stick with the one-off $15 charge to unlock everyone.
On the court, the game tries to play like NBA Jam, but the mechanics are a little off. There’s a shot meter that shows you the optimal timing for your shot- like in NBA 2K, you normally release at the top of your jump- but this is different for every player and also differs depending on where they are on the court. You can’t just hold the button down for dunks, either- you still have to release the button, even if you aren’t yet releasing the ball. And there seems to be a fine line between the ‘green’- made shot- and ‘yellow’, so expect to see a lot of layups rim out. So you have this game trying to be an arcade-style dunk fest, but you need to be concentrating constantly on the meter to make even the simplest of shots.
Each team has a “Lottery Pick” meter, which you fill by doing spectacular stuff like dunks and blocks- filling it gives you a random perk, but playing against the computer the perk doesn’t seem very random. I found myself getting the one where you are guaranteed to make your next shot- once- while the computer would get infinite turbo for 40 seconds, or double points in the paint for 40 seconds, and then good luck scoring any points at all.
You also have a turbo meter like in NBA Jam, and holding down turbo allows you to shove players on defence or swing your elbows if you have the ball. These moves instantly drain your Lottery Pick meter, though, so if you airswing you’re at a significant disadvantage against the AI. The computer also seems to build its meter a lot faster, and there seem to be significant difficulty spikes in tournaments where you will hit a wall. The AI players will barely even let you over halfway, and will shoot in the high nineties. At the other end, unless you get the shot meter bang in the middle (and sometimes, even if you do), you’ll watch Blake Griffin brick consecutive dunks and Steph Curry botch layups, and go on to lose by 30 in a five-minute game and hurl your controller across the room. (You, that is, not Griffin or Curry.)
In addition, the game is so stingy with the turbo meter, you literally don’t have enough turbo to get from one end of the court to the other. As a result, trying to play the game like NBA Jam on defence will see your team get actively punished for it- defence might not be the point of an NBA Jam-alike, but you still need to be able to get steals occasionally.
After waiting more than 20 minutes for any unranked game to become available, I gave up on trying to test the online play. Steam statistics show that there are at most 40 people worldwide still playing the PC version, and while the Nintendo eShop currently shows Enhanced Edition as the seventh-most downloaded game on sale, it may just be due to people getting patches; there doesn’t appear to be any active player base. That may vary on the PS4 and Xbox One; I don’t have these versions to hand.
In the end it’s nice to see the developers continuing to support the Switch version, but it’s a hard game to recommend. The mechanics are just too complicated for an arcade-style experience, playing against the computer is brutally unfair, grinding for players takes forever if you don’t want to be using the Phoenix Suns’ bench forever against Hall of Famers, and if you’re after something for couch co-op there are better ways to spend your $30. If you’re a ‘give it a score out of ten’ person, then I give it a 5.