NBA Playgrounds Review

Posted May 15, 2017 by Josh Brant in Video Games

Developer: Saber Interactive

Publisher: Mad Dog Games

Release Date: May 9, 2017

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC

When first looking upon NBA Playgrounds, the most recent NBA game developed by Saber Interactive, the comparisons to NBA Jam are a given. Midway’s NBA Jam and NBA Street from Electronic Arts are two cult hits from a bygone era of arcade-like sports experiences. With how fun those previous series’ were to play, it’s a shame this genre as a whole has faded into obscurity. Luckily for us, NBA Playgrounds is hoping to conjure up the nostalgia trip we have for this beloved genre with varying degrees of success and failings.


First things first, NBA Playgrounds will feel quite familiar to us who grew up wanting to pull off insane dunks rather than resembling the real life nature of the sport. The cartoon/big-headed visuals, much like NBA Jam, borrow heavily from limited rules and do away with the incredibly realistic simulation of the NBA 2K series. While fans of that game style would prefer the complex gameplay and realism provided, some would argue it’s too much and takes away the fun to be had. With a simple control interface and fast-paced/out-of-control take on the sport, it’s never been easier to be immediately enticed to pick up and play.

Much like NBA Jam you pick two players, which come from a pool of unlockable real-life NBA characters from the past and present, to take to the court. The selection of players from various time periods is well done and can modified to the way which works best for your play style. Would you rather have 3-point shooting masters? Pick John Stockton and C.J. McCollum. Or, just slam the hammer down? James Harden and Clyde Drexler are your men. Whatever combination you want, NBA Playgrounds will give you plenty of options, once the characters are unlocked of course.

Unfortunately, the way Playgrounds handles unlocking players to use leaves much to be desired. By earning experience playing matches whether single or multiplayer you unlock the NBA stars by purchasing card packs, which is neat at first with a childhood sensation of really feeling like you are opening an actual card pack. The excitement wanes however when you start to unlock more players and get duplicate cards, which only give you a modest experience boost. This format works in Overwatch because of the sheer amount of content which can be unlocked and the rewards for getting the same unlockable. The same cannot be said of how NBA Playgrounds handles this, especially when you receive four repeat characters in one single pack of five cards.

Taking It To The House

Gameplay, however, is fairly polished overall with swift animations and some satisfying strategy-lite elements. Playgrounds does take a honeymoon period to get accustomed to but once you settle in on the shooting mechanics, you will be hitting 3’s with ease and only going for two points when you want to humiliate your opponent with an over-the-top dunk. When playing defense, managing your stamina is key as it drains rather quickly when going for a steal or deciding to just push the your opponent to the ground. Causing turnovers is key and once you find the rhythm, it can be satisfying to pull off.

The shooting mechanics are hit-and-miss for the most part, with it possible to achieve extra points for perfectly time a shot. You hold down the shooting button and try to let go when you are at the pinnacle of your jump. The system is rather deep but with no onscreen indicator to show if you’re late or too early releasing your shot, it can become frustrating. What’s nice is when you earn an extra point from a well executed dunk, or a perfectly timed 3 ball. It can make the difference in a game and provided a nice balance to the back-and-forth matches. Also, for some reason dunks are easier to pull off than layups and often times I would miss the layup because the timing is harder than shooting a 3 pointer. Go figure.

Bonuses can be earned by filling up a power bar, which goes up when successful causing a turnover, making a shot, and dunking on an opponent. The power-ups are most of the time random, ranging from twice the points from performing dunks for a certain time or being able to automatically drain a shot, and can change the tide of a match quickly. This sounds great at first, but really all it does is cause balancing issues and a degree of luck in who wins the game. While this type of randomness is welcome to balance a game like Mario Kart, the same cannot be said for NBA Playgrounds and the items can’t be turned off.

Throwing Up A Brick

There are a few ways to play NBA Playgrounds at launch. In Exhibition mode, you can play local or online multiplayer cooperatively or against one another. Online tournaments are being added at a later date post launch, but I can see adding a fair bit of content to a rather slim offering. Playing in online mode was both excellent and disappointing as some matches ran without a hitch, but others were completely unplayable with players hitching all over the court. Also, there is not penalty for quitting a match early so you will experience some shady players ditching out if losing badly. An online ranking system is promised to be implemented, but as of now you’re stuck being randomized with novice and pro players.

Overall, NBA Playgrounds gets the basic fundamentals of a fun arcade-y experience right, but the poor implementation of online features, lack of modes, and puzzling reward system fail to impress. The post-game support seems to be there, with the developer promising to release constant updates to further enhance the gameplay and flesh out the lackluster design decisions. What we have now is a title which is not quite up to the NBA Jam caliber, but is a fun experience on its own and worth investing in if you long for the glory days of over-the-top sports action.

About the Author

Josh Brant

I love God, my family, friends, sports, and the greatest hobby of all: video games! You can reach me on twitter @minusthebrant.