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Review: NBA Playgrounds (XB1)

by on May 10, 2017
Release Date

May 9th, 2017


Saber Interactive
Publisher: Mad Dog


Many years ago, we were treated to some fantastic arcade basketball games.  My arcade game of choice was NBA Jam, with fast paced gameplay, incredible dunks, and a fantastic roster.  While I personally didn’t play a ton of NBA Street, there is a massive following that adores that game.  Now, we have a new addition to the arcade basketball family – NBA Playgrounds.  It’s tempting to compare it to classic arcade basketball games of old.  However, NBA Playgrounds stands out on its own with challenging gameplay and fantastic basketball animations.

NBA Playgrounds has your classic 2 vs 2 gameplay.  To start the game, you open player packs and start the game with 15 players.  Each pack has a random set of players that you unlock and add to your roster.  With roughly 100 players to unlock, you will need to play quite a bit in order to unlock all the players (Side note: more players will be available post launch according to Saber Interactive).  Each team has anywhere between 3 to 8 players that are available.  Most of the players are current NBA stars with different strengths and weaknesses.  The rest of the team’s roster is filled with legendary players from NBA history.  Regular players appear more often in packs.  During my gameplay, I opened packs with players that I have already unlocked.  When this happens, the player will receive extra XP that can be used to unlock new animations and abilities.  Obviously, the legends are harder to find, but have great stats.  Throughout the game, you will unlock player packs when you level up or win tournaments.  I had a pretty good starting roster when I started my playthrough.  While there are many different ways to pick your 2 man team, I would suggest a small ball lineup.  I did pretty well with Kevin Durant and his shooting ability plus Buddy Hield’s quickness and stealing ability.  You can pick and choose the team of your dreams with stats that compliment each other.  Some may be frustrated that you have to unlock players, but I personally didn’t mind it at all because I was given a pretty decent starting roster.

I find the the actual gameplay is pretty challenging.  It has aspects that you can expect from an arcade basketball game.  You drive, dribble, dunk, and shoot your way past other teams of 2.  NBA Playgrounds features fantastic animations when you posterize and crossover your opponents.  If you think you will be able posterize your opponents all game, think again.  NBA Playground has some pretty decent defensive moves that help you throw off the other team.  Keep in mind that these defensive moves take up stamina, so don’t expect to wildly push or knock the ball out of people’s hands all game.

As you score points, you fill up a meter at the top of the screen.  When filled, you will be able to unlock powerups that can change the course of the game.  You start off with one powerup, but will earn more as you win tournaments.  As you unlock more powerups, they will randomly be picked when the meter is filled.

I personally feel that the powerups are fair because of the challenging AI in NBA Playgrounds.  Don’t expect to roll through AI teams and beat everyone.  I had plenty of shots blocked and was knocked down countless times.  I personally did not find this very frustrating, but I can see some gamers getting frustrated by it.  Sometimes it’s ok to lose a game.  When that happens, go back to your roster, make a few tweaks, and try again.  NBA Playgrounds wants you to not just pick your favorite players, but pick specific players that will give you the best chance at winning.  Your AI teammate is pretty solid.  AI is never perfect, but I didn’t really have any truly frustrating experiences with my teammate.  In fact, the AI bailed me out a few times when I spent too much time cherry picking and missed my defense assignment.

As I mentioned above, the basketball gameplay can be pretty challenging, especially when you are shooting and dunking.  I would love to see the timing mechanic updated a little.  The hardest part of the game is to time the shots correctly.  If you hold the button too long or too short, then you will miss the shot.  In my playthrough, I noticed the timing was different for each player, which makes sense because some players are better shooters than others.  You definitely will have trouble shooting 3’s with Shaq.  It was a little frustrating missing dunks.  I had several instances when my player was doing an incredible dunk animation, then completely missed the dunk.  I can understand timing with shooting jumpshots and 3’s, but that shouldn’t happen with dunks.

One of the best options is the online mode.  Now keep this in mind – right now, up to 2 players can play online with a player controlling one guy and the AI controlling the other.  There are plans to make the online mode up to 4 players, which I think is going to really help the online mode.  It’s challenging as is, but it could be really fun with 4 players.  Also keep in mind that the Nintendo Switch version of NBA Playgrounds will not feature online functionality at launch. Online play will be made available in a free game update expected in a few days.  I did not have an issue finding a match, and to be honest, there are a lot of really good online players right now, so expect a challenge when you play online.

NBA Playgrounds looks really clean.  Because this is an over the top arcade basketball game, Saber Interactive drew the players in a caricature style, which fits the game really nicely.  You can check out the design of some of the players in the slideshow below.  Each player’s look fits not only their signature style in real life but also fits the timeframe of the players.  You can expect short shorts and sideburns for classic players and trademark hairstyles and facial hair for players today.  The game features courts from all over the world and look really nice.  I already mentioned it earlier, but I really enjoyed the animations for each dunk and crossover.  Arcade basketball should be a little cartoonish, and the art design is really great.  Ian Eagle of NBA Jam fame makes his glorious return to NBA Playgrounds, along with E.J. “The Mayor” Johnson, the voice of Rucker Park.  Their commentary is fantastic.

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I really enjoyed NBA Playgrounds.  Expectations are high because of our love for NBA Jam and Street, but NBA Playgrounds holds it’s own in the world of arcade basketball.  It’s challenging and very fun.  Some gameplay could be tweaked and the addition of 4 players to it’s online mode would really make NBA Playgrounds shine.  As is, expect to have a blast playing as your favorite NBA players from yesterday and today.

NBA Playgrounds is available digitally for $19.99 for Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.


Note: GameOctane Editor Ryan Welch received a code from Saber Interactive for the purpose of reviewing this game. Any code or product intended for reviews is distributed to the team to review and stream for our audience.

Check us out at Opencritic!


Challenging gameplay
A ton of players
Great art design
Challenging online mode


Shooting mechanic is difficult to master
Some may not like having to unlock all players
Would love to see 4 player online mode

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Bottom Line

NBA Playgrounds holds it's own in the world of arcade basketball. It's challenging and very fun. Some gameplay could be tweaked and the addition of 4 players to it's online mode would really make NBA Playgrounds shine. As is, expect to have a blast playing as your favorite NBA players from yesterday and today.

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