Breaking Ankles, Breaking Hearts… NBA Playgrounds Review

Developer: Saber Interactive
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Release: 9 May 2017
Price: $29.95 (AUD)

If you’re anything like me, you’re partial to balling on occasion. Basketball titles have been a staple of video games for decades, from the humble beginnings of ambiguously naked yellow men launching orange blobs into purported hoops, to the photorealistic rendered models of today. I don’t know how you feel about beads of sweat cascading down Blake Griffin’s face, but if you’re into that sort of thing, you got it, baby.

With an added level of realism come certain expectations, primarily that every minuscule detail and technique is featured. The 2K series of NBA games are the industry leaders, and the instructions for the controls read much like a manifesto: convoluted, contradictory and painful. Figuring out how to dunk requires comprehensive knowledge of buttons you didn’t even know existed, timing so precise you could catch a bullet at point-blank range, and at least two extra hands.


For me personally, I likes my basketball games how I likes my life: simple and nasty. My favourite one is probably Looney Tunes B-Ball on the SNES, where your main concern wasn’t obtuse button configurations but dodging anvils. Arcade-style sports games may have fallen out of vogue these days in favour of hyper-realism, but I’m of the old school. Charles Barkley once told me to ‘Shut Up and Jam’. I thought it was unnecessarily aggressive on his part, but I certainly heeded his advice.

There hasn’t been an NBA Jam game since 2011 (our shakalakas have been decidedly unboomed since this time), so it was with open arms that I welcomed the arrival of Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds. Featuring a range of legends from the past, superstars of today and more wacky antics than you can shake Yao Ming at, it’s a breath of fresh air in a genre at risk of growing stale. But how does it play? Is it a Kobe Bryant? Or a Smush Parker?

The basics: two-on-two basketball, with games that only last a few minutes. Use power-ups to boost your chances of success. Unlock players by gaining XP and earning blind packs of cards. Probably end up with three unwanted copies of Elfrid Payton.

On the base level, Playgrounds delivers quite well; try to steal, block or generally annoy on defence. Offensively, you can crossover or throw elbows to separate villains from the ball handler. Strangely, the game strays a little bit too close to simulation by including a shot timing mechanic. Hold the button to ready your shot, release at the height of your jump to send that sucker through the net (or off the rim in my case). It feels a little bit out of place in a game like this, but it does add an extra layer of strategy.

By dunking, alley-ooping and razzle dazzling, you fill your meter and are rewarded with power-ups. One of them gifts you an unmissable shot, another gives you permanent turbo for a few seconds. Yet another doubles the amount of points you score on 3-pointers. Sound unbalanced? It probably is. It’s fun anyway.

You can probably tell from the images, but it’s worth emphasising: the character models are just fantastic. Represented as full-on caricatures, they’re oozing personality, and have different animation nuances to make them each feel unique. Trying out different players feels fun and fresh, because they don’t operate like tired facsimiles of one another.

If you’re looking for the modern NBA Jam, the simple truth is that Playgrounds isn’t quite there yet. It has a few niggling issues that pop up every now and then, minor enough not to ruin the experience, but noticeable enough to hinder the game from reaching its full potential. Saber Interactive have already provided free updates to the game to help balance things (stealing was so overpowered on launch, you’d think it was made by a band of merry thieves), and have promised additional players down the track. Considering the roster is already huge, it’s definitely impressive.

And hey, we’re here for fun, aren’t we? And the game is fun. Affordable too, which most certainly can’t be understated in today’s economy. You wanna Shaq, you shouldn’t need to break the bank. I most certainly haven’t regretted buying it, though the fact that my first pack yielded Carmelo freakin’ Anthony suggests that the developers have a cruel sense of humour underneath it all.

Final verdict: 7 Kyle Lowries out of 10 (the plural of Lowry is obviously Lowries. Just accept it!). If you’re unconvinced, maybe this fantabulous gameplay video will sway your opinion? Please note, it’s loaded with swearing and may be damaging to your health. It’s a veritable Ron Artest! And everyone loves Ron Artest, right? (Spoiler alert: I hate Ron Artest)

Excited about E3?

The newest entry into the Assassin’s Creed franchise is soon to be revealed… You don’t want to miss the details!!

Nintendo promises to have a stacked lineup at E3. Check out what’s on the slate so far…

Around The Net