Thursday 22 November 2018

To Become Dad reviews: NBA Playgrounds 2 for XBox from 2K Games

Way back in the day, I used to love NBA Jam on the SNES. Its super-fun, arcade pick up and play approach to basketball – a game not often seen in the UK back in the early 90s before the internet and cable TV – meant it was a firm favourite when friends came over and didn’t require in-depth knowledge of the rules of basketball to play – in fact, everything I know about the rules of basketball now started with NBA Jam. I put a hell of a lot of time into NBA Jam, less so for the sequel, and then didn’t play any basketball videogames for years and years.

Then, a few years ago, I bought myself NBA 2k13 in a Steam sale which, unbeknownst to me at the time, is far more of a basketball sim; I remember doing the tutorial which was so long that by the time I’d gotten to the end, I’d forgotten what it told me at the start. With no arcade alternative on the market, I gave up hope of ever playing something as fun as NBA Jam was.
Then, last year, 2K games released NBA Playgrounds. Immediately I was intrigued; cartoony basketball stars, more immediate, arcade gameplay and basic controls meant it sounded like it was right up my street. However, the game didn’t do so well critically, so I never took a chance on it.
Cut to today: I’ve been given the opportunity to review NBA Playgrounds 2 for Xbox One (or Xbox One X in my case) and I’m happy to say it totally scratches that NBA Jam itch.

All the teams I remember from NBA Jam are there and even some of the legendary stars such as Michael Jordon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal are present, sporting a super-deformed caricature look (if I was some of these players I might be offended at how my in-game model turned out but, for the most part, they’re kinda cool looking). Sadly at this time there is no enhancements for the One X, but the frame-rate is solid and the graphics colourful, though I can appreciate they’d not be to everyone’s taste.
The playgrounds themselves range from traditional court arenas to more crazy venues, such as beachfront piers and actual playgrounds, but they’ve all got personality and charm so feel more fun to play in; I’m particularly fond of the pier, with the guy strutting around with his surfboard, another fishing and one playing saxophone – little details that really help make the game feel more alive and a far cry from the cardboard cut-out crowds I remember from NBA Jam. The music, too, is cool, with some really catchy tunes, although they are drowned out when playing and actual game. The commentary over games is fine – what you’d expect, I suppose – but helps to make the game feel more “real”, which I realise is a daft thing to say considering real isn’t exactly what the game is going for.

Controls are easy to pick up but I can tell there is some nuance to them, such as combos, to make it worthwhile trying to master them. An interesting choice is that of the shot metre: when you take a shot at the basket, your player gets a little metre over their head with a needle that flicks back and forth. Stop it in the green and your shot is almost guaranteed to succeed; stop it in the red and you’ll likely miss and give your opponent possession of the ball. The metre is based on percentages, so theoretically even if you stop it on 1% in the red, you could still make that three-pointer and no doubt it’d be all the more memorable for it, particularly if playing against your friends.
Different players have different stats, which can be improved by using them more and bringing them up through bronze, silver and gold ranks, and these stats contribute to things like ability to dunk and score three-pointers, with the green area of the metre being larger or smaller depending on how good your player character is. I say this is interesting because it feels like it takes some of the skill away from the player when trying to score: if your stats are high enough, you’ll pretty much always get it in the basket. It also interrupts the flow of the game a bit, which feels odd until you get into the rhythm of it.

I had intended for my first go of NBA Playgrounds 2 to be a quick bash to see what it was like and suddenly I found myself 12 games into a 15 game season and my wife telling me to put the controller down as we were meant to be going out (surely the sign of a great game) – it has a real “just one more go” quality to it, with games being short enough that you can play a couple if limited on time, but not so short that you feel like you’re fighting against the clock constantly. Speaking of the clock, I’ve had a couple of close-calls as the timer ticked down that led to some desperate last-second lobs the likes of which would be at home as the ending of a feel-good sports movie, where the underdogs win against the odds with a throw from halfway down the court.
Games can also be made more interesting through the various powerups that pop up. I’m still not 100% sure how to activate them, or even what some of them do (except that damn stinky skull one that makes your player shots suck for 30 seconds…), but they can have some interesting effects on the match. Others include double points for dunks and super sprint.
I ended up finishing my first season as Boston Celtics 13 – 1, a 92% win percentage and on my way to the playoffs. I picked Boston Celtics purely because I have family in Boston and that seemed like as good a reason as any, considering I don’t know who any of the current NBA stars are.
Now, all this isn’t to say the game is perfect and I’m sure those more in the know about basketball as a sport and those who are into the NBA 2KX games will find many faults with Playgrounds but, for me? The game is great fun, but there are some issues.
Like many games these days, NBA Playgrounds 2 is riddled with microtransactions. You’re awarded one form of currency for participating in games, but another is harder to come by and the game encourages you to pay real money to get the gold coin currency necessary to unlock the best stuff to unlock more players.

The unlock system is based on card packs, with better packs costing more currency and offering the chance of bronze, silver or gold players or even new “swag” – clothing and such. You can probably earn enough of the basketball currency eventually purely through playing, but after 12 winning games in a season, I’d only been awarded 6000 and needed 10,000 from what I could tell to unlock even the most basic of players, with the legends costing over double that. Given there are some ten players per team (t, and 32 teams in total, that’s a lot of grinding if you want to unlock everything. You can target things, so if you want to unlock Lebron James first you can, but it’s still going to take a while. Winning the season also gives you access to a legend, which is a nice incentive to keep playing.
The menu system is a bit confusing. Playgrounds Championship, the biggest “button” on the menu screen, seems like where you’d go to play a tournament online or solo, but it’s actually purely online. NBA Seasons is where you need to go to play a solo season, but the button is much smaller, so it didn’t immediately jump out to me as the single player option. The game store, where you can buy more packs, is given pride of place on the menu, second only to an exhibition game – clearly the devs want you to spend your hard-earned on buying the currency.
My last issue is a “learn to play” one more than anything; I find blocking shots quite difficult and have yet to master it – it seems a bit fiddly, but perhaps it’s just because I don’t have the timing down yet.

Final thoughts
Overall I’ve really enjoyed playing NBA Playgrounds 2. It brings back fond memories of playing NBA Jam as a kid and provides just the right balance of pick up and play and deeper gameplay should you want it without becoming as overwhelming as I found the NBA 2KX games. It has slick presentation, funky music and an addictive gameplay loop that manifests as “just one more go…”. Definitely worth your time if you enjoyed NBA Jam, basketball games in general and want something a bit easier to play than the more sim-heavy 2KX series.

* This game was received for purposes of review, all opinions our own.

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