Is NBA Playgrounds a slam dunk, or just a bit of a childish merry-go-round?
Basketball is not a particularly popular sport in the UK. Even within the relatively limited category of ball and hoop based activities, netball is more likely to be played at school. That does not mean I never played basketball, but for some reason, this was incredibly rare.
The “sport” involving a basketball (or possibly a netball) that I played equally as much, and have fonder memories of, was something called “benchball”. This still involved getting a ball to the other end of the court to score a point; the difference was that a member of your team was stood on a bench waiting to catch the ball, providing the opposition team didn’t intercept. [Are we really doing stories from British school PE lessons? Oh, we are? OK then! – Ed]
Succeeding in getting the ball to someone on the bench meant the player joined them, making the task of the ball being caught easier, but subsequently meant fewer people on the court. The aim was to get the entire team on the bench, the first team to do win.
But what does this have to do with NBA Playground? Quite a bit actually. As mentioned I have little experience with basketball, and even less with the existence of NBA. In fact, most of my understanding comes from two notable films: Space Jam, the live action Looney Tunes basketball film featuring Michael Jordan; and BASEketball, from the creators of South Park about a new sport that combines the basketball, baseball, H.O.R.S.E., and extremely offensive distractions that are entirely legal moves.
With all of these examples, the connecting thread is a total disregard for the rules, to the point of virtually being a contact sport, something basketball isn’t supposed to be. BASEketball saw people carried away on stretchers and Space Jam included all the wackiness one expects from Looney Tunes Also what I didn’t mention was that benchball took some inspiration from “classic” British playground game “bulldog”, turning it into the most contact-heavy “sport” playable at school. I still wonder to this day how we got away with it? [It was the PE teacher equivalent of sticking a video on and turning a blind, uncaring eye for an hour – Ed]
NBA Playgrounds is very much like the aforementioned depictions/variations of basketball. There is a basketball, and there are two hoops at each end of the court, but there are no fouls for aggressive physical play. Then there are the power-ups that really help to separate this version of NBA from traditional video game versions of the sport; notably, the electric ball that almost guarantees that the ball will go through the hoop.
Traditional aspects of the sport such as two and three pointers are still present (terms for how many points a shot gets based on where on the court it was thrown from), as well as what is known as the “shot clock”. The shot clock is a timer that counts down from twelve that dictates the amount of time your team can hold onto the ball, go pass this and the ball automatically goes to the opposing team.
I am aware of a previous basketball game, NBA Jam, which is a very arcadey take on the sport, however, Playgrounds is not a spiritual successor to that game. The limit to two players per team might give the impression of simplicity, but there are plenty of stats to consider rather than just picking your favourite (if you have one) NBA baller in caricatured form.
Ballers are unlocked through card packs that are given out as you increase your overall level and as you go through the tournament mode. XP is also given to ballers used in a match, increasing their individual level, this is something to keep in mind as higher level players become increasingly necessary as you move through the tournament.
The tournament mode provides the main progression route for the game, offering a globetrotting experience, albeit one that only alters the court background and accompanying music. Each location is split into four matches that increase in difficulty. Earlier tournaments provide enough leniency for chosen ballers to level up sufficiently to take on the final match, but as the game moves on this is no longer possible. This is where the exhibition mode, unfortunately, comes in, as it essentially acts as a mode where you can grind to level up players. Which is necessary, in part, to deal with aggressive difficulty curve.
When first playing NBA Playgrounds the exhibition mode acts as a basic tutorial mode, showing the what the different buttons do and explaining the core basketball rules that are present. Unfortunately, and this is the most egregious I’ve experienced with a game, is that the core mechanic – shooting the basketball – is woefully under explained. The A button might be used to shoot, but the nuances behind this are never properly explained in the game, with shooting often feeling more like luck than skill, even after reading up online about this core mechanic.
NBA Playgrounds is an intriguing game, however, as it is the first sports video game to appear on the Nintendo Switch. Plus, it evokes the scene of millennials playing NBA on the Switch, despite physically being right next to a basketball court. Despite visually being a step down from other versions of different platforms, due to the caricature nature of the players and the associated bright and curvy environments, the Switch version looks very good, especially when played in handheld mode, even when displayed on a TV it is still acceptable.
What’s more, the frame rate is consistently stable regardless of play mode. What isn’t acceptable, though, are the load times, as restarting a match takes 45 seconds every time. Given how important the start of a match can be, it often makes sense to just start again, but knowing there will be a long load time is off-putting.
The control methods are appropriately diverse given the nature of the Switch. Want to play it in handheld mode with the JoyCon attached? No problem. Tabletop mode with two individual JoyCon? Works just like the NBA game in the Switch reveal video. And yes, it does support the Pro controller as well. If I was to pick a favourite I might consider the JoyCon with the Grip controller, there were times where this was slightly more convenient, and in terms of comfort, was no different to using the Pro due to the combination of buttons used.
If you were planning on playing NBA Playgrounds online, then you will still have to wait for an undefined amount of time. It is coming to the Switch version (and other platforms) – it’s right there on the main menu – but as of writing the developer is currently saying it will be in “a matter of days/weeks”
NBA Playgrounds is a conflicted game, it tries to cater to two different audiences at once, but in doing so weakens the overall experience and therefore appeals to neither. It did succeed in making me want to play an NBA game; just not this one.