The basketball game for the Steph Curry era.
Update (July 12, 2017): NBA Playgrounds launched without an online mode. At launch, the patch to add online was expected within a few days. That didn’t happen until two months later. In addition to adding online, which is serviceable and, at least in its first days, well populated, the patch also tweaked the overall balance. A shot meter makes the timing for shooting marginally better, but the gameplay is still dominated by an abuse of unbalanced power-ups and 3-point shooting. The overall experience is improved, but the fixes are just a bandage to cover up fundamental problems with the gameplay. Stealing is overpowered so they just limited how often you can steal. The shot timing was weird so they just gave you a meter that showcased the timing clearly while still having weird timing resulting in recurring missed shots. The load times, which were abhorrent before, are now acceptable and okay. I still agree with the majority of my original criticism below, but NBA Playgrounds went from an extremely flawed and bad game initially to a flawed and sort of okay game after the update.
Original text from May 9, 2017
The magic of a good arcade sports game is a blend of pick-up-and-play delight and a grand depth lying just beneath that. Unfortunately, NBA Playgrounds grossly misses the mark on the former and the latter is fraught with overpowered boosts and a feeling of imbalance. Parts of this first NBA game on Switch work, but in order to reach those elements, you need to wade through a lot of problems.
First off, the load times on the Switch version are some of the worst I’ve seen on the system so far. Loads exist between nearly every menu, and to reach a match, you need to load into the player select, and then load into the game itself. This is a process that lasts over a minute nearly every single time.
The playground basketball on display here seems to strive to be both an arcade spectacle and a more technical sports game. The more technical aspects has made my time with local multiplayer a impenetrable and unfun affair. This isn’t normal basketball, as you have the option to get all sorts of bonus points while you play. Whoever scores the first points gets an extra point. Time your shot perfectly and get an extra point. Activate a power-up and have the ability to multiply your points. The only positive I can gleam from that is that it adds an element of amusing chaos, but too often it just feels like a Mario Kart blue shell you can occasionally throw even when you’re in first place.
With how crazy the scoring is, the emphasis on precise timing for shooting seems like antithetical. In a clumsy tutorial, the game explains that you need to time your shot to make it in. It offers few details as to when exactly you time this shot, just that you need to time it right. Time it perfectly? Get an extra point. If your timing is off? You’ll grossly miss. It was extraordinarily hard to get a feel for the timing, and that lead to much frustration, both in multiplayer and single-player, as gimme shots would careen wildly.
That weirdness in timing makes certain aspects more overpowered, as three-pointers are much easier to make and stealing can be maddeningly abused. The timing for dunks is so tricky that I found it better to just roll with two players with great three-point shooting and stealing ability. Especially as I faced off against harder computer-controlled teams, this seemed to be the ideal way to play and it made for a rigid, repetitive experience without much nuance.
Even with that nonsense, the saving grace for NBA Playgrounds is the flow of single-player. As you level up, you earn packs of cards that can be opened to reveal different players from both modern and past eras. Those players can be used to go through a set of matches in different playgrounds around the world where you have to defeat other teams in short matches, all the while trying to complete challenges such as shoot a certain amount of three-pointers or block a number of shots. I don’t keep up much with the current NBA rosters, so it was a welcome sight to be able to play as Dikembe Mutombo, Spud Webb, and Karl Malone. The roster in general is a big bright spot, as it has a great mix of current stars and past ones. The developer also promises more classic and modern players after launch, but even if no more were added, it’s a solid lineup.
While I had fun with the single-player, NBA Playgrounds is mostly a mess otherwise. The basic gameplay requires specific timing that is never well articulated. Load times on the Switch version are nearly indefensibly long. For those hoping for some kind of modern-day NBA Jam-like experience from Playgrounds, look elsewhere. This is just a convoluted footnote in the modern arcade sports landscape.