NBA Playgrounds Enhanced Edition Review

Posted in Kulturecade by - January 17, 2018
NBA Playgrounds Enhanced Edition Review

I haven’t had much reason to think about NBA Playgrounds since writing my review of it last Spring, other than the free copy of the new Shaq-Fu game that I’m now entitled to if it ever comes out. And yet, just as even that small glimmer of hope that Saber Interactive hadn’t completely bailed was ready to die, a new “Enhanced Edition” of their awkward NBA Street/Jam mashup title has been released, giving players a reason to give the title another shot at becoming their new go-to quick session title. This assessment will also include a look at the game’s online functionality, which at least on the Nintendo Switch wasn’t available for me to try last year (and was the reason for the promise of free Shaqqy goodness).

The first thing I have to talk about with this update since it was the first thing I was greeted with after downloading the new (and smaller) version of the game, is the free packs I was given with this long overdue update. And oh lord, how I did not care. At all. Not to sound entitled about it, but I definitely felt like some freebie player packs were in order, especially with the addition of around 100 new players to the game’s roster, which would definitely call for some kind of head start. I opened my first pack with anticipation, hoping that I might luck out and finally nab Shaq, or perhaps a stellar new player such as Dr. J or Steve Nash. What I got instead were YouTubers. Almost three whole packs of YouTubers (referred to as “The Playgrounders”) that I hated even looking at, let alone going through the whole flashy rigamarole of revealing each card for the most underwhelming booster packs of all time that even the inclusion of Ian Eagle and EJ Johnson (the game’s real-world commentators, who have grown on me at least a little bit since my first experience with the game) couldn’t even dream of redeeming this eye-roll-inducing first impression.

The idea of an updated roster, however, is certainly a nice and welcome idea, as Playgrounds’ best experience has consistently been that of building a collection of players and honing their skills as you earn new packs. However, it’s because of this reinforced roster of players that NBA Playgrounds starts to make some new mistakes, and where the reasonable balance of earning and redeeming experience starts to seem like a bit less reasonable. I was okay with the pace at which XP towards new packs was earned, especially with the sense of pride that comes with leveling players. But with so many more great players and the sense that a “complete set” has just become that much tougher to achieve, I’d really like to see things move a lot quicker on that front. That’s not likely to happen at this point, of course, since the thing I’d initially given NBA Playgrounds credit for, regardless of how steadily you earned XP, was that booster packs a la Madden Ultimate Team hadn’t given way to microtransactions to outright buy those random packs for a buck or two each. This is no longer true with the enhanced edition as it also brings with it the option to outright unlock the entire roster of players for $9.99, which beyond being a naughty microtransaction, would essentially eliminate the most satisfying aspect of the entire game.

Gameplay-wise, a couple of mechanics have been tweaked in the game to address certain issues, namely regarding stealing, rebounds, and shooting. Starting with shooting, which seemed to be the biggest “you get it or you don’t” feature of the game, an extremely helpful shot meter has been added to help players determine where exactly to release their shot, which is highly necessary if only for the fact that each player controls differently and therefore has their own sense of timing. It also doesn’t break the game, as anything short of absolute perfect timing will not necessarily guarantee a basket — for example, Steph Curry or Ray Allen can hit right on the money on a three-pointer (both of whom have perfect ratings for threes), and still only have a 90% chance of draining it, while that percentage will drop for players less adept from long-range. This doesn’t, however, fix some of the timing issues that plague the game’s over-exaggerated animations, as the game will sometimes choose to control a certain way based on players’ momentum, even if it’s not the player’s intention — I’m very rarely looking to launch a fade away jumper from beyond the arc, but the game often forces me to shoot in that situation when I’m looking to fake a shot first.

Stealing and rebounds have also felt a little bit like two steps forward, one step back. The steal button is more heavily tied to your turbo reserves now, meaning that you can’t simply spam the steal button with a great defender like Jason Kidd until the ball pops out, but this turn of the wrench can feel a little heavy-handed on defense when you hit the button once and stand there and wait for your turbo to refill, especially since intercepted passes are few and far between, leaving getting in position to make a stunning block the most functional and effective method of D. Rebounds also seems a bit too tough to gauge now, if only because they happen as often while simply standing in the paint as they do from taking charge to go up and grab them.

And of course, the great question attached to all of these new tweaks is how well it all works when the game goes online — a huge selling point of the game, the lack of which, of course, directly resulted in Saber Interactive apologetically promising a free game to make up for. It functions. Which is something you can’t always say for modern games, especially those created by smaller companies, and especially smaller companies with such a huge vision as NBA Playgrounds carries. Options like which court you’d like to play on or which ball you’d like to use are understandably left randomized, while regular games are limited to standard five-minute contests. Matchmaking isn’t the game’s strong point, though, as I seemed to average about a minute of waiting each time I played a match, the end of which always boots you back to the main menu to set yourself up again. Online also offers a three-point contest mode, which is fun for about two matches — it’s literally a one-button timing mini-game, as you might expect, it’s just odd that it’s treated as a full mode without any compliments.

Looking over everything I’ve noticed about the new “enhanced edition” of NBA Playgrounds, it’s funny to think that the game feels almost precisely as playable as it was just under a year ago when it was first released. Its biggest selling points in this major update are extremely welcome, but implemented in ways that make them feel jammed in without the proper space being made around them. It’s still a game defined by the phrase “yes, but…” as everything essentially comes back to the what I said about it originally, in that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be because its two great influences are so similar yet so different. Top it all off with the fact that despite a free update of this scale, the game has still started to ask for more money and you have a game that I want to like and play consistently, but remember what made me stop playing it the last time. As a standalone game, it would earn the exact same rating as last time, at 3/5, but as an update meant to improve the game, NBA Playgrounds Enhanced Edition is full of tangible changes that ultimately fail to improve the game as a whole. Grab the update while it’s still free if you own the game and give it a try (if only to eliminate some space on your system memory), but this game still shouldn’t be able to convince the holdouts in its current state.

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He is a video game staff writer and dreamed of being a video game as a young boy. Then somebody told him that you can't really do that, so he compromised by doing a bunch of stuff related to that, playing video games, reading about video games, writing about video games, working at a video game store, and all those good nerdy things. Aside from video games, he's also a dork of all trades, with an interest in heavy metal music, wrestling, sports, and Magic the Gathering.
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