There used to be a time when arcade basketball was bigger than simulation basketball. A time when “fun” trumped “realism” in most cases especially when we had to make do with the best that arcade and 16-bit consoles had to offer.
Games like NBA Jam and NBA Street were fun because they were mindless time-killers masquerading as basketball games. They’re never going to replace basketball sims as “true” basketball games, but they’re fine and content with what they are. But as fate would have it, both NBA Street and the venerable NBA Jam had seemingly been consigned to history.
Enter NBA 2K Playgrounds 2, now under the NBA 2K umbrella, aiming to be the premier arcade basketball game of the current generation. Setting aside the fact that it is actually the ONLY arcade basketball game in the generation, it surprisingly has a lot of substance to go along with the flash.
The game includes two new major modes that caters to both solo and multiplayer (on/offline). Other reviews state that the core of the game is similar to the first one, although I cannot confirm that as I have not played that game. I have, however, played the NBA 2K games for every year since NBA 2K11 was released on the PS3, and surprisingly, despite the differences in their game engines not to mention their actual concepts, both series has interesting similarities.
Playgrounds 2 is not as deep as NBA Street, and is obviously not as lean on the game-play as the basketball sims. But it does have depth in its own way. While the game is geared towards co-op play, for single players, Playgrounds 2 features a season mode which consists of 14 regular season games and a best-of-three playoff format for the top eight teams from each conference. The shortened season plays up to the game’s core arcade experience and represents a nice change of pace from the grind of basketball-sim franchise modes. It also gives you the freedom to play the season cooperatively with a friend via couch co-op or online.
The game also has a card collecting progression system. Nope, this is not the like the infamous Star Cards of EA Star Wars Battlefront 2, but a fluid “unlock” system that functions as a reward for playing the game. For example, winning a championship with a specific team can unlock a legend, like Magic Johnson for the Lakers, and Mark Price for the Cavs. Legends often have unique animations that make each player unique as well as the stats to back it up. Playing multiple seasons is also a good way to level up cards that increase player stats. Although the game isn’t particularly difficult for casual gamers, and the stats aren’t really that noticeable at first, they become a factor as more and more players and legends are unlocked.
My only gripe is that you have to open card packs to acquire new players. This means that many teams will be inaccessible at first simply due to the fact you won’t have any of their players. You do earn in-game currency fast enough to be able unlock more players quickly, but it would have been nice to have a core group that are ready to play from the get-go. You can spend real money to unlock the whole collection at once, but you don’t really need to if you log in significant hours in the game.
The game’s true potential though, lies in its online mode. Dubbed Playgrounds Championship, it has multiple modes, leaderboards and advanced stats. I’m not really much for online gaming, but for this review, I did a few matches and while there weren’t a lot of people, I had a fun time. This game has the potential of being a really good game for tournaments since the matches are quick, there is a measure of skill involved with making shots, and it’s not a totally cerebral game.
The shooting (including lay-ups and dunks) are based on a shooting meter with the concept of stopping the timer in the green. This is where the stats of both the players and the gamer converge as a player with a lower shooting stat has a smaller green area in the shot meter. Landing outside of the green is an automatic miss. This means that while it is so easy to grab a controller and score some buckets, winning on a consistent basis, means you have to have skills.
The lay-up and dunk animations are still over-the top but incredibly funny to watch see again and again. Especially when the player does a back-flip from the board after a monster dunk, it adds flair and style on a game that’s brimming with it.
Defense feels OK. Nothing spectacular but at least it is doable in an arcade game. Actions like shoving aren’t the usual OP moves to steal the ball: all it does is to pry away the rock from your hands without necessarily taking you down as well. The bad side is that if your team-mate is nowhere near you, it isn’t a guarranteed steal.
There is also a “Lottery Picks” meter that – when filled – gives you a special ability for a short period. There are multipliers for dunks, three, point shots, unlimited sprint, and super strength. There are also power-ups that hurt the opposing team like lowering their shooting percentage, or a sheet of ice that covers the basket so they can’t score. These power-ups can change the momentum of a contest dramatically and can sometimes feel arbitrary, but they’re not as frustrating as I thought it would be.
Arcade sports games have long been needing a renaissance, and NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is the perfect opportunity to jump-start it. From the “easy to understand” controls to the sheer fun that only arcade-ball can give. It evokes echoes of past games NBA Jam and NBA Street while having enough identity to be its own game. I would have preferred having most of the rosters unlocked at the start, but I guess the game would need gamers a reason to keep playing and playing full seasons. My only hope is that 2K can keep its servers stable for the online component in the game that gamers should try at least once. It’s a solid game, offering a short but fun experience.