I want to start by saying I am not the biggest fan of basketball. As a default Cavs fan in a world that no longer sees LeBron leading the team, I am even less so. But I am, as I have stated before, a fan of non-traditional sports game, and as an arcade styled game, NBA 2k Playgrounds is just that. As a fan of the first, I was admittedly excited when a sequel was announced for early summer of this year. After a short silence, it was announced that Saber Interactive partnered with 2K to handle the publishing and the game would be delayed. With 2K, the basketball handling powerhouse, behind Saber’s back, I had hoped that the delay of release would ensure that the short comings of the original would be ironed out and a better game would be had in the final product. While the game looks great and can be insanely fun, all is not perfect as it is still a flawed and often seemingly unfair product.
The concept is a simple one, seeing two teams of two go head to head in a looser, less rule restricted form of basketball. Much like NBA Jam before it, the game characterizes all of its real life roster into more cartoon and exaggerated versions of themselves. This adds to the arcade feel, making the players pop and come to life a bit more. Sadly, the globetrotting tournament mode from the original is gone, and in its place is a new season mode which allows you to take part in a 15 game season that, if your record fits the bill, allows you to progress through the finals. This mode is an awesome addition, allowing you to partake with teams only if you have two or more of the players for said team. Winning the championship will net you a specific legendary player from said team too, which add some incentive. There are four difficulties to try out too, and so far, I have completed both the rookie and regular difficulties entirely in co-op, resulting in championship seasons for both attempts. Better players, and ones that you grow via the challenge and xp system, will definitely make your season a bit easier.
In addition to the season, you can also do exhibitions, as well as ranked online matches. Exhibitions allow you to change rules, as well as venues, which include 10+ courts featuring scenery from around the world. These are an easy way to test and grow different players, as well as see what levels the game has to offer. I wish the original “career” like mode from the first game stuck around in addition to the season mode, because the season mode does not show off the different locales like the tournament styled career mode of the original. These levels are well designed, but underutilized unless you play online or change the settings for each and every exhibition game you decide to play. The blow taken by this missing mode is softened slightly by the addition of a three point shoot-out mode, which is a fun, quick way to earn a bit of XP and pass the time.
Gameplay wise, Playgrounds 2 can be a lot of fun. But it can also be the bane of your existence. The mechanics are simple but effective. Shoot, block, pass, dunk, all the basics are present and can be done with finesse to a degree, while much of your efficiency can be dependent of your player as well. The game controls decent enough, though stopping on a dime and blocking in the right direction do take a bit of learning. There are also cool “lottery picks” (basically temporary power-ups) that can be earned throughout a match, with some new ones coming to the court like “curse” and one that seems to give the players super human abilities, both of which have effects on the players stats. Others might freeze up the hoop, or allow the player shooting to drain a shot from any distance, guaranteed. These add to the competitive nature of the game more so than anything, putting a pressure on you to prevent the other team from using a lottery pick to their advantage, but also pushing you to gain enough points to activate your next exploit. My issue with the gameplay is the AI themselves, who can often have a ridiculous amount of luck and reaction time, even on the easier modes. I cannot tell you how many times I have been in situations where the opposing team managed to grab five or more (sometimes we get in the 10 range) of their own rebounds off missed shots in the same trip to their end of the paint. It is absolutely nuts. Or if I reject one of their tries at a three point shot, they are able to grab it before my team is when I cannot do the same in many cases. Its nuts, and makes some sessions pretty tiresome, especially if it costs you the game.
Another complaint of mine is that this game is incredibly grindy. Pair that with the option of microtransactions, and you get a cocktail that smells of exploitation. It sucks, because the arcade style feel with card packs being the way to unlock characters should feel more rewarding more often, considering there are over 400 players. At the time of writing I have 48 players unlocked. With not even an eighth unlocked, it feels like the option to buy out all players instantly is a cheap shot at scoring an extra buck, because it takes a bit of time to get these card packs that grant four new players, some of which may be repeats. To make matters worse, buying any one individual player that you specifically want cost twice as much as two of the best style of card packs, and that is for your lesser players. All stars are going to typically run you 25,000 Baller Bucks, which the best card pack runs at 5,000. To avoid any more numbers and confusion, card packs can only be bought with in game currency, thankfully. But swag items to decorate players with (cannot be used in the seasons sadly, making them mostly useless for me) can be bought with micro transactions as well as the full roster for an additional $20.
Everything is looking good aesthetically, and the game runs mostly well outside of some cheap AI from time to time. I was unable to play online the multiple times I tried so I gave up, so I am not really able to attest to that. Admittedly, online features are not something I would have cared for anyways. As far as the core gameplay goes, the game is a lot of fun with others locally, especially the seasons which can get competitive and tense when trying to make it to the very end. But, the shoddy AI, lack of more modes, and cheap inclusion of micro transactions really hold back this title from being something that I will want to regularly play. Had it been more inclusive of its monetary systems, this game could have felt really rewarding, and who wouldn’t want that out of a sports game? I am here for a good time, not a long time, so I don’t really feel like playing for what seems like it would be 100+ hours to acquire all the players. So, while it can be lots of fun, there are some parts to it that just do not make the cut in my eyes.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
FinAl Score: 6/10
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