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NBA Playgrounds
Score: 70%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Mad Dog Games, LLC
Developer: Sabre Interactive
Media: Download/1
Players: 1 - 4 (Online)
Genre: Sports/ Sports (Basketball)

Graphics & Sound:
If I asked you to make NBA Jam, thereís a better than good chance NBA Playgrounds would be the end result. But, as much as it looks, sounds, and acts like a duck, it is missing the intrinsic qualities that make it a duck.

For the most part, NBA Playgrounds is a polished game. Player animations are really fun and fluid. I was particularly impressed with the inclusion of smaller, player-specific details, such as Shaqís signature dunk style. Itís a nice touch and shows, despite the studioís lack of sports game experience, they pay attention. I also enjoyed some of the visual effects, especially a subtle motion-blur that adds an extra bit of kick to movement. Admittedly, the large noggins style doesnít translate well in 3D as it did with NBA Jam, but thatís a minor (and mostly personal) issue.

The rest of the package is solid. Nothing about it stands out (as least when compared to the nicer visual touches), but everything works for the style of game being presented.


Gameplay:
NBA Playgrounds is a 2-on-2 arcade-style basketball game. If youíre old enough to remember NBA Jam, you have a general idea of what to expect. The basic controls and gameplay are easy to pick up and understand immediately. You control one of two players on the court and try to score on the other team. Itís easy and strips away a lot of the aspects that make simulation games daunting for some players. Games are also short and lend themselves to quick play sessions with friends.

The game kicks off with a short tutorial and the introduction of the card system, the primary way you unlock new players. Rather than start with a full roster of NBA teams, you instead earn packs of trading cards featuring both current and legendary NBA players. Once you obtain a playerís card, you can use them on the court. Fans who want to use their favorite players or teams from the start will, understandably, be disappointed with the system. Thereís no way to guarantee getting a certain player and it could be a while before you finally unlock the players you want -- provided you stick with the game long enough.

One of the bigger issues with NBA Playgrounds is the lack of content. The main menu advertises a couple of modes, but all just repackage the same 2-on-2 gameplay. If you like what the game delivers, this likely wonít be a major issue, but I found it a bit tiresome since the core gameplay isnít good enough to really sustain through multiple games in a row. While a Story Mode would probably be out-of-place, thereís missed opportunity to introduce some crazy game mutations to keep things interesting.


Difficulty:
Unless youíre lucky enough to always have a human opponent (either in person or online), youíll eventually have to match up against the A.I. While Iíll stop short of accusing the A.I. of outright cheating, it is highly suspect and, at the very least, incredibly lucky.

First off, NBA Playgrounds relies on a timing mechanic for most shot types. The problem is, as nice as the animation is, it is incredibly hard to tell exactly when youíre supposed to actually press the proper button. To make matters worse, it seems like there are slight timing variations between players. What works for Tim Duncan might not be the same for Anthony Davis. Youíll still score, but youíll most likely miss out on the other benefits gained by nailing the timing.

While you need to struggle with the sluggish controls and odd timings to sink shots, the A.I. seems to hit everything. Blocking shots isnít hard, but if the A.I. has any sort of opening, you can count on it making the shot and any associated benefits.


Game Mechanics:
Just what are these "Added Benefits?" Scoring -- or other "positive actions" -- charges a meter tied to power-ups. Once filled, youíre given a random power-up, providing you with a quick boost. Power-up effects vary greatly, with some being absolute game breakers. For instance, one multiplies any points earned off dunks for a set amount of time. Since dunking is one of the easier things to do, it is possible to quickly rocket past your opponent by double-digits, effectively putting the game out of reach. By comparison, some are flat-out useless.

The power-ups are clearly an attempt to give NBA Playgrounds its own unique spin, but it doesnít work, at least not in the core game. Instead, power-ups are better suited for a side-mode. At the very least, they shouldnít be as powerful considering how much of a positive feedback loop they create. Once someone is ahead, they are most likely to stay ahead. This is the exact opposite of a game like Mario Kart, which doles out less-effective power-ups the closer you are to the front.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Stamina bar. In some ways, I like that it serves as a bit of a regulator on player actions. You have to think about your actions beforehand, rather than flailing around in a flurry of elbows and attempted blocks. On the downside, stamina drains quickly. Even if youíre careful about your actions, it is entirely possible to reach the hoop with minimal stamina, limiting what you can do. The only counter to this is to use a player with a high stamina stat, but since access of players is random, thereís no way to guarantee access.

In all, NBA Playgrounds does a great job of trying to emulate NBA Jam. On the surface, everything is where it needs to be for a successful game. Itís the smaller details that get in the way and rob NBA Playgrounds of the "spark" that made NBA Jam.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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