NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 – Refining the Jam
It has been many, many years since the sweet chorus of “Boomshakalaka” reverberated through houses everywhere. The last time this occurred was in 2010 when NBA Jam came out of retirement for one last round. But since that release the commentator has gone quiet, the fouls have been called, balls have failed to catch alight and the dunks have all obeyed the laws of physics. There have been rumours over the years of the mighty Jam’s return but that has amounted to nothing more than whispers in the wind, the hopeful prayers of Jammers around the world. Last year though, something happened. A new competitor entered the mix. NBA Playgrounds hit consoles and while it wasn’t the title to knock NBA Jam off its perch, it was a solid game of ball with plenty of potential for future iterations. Now, after a few delays and a 2K pickup, NBA Playgrounds 2 is here, but does it fill that shattered backboard shaped hole in the hearts of NBA Jam fans everywhere?
In Playgrounds 2, not too much has changed. On the surface, things are pretty much the same. The graphical style, the card unlock system and even much of the gameplay is, at first glance, almost identical to the first game. The in-game action is a slightly deeper, version of NBA Jam’s classic 2 on 2 arcade formula, with flashy dunks, insane dribbling tricks and limited powerups the order of the day. Just like the first title, the game has some interesting additions to the formula. A shot meter for any attempt at goal, be it dunk, layup or jump shot, appears and releasing the shot button at the right position on this meter is the key to getting the points. Missing the ideal mark means the ball is less likely to go in, missing it by a long way means the shot will miss for sure. It is a simple system but it adds a nice touch of skill to proceedings that will separate the pros from the rookies and encourages players to improve as they go.
Power-ups consist of things like a shorter shot clock for your opposition, super stats for your players or an unmissable 3-pointer and can really change the momentum of the match. They are earned through general play, the more spectacular the dunk/block/steal the more of the power-up meter is filled. Getting a power-up at the right time can mean the difference between victory and defeat, so their random nature can be a little frustrating at times. For example, I was winning a match by 10 when suddenly my opposition scored the double point dunks power-up and before I knew it I was down by two. It is something that people may be split on, for me it only seemed unfair when I was playing the computer when playing real people it worked quite well, adding a level of insanity to proceedings much like the infamous Blue Shell from Mario Kart.
Where the game has improved over the last version is in the details. Last’s years model had the basics down pat but it was rough around the edges. The presentation was bare bones, the card collection system seemed unfair and some of the finer details of the game felt off (like the inability to shoot a buzzer beater). I am so happy to say that all of these problems have been addressed in this release. The presentation is much better with the commentary being the highlight. Gone are the repetitive catchphrases and in its place a much more entertaining duo of callers. Each game starts with a little fact about the team playing, a slice of interesting history and then is followed by some nice chatter about what is happening in-game. It does start repeating after a while, but in all, it is a vast improvement. The unlock system also seems much fairer this time around, with unlock coins being earned for every play you make. This means earning enough to unlock a card pack is much easier, steadily increasing the number of players available to ball with. There is even the option to unlock specific players, it costs more than a random card pack, but it is the perfect option for those that want to play as MJ as soon as possible.
This brings me to the one big negative in the game. The “purchase all” option. This is essentially a pay real money to win scenario as it allows online players to immediately have access to players like Jordan and Lebron who are essentially unstoppable forces of dunk. Once leveled up, these legendary players are so far above every other player that new people to the game are going to go online and get beaten into submission, no matter how high their skill level. This is the sort of microtransaction I have a problem with, as it is an unfair advantage over people that don’t want to pay. At the very least there should be a filter option in online matches so people who haven’t used the purchase all option don’t have to play against those that did. Apart from this however, the online play seems stable and runs well. I didn’t have to wait long for a match and when I was in, there was only very minor instances of lag.
Game modes are about what you would expect from this sort of title. There is exhibition, the online suite, a 3-point competition and NBA Season. The NBA Season is exactly what you would expect, pick players from one team and take on the rest of the NBA for the title. This mode is the best mode for single players and the quickest way to level up players and unlock new card packs. It is however limited in scope and I can see it getting boring after the 3rd or 4th time through. Where this game shines is not surprisingly in couch co-op. Up to four players can get their game on and in the process have a blast. Honestly, this is the real reason to by NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 and if you can’t get a regular group of mates together then I suggest rethinking the purchase of the title.
In all NBA 2k Playgrounds 2 lacks some of the simplicity of NBA Jam but more than holds its own with added features, an addictive gameplay loop and a fun, cartoonish presentation style. The microtransactions are the only downer in what is otherwise a stellar bit of arcade fun, one that should be enjoyed by anyone that has regular game nights with friends. I have reviewed three basketball games in the last month or so and I can honestly say that I had the most out-and-out fun with Playgrounds 2. It was the breath of fresh air I was looking for and I am sure it will be on my co-op playlist for ages to come.