Given the lack of new NBA Jam games lately, a new arcade-style basketball game should be cause for celebration.

NBA Playgrounds from Saber Interactive hopes to take up the Jam mantle, providing arcade thrills and goofy, monstrous players. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite have the "Jam magic" sports gamers would hope for.

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Street basketball

NBA Playgrounds for Xbox One review: Not quite the successor to NBA Jam

NBA Playgrounds shares many surface similarities with NBA Jam. Two teams of two players compete on a 3D basketball court. Players can push and shove one another, and the slam dunks are comically exaggerated.

On defense, you'll spend most of your time trying to steal the ball. You can also shove the other player over, but they usually pass the ball just before going down. Jumping to block the opponent's shot very rarely works, so stealing is your best bet.

NBA Playgrounds for Xbox One review: Not quite the successor to NBA Jam

On offense, you can elbow your enemy or crossover the ball, moving it out of reach. Sprinting, elbowing, and shoving eats up a lot of stamina. Run out of stamina, and you can't sprint or pull off any maneuvers for a little while, so managing the stamina meter below your player's feet can be important.

Shooting is where the game really trips up. Whether throwing the ball or going in for a dunk, NBA Playgrounds relies on an invisible timing meter to determine the shot's success. Release the button too early or too late, and you'll miss.

NBA Playgrounds for Xbox One review: Not quite the successor to NBA Jam

Because you have no visible indicator of the timer, shots come down largely to guesswork. The timing on dunks tends to be more forgiving, but throws and three-point throws are just plain difficult. These are not problems the computer suffers, so prepare to endure lots of three-point throws whenever the AI feels like cheating.

NBA Playgrounds' version of being "on fire" is called lottery picks. Scoring and pulling off good moves fills the lottery meter at the top of the screen. Once it fills up, a random lottery pick or buff activates. There are several of these to unlock by completing single-player tournaments, conveying such bonuses as boosted speed or doubling points from slams. The score multiplier lottery picks really unbalance the game, and it's shame they can't be turned off.

Characters, cards and leveling

NBA Playgrounds for Xbox One review: Not quite the successor to NBA Jam

The character select in NBA Playgrounds is surprisingly bad. When joining a tournament or online game, the game simply defaults to the last pair of players you picked.

You have to press the B button to cancel out the second player, and then press it again to change the first player. Then you'll need to scroll through all 30 teams (teams without unlocked players are grayed out but stay on the list) to pick your new players. The game really should default to selecting characters every time instead of requiring the canceling of old players first.

NBA Playgrounds for Xbox One review: Not quite the successor to NBA Jam

The method of unlocking new players is very free-to-play-ish, despite the lack of in-game purchases. Whenever your overall player level goes up or you complete a tournament, you get a card pack. These contain five randomized cards (players). If you open a pack to find a double, that card will give XP to the existing player. Players level up individually through use, boosting their stats.

The downside to this system is it takes a lot of playing and leveling to unlock a decent selection of players. There are 150 to find in total, which will be a time-consuming process. The card system mostly seems like a way to stretch a thin level of content farther than it would otherwise go.

Modes

NBA Playgrounds for Xbox One review: Not quite the successor to NBA Jam

NBA Playgrounds offers three modes:

  • Exhibition: You play a single game with one to four local players. You can adjust the game length, winning score, and AI difficulty.
  • Tournament: You compete in six tournaments, each located in a different state or country. Tournaments consist of four increasingly tough matches. Because the AI loves to cheat, these can be pretty tough. Each match also has an optional objective called a tournament challenge, and completing them all unlocks an Achievement. Tournament is the meat of the game and allows you to unlock courts, lottery picks, and balls for exhibition games.
  • Online: You play against another online player. Your online rating goes up and down depending on performance. Stupidly, you have to complete a single-player tournament to unlock online multiplayer. Way to keep the servers populated, developer!

Production values

NBA Playgrounds for Xbox One review: Not quite the successor to NBA Jam

The game opens up with a terrible theme song that instantly becomes repetitive. It's not the best way to greet players. Thankfully, the actual in-game announcers are pretty good – other than the fact that the two guys consistently mispronouncing the name "Ian." (Maybe they're doing that bit from the Key & Peele show where the substitute teacher says all the kids' names wrong?)

NBA Playgrounds fairs better graphically, with colorful courts and a smooth frame rate on Xbox One (albeit with too much motion blur, as you see in these screenshots). That said, the six courts all have the same boring NPCs watching the game. No effort was made to have a Japanese-looking crowd in Japan, for instance. Special effects for some of the lottery-pick shots look quite cool, and the exaggerated slam dunk animations also match the arcade feel nicely.

Have you seen the players, though? The developers seem to be going for an NBA Jam big-head thing, but the look here just doesn't work. Everyone has ugly, misshapen Frankenstein heads and long, awkward arms. Reactions will vary, but I find the character designs utterly repulsive.

Achievements

NBA Playgrounds for Xbox One review: Not quite the successor to NBA Jam

The Xbox One version of NBA Playgrounds offers a scant 13 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. These include such goals as performing 100 dunks, 50 alley-oops, and (painfully) 150 three pointers.

The hardest Achievement will be completing all 24 tournament challenges, because some of them are excruciatingly tough. Unlocking all 150 players will take quite a lot of time as well.

Overall impression of NBA Playgrounds for Xbox One

NBA Playgrounds for Xbox One review: Not quite the successor to NBA Jam

NBA Playgrounds comes close to being a good arcade basketball game ... but it doesn't quite score the bucket. The invisible timers make shooting baskets too much of a chore, and blocking shots should be easier, as well. Playing with friends can still be fun since dunks work well enough, but the cheating AI and lackluster tournament structure keep single-player from being much fun.

Saber Interactive has a decent framework here. With more polish (and perhaps a less hideous character art style), an NBA Playgrounds sequel could potentially live up to the NBA Jam legacy. But I can only recommend this particular game to basketball fans with local friends to play against and a tolerance for clunkiness.

Pros:

  • Sort of like NBA Jam!
  • Fun to play with local friends.

Cons:

  • Horrible monster players and truly heinous music.
  • Shots involve too much guesswork.
  • Clumsy character selection and unlocking system.

Decent

3/5

NBA Playgrounds costs $19.99 and is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Nintendo Switch.

See on the Xbox Store

Xbox One review copy provided by the publisher.