Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! The Friday Five is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to NBA Live, NBA 2K, and other basketball video games, as well as the real NBA, and other areas of interest to our community. The feature is presented as either a list of five items, or in the form of a Top 5 countdown. This week’s Five is a breakdown of the main hopes that I have for NBA Playgrounds 2.
Originally set for release next week on May 22nd, NBA Playgrounds 2 has now been delayed to an unspecified date. While some basketball gamers have expressed their excitement about a follow up to last year’s title, others aren’t so thrilled. Some gamers feel that it’s coming too soon after the original, and are unhappy that support for the first NBA Playgrounds is ending with a few unfulfilled promises. Others simply didn’t care for the first game at all, and feel little incentive to give its sequel a chance. The indefinite postponement likely doesn’t allay their concerns or scepticism.
Even if the delay turns out to be for the best as Saber Interactive are insisting, NBA Playgrounds 2 is going to be a tough sell for some gamers. It’s going to take a quality release to win gamers over, with clear improvements that wouldn’t be possible via a patch. Whatever has led to the delay will also have to be a big deal. The previews have been somewhat promising so far though, and I do believe that NBA Playgrounds 2 has a great opportunity to become the definitive arcade hoops game of the current generation. There are a few things that it must do in order to achieve that however, which I’m outlining in the form of five hopes ahead of its eventual release.
1. Faster Unlocking of Players
I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with unlockables in video games in general. In the best case scenario, they reward dedication, exploration, and achievement. If too much content is locked to begin with, however, it can easily lead to a situation where you’re sick of a game by the time you’ve unlocked stuff that should make it fun to keep playing. A lot of WWE games have been particularly bad about this, and in recent years, it’s also clearly been a ploy to sell DLC that immediately unlocks everything. They’re not the only games to do that of course, and indeed the first NBA Playgrounds game ended up very controversially receiving Roster Unlock DLC.
Even though there was merit to the Roster Unlock DLC given the tough grind gamers otherwise had to endure, it was not a good look for Saber in terms of goodwill. It also highlighted the issues the game had with the speed at which players were unlocked, and the arduous task of grinding for packs due to the lack of any deep game modes. NBA Playgrounds 2 is going to have to allow us to unlock players a lot quicker, and in the course of enjoying the offline or online modes (or a combination of the two). I still prefer NBA Jam’s approach of having a few players for every team immediately playable and unlocking additional ones, but I can appreciate wanting to be different.
2. Less Grinding to Level Up Players
The need to level up players by playing with them and gaining XP was a nice idea in theory, but in practice, it just led to monotonous grinding. Between a lack of offline game modes and pitiful amounts of XP, there was no way to level up all the players you’d want to use without becoming incredibly bored. Personally, I’d either abandon the concept altogether, or limit it to online play. As noted above, unlocking players in the first place can be an arduous task, so having to grind away to be able to perform additional moves with them – a necessity if you’re going to be playing online or taking on difficult challenges against the CPU – is no fun at all.
Should NBA Playgrounds 2 retain this approach, it will be important to greatly reduce the grind. That means a higher amount of XP granted across all modes of play, and a shorter road to maxing out a player. A mechanic like this is obviously intended to reward gamers for both switching up the players they use and putting time into the players they select, but the diminishing returns of heavy grinding actually make us less likely to want to do that. By all means give completionists a long road to travel, but don’t strap anvils to their feet as well. Whatever NBA Playgrounds 2 does in this regard, I’m hoping the system isn’t cumbersome and plagued by artificial longevity.
3. Polished Gameplay Mechanics
One of my biggest gripes with NBA Playgrounds was that it often felt clunky, more so than games that came out more than a decade (or two) earlier. Rebounding and blocking shots in particular didn’t feel good, with players randomly not jumping high enough, jumping in the wrong direction, or the result just feeling predetermined. I hope that the stiffness in those mechanics has been addressed in NBA Playgrounds 2, with a smoother experience at both ends of the court. After all, it’s no fun when half the challenge in a video game comes from broken mechanics that make it difficult to perform the most basic functions.
While I could appreciate that NBA Playgrounds didn’t just imitate NBA Jam or NBA Street in some of its mechanics, I feel that Saber should’ve paid closer attention to what made the gameplay in those titles so appealing. The sprint meter drained far too quickly in NBA Playgrounds, and there were too many blown dunks. Ratings below seven felt ineffective, leading to several players being weaker and less desirable to play with than they should have been. Lottery Picks were too powerful, could not be disabled, and weren’t random enough. In a nutshell, last year’s game didn’t feel very balanced or properly tuned, so I hope that’s been addressed in NBA Playgrounds 2.
4. More Sophisticated AI
Another area where the first NBA Playgrounds felt weak and outdated was in its AI. Repetitive tactics and cheap AI are long-standing drawbacks in arcade basketball games, but progress has been made, particularly in NBA Jam: On Fire Edition thanks to its Real AI technology. NBA Playgrounds’ AI was a throwback to the early days of arcade hoops though, and not in a good way. I didn’t have a loss to the CPU that didn’t feel incredibly cheap and unfair; at least once I’d grown accustomed to the nuances of the game, anyway. NBA Playgrounds 2 must avoid the same pitfalls, as it’s essential that single player gameplay be just as appealing and viable as multiplayer.
That means that the CPU shouldn’t button read and automatically counter any steal or shove attempt with an elusive move. There shouldn’t be blatant rubber-band AI that results in you suddenly missing high percentage shots and constantly left in the dust on defense, while the CPU players become unstoppable at both ends. It’s important that the game be challenging – especially on higher difficulty settings – but not due to unlikely comebacks, and other ways of punishing players for being too good. It’s no fun to lose because the AI has decided it’s going to win and flipped the switch. That just makes us feeling like switching the game off, and playing something else.
5. Substantial Replay Value & Longevity
Arcade basketball games traditionally haven’t been annual releases. As such, they’re expected to either last us until the next version comes out, either because we can keep playing them over and over again, or we’re content to be finished with them until the sequel is released. It’s not unprecedented for sequels to arcade hoops games to come out the following year, however. The original NBA Jam was followed by NBA Jam Tournament Edition a year later, while NBA Jam: On Fire Edition came out a year after the underrated 2010 reboot. Some things just can’t be patched, so it makes sense that NBA Playgrounds 2 is being developed and released so soon after the original.
However, while I support NBA Playgrounds 2 coming out this soon, I also think there needs to be at least a couple of years between it and a potential NBA Playgrounds 3. Lack of depth, content, and replay value was a big problem in the first game, so NBA Playgrounds 2 needs to last. Between unlocking players, the offline season mode, and online play, there needs to be substantial longevity to the title. It cannot lose its appeal as quickly as the original game did, and it must be a game that we want to revisit. Any content updates will help keep things fresh, but it must be the game that most of us hoped the original would be, and not require another sequel in 2019 to get it right.
Are you looking forward to NBA Playgrounds 2? What improvements are you hoping to see, or what must it do to win you over? Any speculation as to what might have led to the delay of its release? Add your thoughts in the comments section below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for this week, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and please join me again next Friday for another Five.