Once upon a time, back when console games were bound to cartridges and chunky boxes, basketball games weren’t just about simulation. Sure, we had the likes of NBA Showdown and NBA Live doing their best to recreate the magic of b-ball on your Mega Drive or SNES (and to great success, too), but there was one series we all played, even if we didn’t particularly enjoy the sport itself: the inimitable NBA Jam.
It didn’t matter if you didn’t know the rules, because NBA Jam didn’t really have any. It was a local multiplayer gem that has rightfully earned itself a place in the Hall of Fame of timeless sports games. Come on, who didn’t enjoy performing a flaming dunk? So, with the NBA 2K series now in its sophomore year of unbridled simulation on Switch, Saber Interactive has decided to give Jam’s spiritual successor - NBA Playgrounds - a second shot at on-court glory.
Much like that 16-bit classic, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 is all about turning up the fun factor in the face of actual simulation. Matches are played as 2v2 setups, and dunks, layups and three-pointers are far easier to pull off as a result. As with the first game - which has endured a bizarre existence over the last year thanks to a mishandled attempt at a re-release - plenty of players from the current NBA roster (and many a former icon) are there to be unlocked and customised, and each one comes with their own unique set of stats and attributes.
With 2K now on-board, there are more ballers than ever to choose from - including legends of the sport such as Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal - and everything has been given an extra layer of polish. Gameplay still flows much as it did in the previous game (although it’s noticeably a tad slower in terms of pace) and its shot-taking/blocking mechanics are just as forgiving, but character models are also a little better and some of the cartoonish courts boast more variety.
The shot clock introduced to the previous game via an update is back, as is the Lottery Picks system (which rewards you with enhanced stats, or debuffs the opposing team) for a brief window, and their inclusion ensures practically anyone can pick up a Joy-Con and be pull off sick three-pointers or blisteringly fast dunks. You can perform double alley-oops on your own, or make the most of your teammate and pull one off together. It takes a little while to adjust to the sheer force of each jump or the timing needed to beat your opponent to a rebound, but once you’ve nailed it, NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 turns into an arcade riot.
The meagre tournament setup of the original has been replaced by a new NBA Season mode, but don’t worry about this being some 82-game slog you’d find in other basketball sims. Each run is much shorter and will reward you with a steady stream of in-game coins and a legendary card tied to the team you’ve just won the championship with (we’re big Minnesota Timberwolves fans, so we earned game-changing centre Karl-Anthony Towns for our efforts). There’s also the Playgrounds Championship, which enables you to play locally or online and test just how good your b-ball skills really are.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a 2K game without some microtransactions, and the publisher has introduced such a system to NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 - but don’t worry, it’s not as much of a shackle as it is in its other NBA games. In order to unlock new cards (ie, new players), you’ll need to open packs which can be purchased with Baller Bucks, an in-game currency earned through completing matches and other mini-games. When you first play the game you’ll have access to a couple of free packs which give you access to a handful of players.
So when you first play the game you won’t have access to many players, and some teams will be completely inaccessible until you open a pack with a player on that franchise. Thankfully, it doesn’t take that long to start earning these bucks, and you can rack them up by completing NBA Season matches, Exhibition Matches and even performing well in the 3-Pointer mini-game challenge. Alternatively, you can spend 5,000 Gold Coins (which equates to about £5 or so) to unlock every player on the roster.
It’s a bit of a cheap move, but this is a 2K game so there was always going to be some form of fast-track opportunity included. Having access to better cards means you can use players with increased stats (so better shot-taking percentages, sprint speed, etc), but you can mitigate this by levelling up your existing player through consistent play. You can, however, cough up real money for Swag Packs and VIP Swag Packs, which enable you to dress your baller up in new accessories and items, but thankfully they don’t offer any tangible benefit bar making you look fresh.
While the introduction of microtransactions is hardly surprising considering the history of its new publisher, they don’t hit NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 as hard as might expect. It will take you a while to grind out every player (unless you just buy them all from the off), but it helps that the core arcade gameplay remains as fun and enjoyable as ever. It doesn’t quite capture the blissful mayhem of NBA Jam, but if the main NBA 2K series has always felt a little too realistic for you, this larger-than-life spin-off offers a bright and empowering way to defy gravity like Air Jordan himself.