We may long for the days of NBA Jam or NBA Street and their brands of over-the-top basketball, but the closest modern equivalent is NBA 2K Playgrounds 2. Coming off of last year's game, Playgrounds 2 continues the two-on-two ridiculousness in an arcade style that's incredibly easy to pick up and play. Anything goes on the court where there aren't fouls or rules against goaltending, and double-front-flip dunks with a 12-foot vertical leap are standard. It's certainly fun to go back-and-forth with opponents to light up the scoreboard, but even all that flash has its limitations; the game hits one note that gets old rather quickly.
NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 keeps things simple by only giving you the essentials for balling up. Aside from shooting, passing, and crossover dribbles on offense, holding sprint turns normal shots into high-flying dunks. Alley-oops come in handy for throwing down on unsuspecting defenders thanks to easy execution. And if defenders are pressing hard, throwing your elbows provides an option for creating space. Although this style of basketball thrives off of offensive showmanship, defense still plays a big role in winning. Shoving and stealing can effectively create turnovers, and you need to be smart about when to use these as they take up your endurance meter and leave you vulnerable. You also have opportunities to disrupt dunks that seem like they'd be easy buckets just by getting in the paint and trying to block. It's a basic toolset that takes little time to get familiar with.
To keep games interesting, teams build up a meter that unleashes court-altering power-ups called Lottery Picks. The Lottery Pick meter recharges when you do anything that fills the stat sheet, and once it's full, you get a random power-up. There are nine in total, which range from double points for dunks or three-pointers for a limited time to freezing the opposing basket that'll take a few shots to break. This system can seem unfair at times, but there's no denying it's fun to run wild with the infinite stamina power for a short period, for example. If anything, it adds a bit of variety to a very basic game.
There's a decent foundation that Playgrounds 2 works with, but it doesn't quite come together as seamlessly as you'd hope. Uncontested dunks bounce out of the rim more often than they should because it's subject to the shot-percentage meter--you can be on a fastbreak and still miss. Shooting open threes with the likes of Steph Curry or Ray Allen still a large window of failure. As a result, the shot meter calculation often feels at odds with this style of basketball game. Playgrounds 2 suffers from a simple, yet damaging flaw--the shot-timing meter is displayed at the bottom of the screen. For a game that's built around fast and flashy action, relegating the most important element for scoring to a position away from what's happening on court is a big misstep. Instead of watching those sweet dunks unfold, you end up shifting attention to the meter to make sure the shot goes down. This also prevents you from seeing what develops on the court during key moments, like anticipating blocks and reacting to them.
Playgrounds 2 is at its best when playing competitive games with either an AI-controlled teammate or a real player against others. Online matches can take a while to find, but games get going quickly once matchmaking is set. And thanks to the fast pace of games, action is always just a few moments away. The game keeps track of your overall record, and you'll earn in-game currency whether you win or lose. There's also an online version of the three-point contest and a two-player cooperative mode that pits your team against the AI, but neither inspires much competition.
A few options exist for playing offline, like local multiplayer in exhibition mode and the new NBA season mode. The latter will have you play a condensed 14-game season with an NBA team, and you pick two players from the roster for each game. If you get seeded in conference standings, you'll move on to the playoffs. And if you win the championship, you'll unlock a historical player for the team you played as. Since there is a tangible reward for winning it all, playoff matches provide some challenge and tension. It's all a bit unceremonious; you play one season and it ends, and you just start another separate season. And with the starting roster you're given at the outset, it can be frustrating to grind away as players with lower stat ratings.
You can bypass most of the grind by using Golden Bucks, an in-game currency that can be earned at a fairly slow rate or bought with real money (which undermines the point of the NBA season mode, too). If you don’t want to unlock the full roster through microtransactions, you’ll have to get card packs using Golden Bucks or another in-game currency called Baller Bucks. Packs get you random players on the roster or cosmetics to dress up players. While the system gives you something to work for, it still feels somewhat exploitative. At the very least, player progression incentivizes using different players since they individually earn XP--leveling them up to silver and gold rank boosts their overall stats.
NBA 2K Playgrounds 2 tries to capture the more lighthearted side of basketball culture but doesn't bring with it a discernible sense of personality. NBA players are designed with big heads and exaggerated features to coincide with the ridiculous arcade approach. But it comes off as just absurd, and not in a charming sense--instead, most player models look like badly drawn caricatures by an amateur street artist. Courts don't inspire much of a basketball atmosphere either, with nonsensical locations and crowds that look like old Xbox 360 avatars. Seeing Playgrounds 2 in action is like watching expressionless bobbleheads floundering about in silly animations.
It's fun to jump in for a few games and rack up points through extravagant slam dunks with your favorite players from the past and present. However, the novelty of arcade-style basketball wears thin quickly in NBA 2K Playgrounds 2. There isn't much to keep you coming back once you've had your fill, and the nagging gameplay flaws hold back the experience. The game lacks a distinct personality, and that's a missed opportunity for any basketball game, let alone one that tries so hard to have one.