‘NBA 2K Playgrounds 2’ review: Arcade hoops sequel fails to leap forward

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“NBA 2K Playgrounds 2,” published by 2K Sports and developed by Saber Interactive, is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Windows PC, $29.99

Last year’s arrival of "NBA Playgrounds" revived the dormant arcade basketball genre. The new IP. (Intellectual property) from New Jersey-based developer Saber Interactive borrowed from its predecessors while introducing its own innovations to produce a light alternative to hoops sim "NBA 2K."

"Playgrounds" became a big hit, so 2K and Saber struck up a partnership for sequel "NBA 2K Playgrounds 2." Unfortunately, it’s hard to say that the experience is any better in this edition than the original.

The "Playgrounds" setup allows gamers to form their own on-court duos, pulling players together from any team. That’s how it worked in last year’s signature Tournament mode. However, Tournament has been replaced with an NBA season mode that makes gamers choose one NBA team to use through a 15-game season and subsequent playoff bracket.

NBA season mode is adequate, but in ditching the custom two-man lineup it loses some personality. Moreover, all season and postseason games are played on a homogeneous blacktop, with only the team logo in the center and some trim elements changing each game. Ditching the varied, worldwide courts of the original game for this year’s primary mode is a mistake. All of the new courts are relegated to other modes, unfortunately. 

Season can be replayed with each team, but only if at least two teammates are unlocked already. It’s an unnecessary limiting factor that figures to leave some wondering what else is worth their time. Tournaments offered a much meatier experience.

"NBA 2K Playgrounds 2" puts more focus on playing online this time around. Playgrounds Championship is comprised of ranked leagues for those who like head-to-head competition both in regular games and the 3-point contest mode. Online wasn’t populated before launch, but the ability to play co-op with a friend tested smoothly and was easy to set up. The jury remains out on how online play works and plays in the competitive realm, but the first week of availability will be telling.

For the most part, gameplay has improved. User rebounds were nearly impossible at launch and improved over time, but now they will feel natural. Stealing the ball is a bit too easy, but otherwise there’s little to complain too heavily about.

Lottery Picks — temporary in-game modifiers earned by scoring, blocking shots, etc. — are back, with some new additions. One encases the opposing hoop in ice that must be chipped away with shots or shattered with an alley-oop before the team can score again. The Lottery Pick system still is too random, but it’s a great  mechanism to keep players on their toes.

Like the original, "Playgrounds 2" incentivizes users to play and unlock the whole roster through packs of cards. These packs can be purchased with earned currency in the game or bypassed entirely with  a $10 full roster unlock. While 2K has earned a reputation for gross microtransactions, the setup in the "Playgrounds" franchise remains reasonable, even under the new partnership.

Said partnership also brings with it some of the biggest legends in the sport. Michael Jordan makes their franchise debut. The current roster boasts more than 300 players, so there’s no shortage of big names to unlock.

New this year are custom gear that can be applied to the players to make them your own. Ever dreamed of playing as LeBron James in work boots? It’s an option.

Using a player often will level up his stats in a more clear way than in the first "Playgrounds." Everyone starts at bronze level but will reach gold after 10-15 games. Completing a players’ challenges in exhibition or season will boost them further, but it’s a time-consuming process. It’s also an unnecessarily obnoxious undertaking because challenge criteria cannot be accessed during a game, only before.

The presentation is strong, with one caveat: I came across several player bios that included information that was current as of March. Clearly, these were not updated in the last six months. It’s an ugly omission that shouldn’t be hard to patch out, but the fact that it made it to pre-release copies provided by 2K is egregious.

The infectious title track from original "Playgrounds" has been redone for 2018 and remains as catchy as ever. That, plus play-by-play man Ian Eagle’s appropriately silly — and often repetitive — calls keep the tone light and enjoyable. Personality is perhaps the franchise’s strongest asset.

"NBA 2K Playgrounds 2" isn’t exactly a disappointing sequel. It’s still fun, especially with friends, and newcomers shouldn’t find too much to whine about. Those who bought the first one might not be as inclined to make the switch unless the prospect of playing as Kobe Bryant in the new game is a strong enough selling point.