On the road again.
If you asked me a week ago what I thought being "street" meant, without hesitation I would have brought up this dude I used to know named Eric. Eric hung out in front of the convenience store around the corner from my house; he was homeless and insane. He used to ramble at length about how Ozzie and Sharon had just paid him a visit, and when he got drunk on Sparks, he'd rail against the G-Men who were "tryin' to throw a wrench into my gears, maaaaan." He disappeared for a while after getting hit by a car. Then after a bad dog bite got infected, he disappeared again, this time never to return.
Eric is about as "street" as it gets, but EA Big and Xzibit claim otherwise in their new NFL Street 2 for the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox. It turns out that being street really means wearing brand new Reeboks, designer clothes and expensive bling while selling out to the highest bidder. There are a few things in the world that are more street than NFL Street 2, like Carmen Electra and Snoop Dogg, but neither of them are football video games.
NFL Street 2 is largely unchanged from the original. Back again is the NFL Challenge, where you have a limited amount of time to get a bunch of scrubs ready to play the pros, and the Pickup game, where you select a team from a random pool of players and then go at it. These stand alongside the new Own the City mode as the main ways to play.
In Own the City, you attempt to take over territories with your rag-tag group of scrubs by winning pick-up games, street events, and showdowns with rival squads. The whole thing feels just like the NFL Challenge, except for one major difference: you can only customize the attributes of one player on your team.
When you first begin Own the City, you'll be asked to create a player. We made a retarded looking fellow named Lazer Dazer. We then got to pick a position for him, so we naturally chose quarterback, spent some points on his attributes, and decked him out in gym shorts, a head-band, Chuck Taylors, and USA wrist-bands. He looked scary, very street, and his team was tough as nails.
This was mainly due to the fact that Dazer was a one-man offense and therefore could select purely defensive players as his teammates. Since Dazer was the only player who benefited from the attribute points his team received from winning, he quickly became an All-Star passer, runner, and tackler. He had the speed and toughness of a linebacker, and he could score touchdowns every single drive thanks to his amazing play-action keepers.
See, the game's A.I. could never consciously bring itself to defend the play-action keeper, where Dazer would fake a hand-off, then run the ball to the outside himself. If the A.I. brought the blitz, Dazer threw. If it stuck to his receivers, he'd run for twenty. Dazer could run the exact same play every single down, the Play-Action Fade, and never be stopped by the computer.
Eventually, the tedium drove Dazer insane, so he started hanging out on street corners and bragging about how he played football against Xzibit while begging for more Malt Liquor money. In other words, Own the City mode gets really, really tedious.
The NFL Challenge is much better than Own the City mode since you can customize every player. This is important because it opens up the passing game, which is customarily an important part of football titles. The Challenge is slightly improved over last year's game, as now you have 150 days to complete challenges, each of which grants attribute points and impact gear that will permanently boost a player's stats. This is better than last year's token system, although it's kind of disappointing that NFL Street 2's best mode is a carryover from the original game.
Instead of running a gauntlet in the Challenge mode, you can now play through a string of NFL teams in NFL Gauntlet mode. There's also a new Street Events mode, which takes all of the mini-games you'll play in other modes and puts them in one place, including "Three Flies Up," "Smear the Queer," and Showdowns. You'll probably get enough of these modes while playing through NFL Challenge or Own the City, so The Gauntlet and Street Events really aren't new modes. But they sure are street for faking it!
Before his downward spiral into alcoholism and poverty, Lazer Dazer was quite proficient at exploiting NFL Street 2's few new gameplay features: walls and level 2 Gamebreakers. Alongside every field is some manner of wall; just like the Prince of Persia, Dazer could leap up onto them and run a few steps. He could also bounce off the walls and throw passes, and then his receivers could bounce off the walls and catch them. It's a cool new addition that leads to some pretty wicked sequences.
The Gamebreakers, though, are only wicked in the bad sense of the word. The original game's Gamebreakers were already overpowered, either forcing a fumble on defense or ensuring a touchdown on offense. Now you can power up another level of Gamebreaker hell to ensure touchdowns and fumbles with even less effort. Compared to the more subtle scoring swings in the NBA Street games, NFL Street's Gamebreaker system lives up to its name by literally breaking the game. It's far, far too powerful for its own good.
NFL Street 2 offers little else new in its gameplay. You can press a couple buttons on defense to guess what type of play the offense is going to bring (run, pass, trick), and allegedly, your defenders get some sort of bonus if you guess correctly, but as far as we can tell they still suck as badly as ever. Their A.I. is awful; defenders will keep covering receivers even when the quarterback is running a keeper right behind them. The offensive A.I., on the other hand, is ridiculous. On the higher difficulty levels, the computer will lateral three or four times on every single play and taunt you every free second. At least the hits, when they do take place, almost make up for it. Considering how unbalanced the original game felt, you'd think the defense would get some love this time. Instead, the offense got a few new moves and the defense just got screwed.
Human competition is far more desirable, and fortunately Xbox and PS2 owners can take their games online. It's easy to find games, and you can play most of the different types found in the single-player. But as fun as it is to clown lesser players with your homemade Lazer Dazers, NFL Street's inherent balance issues prevent it from being a game you'll want to play seriously, online or off.
That's a shame, because the game runs as smoothly as Lynn Swan. There's no noticeable slowdown on any of the systems, the animations are funky and brutal, and the players themselves are big and well-detailed. Most of the environments are littered with cool odds and ends like trash cans, debris, outhouses, and spectators. Some, like The Aqueduct, are partially shrouded in shadow, which looks weird and irresolute on every system.
NFL Street 2 doesn't sound good at all, ever. The soundtrack is a testosterone-induced nightmare of irritating rap and bad metal, and the looping effects are way too conspicuous. In the Back Lot level, a car starts practically every minute and it's the only ambient noise other than the constant smack-talk.
Speaking of which, there are only three voices that talk smack between plays and they're used interchangeably by the various players. Since Lazer Dazer made all my plays, he'd go from husky and angry after making a sack to a wimpy Chris Rock impersonation on the very next play. And then, when the game was over and he went into his "I got more scores in me" shpiel, he'd speak in another voice altogether. Must have been the Sparks.
The main problem with NFL Street 2 is that EA Big has again failed to get the balance right. These games represent an opportunity to abandon some of the more rigid laws of physics in favor of interesting gameplay innovations, but then too little attention is paid to ensuring that the new moves are counter-balanced for a solid play experience. The new wall moves are fine, but what about the defense? What about big plays in the middle of the field?
Just like they did with Def Jam: Fight for NY, EA Big ignored NFL Street's fundamental issues and instead added more flash and one or two new moves. While undeniably fun, EA Big has no right to call NFL Street 2 a sequel. If the original were a fast car with no brakes, then this is a faster car with no brakes. We wouldn't buy either.