Awful clean for play in in the street.
I remember playing football on muddy gray days with my friends. And EA Big’s new NFL Street is nothing like that. For one thing we didn’t talk as much senseless smack; if we talked smack it was nice and personal. After all, we were all friends. Could I have known Steve’s mom so intimately otherwise? And we definitely didn’t have much style at all. And.. we played in the mud. Oooh mud, the great equalizer. That great brown bath made every tackle mightier and graced diving receivers with a pristine filth to be worn like a fearsome muddy mask.
The idea that a videogame starring Michael Vick and TO (among other high-profile prima donas), decked out with stylish moves, ultra high productions values, and a hip-pop soundtrack could recreate good ol’ pick-up, screw around football is absurd.
However, EA Big was successful in creating a fun, over-the-top, arcadey football game somewhere between Midway’s Blitz franchise and Ready to Rumble Boxing, with a slick on-line twist for the PS2.
Street essentially offers three mdoes: Quick Game, Pick-Up Game, and NFL Challenge. While three modes hardly seem impressive, both the Pick-Up Game and the NFL Challenge offer a lot more than one might expect.
In a Pick-Up game, you and the comp or a friend get to pick 7 players from a randomly generated pool of about 30 players. Now, most of the players available currently play in the league, but every once in a while the game will slip a legendary player like Howie Long or Barry Sanders into the mix. You may pick any player available at any time (you can, for example, pick all running backs or offensive linemen if you want) allowing you to customize your team to fit your style of play.
The NFL Challenge takes these freedoms even further. In this mode, you create a team of scrubs from the floor up. You get to decide their position, height, weight, appearance, apparel, attributes, signature moves and celebrations. However, you’ve only got a measly 300 development points to work with in the beginning. To further your squad’s capacity for grid-iron mayhem you’ll need to complete challenges. Challenges range from easy (score on your first drive against team X) to really tough (score a defensive touchdown in a game to 36 (games are played to point totals, not according to a game clock) against tough-ass team Y). Succeed, and you’ll win such prizes as more development points, impact gear (apparel that enhances an attribute if worn), new plays for your playbook (meh), and even the opportunity to pick a player from an NFL team (although such players’ attributes can’t be fiddled with).
But, challenges cost tokens, and to get tokens you must beat a ladder of all the teams in a given division (the AFC East, for example) as well as the divisional All Star Team. Upon doing so you receive 800 tokens to be spent on whichever challenges you feel yield the greatest results. Ultimately, of course, you want to build your squad around a strategy that will transform them into the baddest-ass gang of neighborhood park assassins this side of your local Footlocker.
Unfortunately, only on the PS2 version is Street’s full potential realized thanks to the ability to pit one’s custom team against those of other people in on-line matches and tournaments. These matches are great for the different strategies employed by different players, since you can put any player in any position and build up your players in so many different ways (there are 10 attributes per player and lots of development points to be had). However, the limited playbook, inability to create custom plays for your custom team, and Street’s fundamental imbalance in favor of the offensive all prevent Street’s on-line mode from rivaling either Madden’s or ESPN’s awesome on-line options.
Which leads me to Street’s gameplay. The running game is the best, so I’ll start there. The running game control scheme is very run-of-the-EA-mill. Players can lateral, juke, spin, hurtle, straight-arm and turbo. If the Style button is depressed along with any given maneuver, that maneuver will become more effective if timed well; if timed poorly the player will take a big hit and probably cough up the football.
In spite of the standard issue moves, the running game in NFL Street is the best I’ve ever seen. The controls are precise and responsive, the moves work well (and the analogue stick is so responsive you can juke without pressing a button) and the turbo/style dynamic is awesome. You see, once you’ve broken a run open you can press the style button to taunt your opponents as you run, gaining you style points but slowing you way down. However, while styling you can also take your finger off the turbo button and let you afterburners recharge so that when a defender finally does come within reach, you can shift gears and sprint back out of range. Kiting defenders all the way to the end-zone this way provides one of the most sadistic pleasures to be seen yet in a sports videogame. Mad props.
The passing game, on the other hand, is impressive only for its lack of features. While a player can execute style passes for greater points, style has no effect on the actual mechanics of passing and in no way enhances what a passer is able to pull off. Next time around I’d like to see some diving, side-arm slings or maybe a sky high rocket of a pass that defenders and receivers could fight over until it finally came down, at which point a giant shockwave would level all in a good radius except for the one who caught the ball.
Defense is less great and tastes filling. While the hits are nice and big, more tackle types are needed as well as more effective tackling in general. Part of the reason running the ball is so much fun in Street has to do with the impotence of most defenders when it comes to tackling.
And pass coverage, as always, is very weak. Somehow developers need to figure out a receiver/defender play dynamic that involves more than lamely tapping the ‘catch’ button when the ball flies near. Even a ‘look-up-at-the-frickin-ball’ button would be a quite welcome addition.
Finally, Gamebreakers. Gamebreakers become possible when a team has acquired enough style points to fill its gamebreaker meter. Once full, a team can press the GB button on any play before the ball is snapped and be in GB mode until the current drive ends (either in a turnover or a score).
On defense this means that whatever player you control at any given point can run faster and tackle so hard that a fumble is nearly always the result. On offense the player with the ball is essentially unstoppable. And, if one player uses his GB during another player’s GB mode, both GB’s are cancelled out. Needless to say, the Gamebreakers generate interesting strategic questions and possibilities.
Graphically, Street looks excellent with large, well-rendered players, exaggerated animations and a solid frame-rate. While the PS2 version looks decent, both the Xbox and GC versions look even better. However, fields don’t appear to suffer any permanent damage in any version (the players never suffer any visible damage ever), and weather conditions simply aren’t varied enough. Although, I must admit, I have yet to unlock every playing field so I suppose there is a thin hope that mud and rain exist in Street somewhere (though I doubt it).
I have mixed feelings about the sounds used in Street. A so-so Hip-pop soundtrack greets you in the menus, while some group called the X-ecutioners provide dull in-game tracks I had thankfully little trouble tuning out. While the lack of announcers was a good thing, I would have loved to have seen and heard some chatter from a gaggle of gold-diggers watching from the sidelines, or any other spectators at all. And showing a video-clip of one of the voice-actors during the behind the scenes bit was a bad idea. The roars and insults the players hurl at one another are silly and a little too-macho to be taken seriously. And then when you see the big thilly-puth behind them it all makes thenthe, thadly.
Overall, EA Big’s NFL Street is an excellent, arcade-style football game. The customization, smooth graphics, and sweet control scheme make it one fun game, and an easy way to lose track of the hours. And then, the PS2 version, though graphically inferior, manages to take its act online making it the best of the possible avenues, er, Streets. As unbalanced as the offense and defense are, this game is clearly all about the big offensive play which, in my opinion, is very diggable. However, Street does still leave plenty of room for another good scrub-tackle football game, particularly one without so much style or so many stars. Hopefully one will even be made with my beloved mud in mind. Someday..