The thud and blunder of a mismatched game of Madden NFL , the godfather of American football sims, is something few people are going to enjoy. When one player is way too good at the game for a fair contest, there's no way to give the uninitiated a chance to win the odd game or two.
This is where NFL Street comes in, or at least that's what we thought after spending an unhealthy amount of the summer enjoying the brilliant NBA Street, its basketball cousin released earlier in the year.
But, you see, street-style American football isn't nearly so accessible as the basketball version. The stop-start nature of the sport is ideal for strategic thinking and planning the kind of textbook manouevres that will either leave your opponent cursing his luck or applauding your skill. Simplify it and make it more like an arcade game, which is what NFL Street does, and the strategy side of thing is necessarily dumbed down. However you still have a very stoppy-starty sort of sport at the heart of it all.
No matter how quickly you try to hurry things along, it's always going to halt every few seconds so you can choose your next play. And after that you have to pull back the camera for the customary look at your receiving options, wait for the ball to be hiked, and make your play. Even then, the action might not last longer than it takes for a big linebacker to bypass the linemen and have his wicked way with your quarterback.
Compared to other, more free-flowing, sports, American football offers its entertainment in intense, bite-sized chunks, spread over what can be a tedious length of time. And so it's not ideal for arcade games, you might think. In fact, there's only ever been one really excellent arcade-style gridiron title - Midway's NFL Blitz - and NFL Street simply isn't in the same class if what you want is a spot of quick, uncomplicated gaming.
IT'S IN THE GAME
What it does have going for it, far more so than NFL Blitz, is the kind of variety and depth you'd normally associate with a serious sim.
It's jam-packed with game modes and challenges, there are more unlockable rewards than we could possibly count, and once you learn to do without the computer assistance offered by default you'll find you have a surprisingly high level of control over your individual players.
The game is seven versus seven, with no time limit, no play clock, and only the endzones and first down markers to clutter the field. The pitch is very short, so you should be able to get most of the way from one end to the other with just two or three running plays. Warm up that passing arm and you can span the endzones with a single throw.
There's no kicking to mess around with, either. You can't punt the ball if you're in trouble (there's no point booting it around on such a small pitch) and there are no goal posts.
To get a point after touchdown you always have to cross the line again. It's two points for a passing PAT and one for a rush. There are no other rules of any real significance.
EASY DOES IT
So NFL Street is about as simple as an American football game can get without going so far it loses its connection with the spirit of the sport. It's simple in concept but very involving and challenging once you sit down with it and try to crack some of the game modes on offer.
At its most basic, all you need to do is throw the ball, hope the computer positions your receiver in more or less the correct place, then either catch the ball and get crunched, or miss and try all over again. You can win the early games against the computer using those tactics but it's hardly the most satisfying way to play.
There are plenty of other moves to learn and, like NBA Street, you earn style points for playing in the most flamboyant way you can. Holding the left trigger activates special 'style' moves, much like NBA Street's special tricks. The idea is to waltz past clumsy defenders and skip through tackles while waving to the fans and performing some general showboating. Pressing other buttons while you're in this mode makes the player do whatever special moves he's been assigned, and if you manage to string together several of these and finish it all off with a touchdown you'll be on the road to big points.
There are plenty of other things you can do to earn points. Interceptions and other turnovers get you a few points, sackings score quite highly with the judges, and taking players down with the biggest possible hits is well worth your while. If you can manage to find enough space on the field, pitching lateral passes sends the points meter crazy. Combine any of those big-scoring plays with a few style moves and a score at the end of it and you can get almost enough points to max out your Gamebreaker meter in one go.
Gamebreakers are the real purpose of style points, assuming you're not playing to be the first to a preset total. When your Gamebreaker meter starts flashing you can send your entire team into a higher state of being. The screen turns a bluish colour, the players start glowing, and many impossible moves become available to you. You're practically unstoppable like this, especially since the effect lasts until the ball is turned over. If you use your Gamebreaker while defending you've got a 90% chance of preventing the other team from scoring. Use it while on the attack and you have a free touchdown plus the extra points.
You'll need to master all this as quickly as possible because the computer challenges quickly hot up.
The objectives for unlocking subsequent stages become increasingly tough and are divided up from 'no skills' through 'mad' and all the way to 'legendary'. And there we were, thinking mad skillz were as good as you could get.
THE REAL DEAL
The game is packed full of cartoon versions of real NFL players, complete with signature moves and celebrations, plus a good handful of original creations. You can edit them all as you see fit, spending the reward points you earn defeating other teams in the one-player modes to beef them up, dress them in lovely new uniforms or enhance particular abilities.
Your customised team of misfits and mutants can then be sent into any other game modes, earning yet more reward points and maybe even winning the odd star player or two from defeated opponents. There are eight separate leagues, with a specialised playing field for each one.
As a one-player game it's definitely on the larger side of 'massive'. Beating everything is going to take ages although at the end of the day it's just a series of regular matches.
MISSING IN ACTION
We could have done with some more extras or something to break it all up a bit, like a wacky training mode. Making running backs charge through walls to demonstrate how to break tackles, or passing a ticking bomb to show you how to do laterals. That sort of thing would have been most welcome, and totally in keeping with the style of the game. Maybe they'll sort something out for the sequel. As it stands you have to learn the game the hard way, and that's the basis of our major criticism of it.
Even as a seven-a-side game there's hardly any space on the field to try out your moves before you have to deal with a defender. So you try something quick, maybe you don't time it quite right, and you have to wait for your player to peel himself off the floor before going through the process of selecting a play and starting over.
For some reason NFL Blitz felt like it had less waiting time between plays. After the whistle had blown Midway's game also gave you a short time to pile in and administer some afters, which meant there was still something fun to do if the play ended early.
NFL Street doesn't have any of that, nor does it have Blitz's custom play editor, and it's far more difficult to learn than NBA Street - still the benchmark for accessible sports games as far as we're concerned. But it's still an American footie game of the highest quality. Just not one for the UK masses, like we'd hoped.