In January 2004, EA reminded us that arcadey pick-up-and-playable football still has a place in the hearts and libraries of console gamers everywhere when they dropped NFL Street
. Eleven short months later and here we are for NFL Street 2
and arcade ball still works for us on Xbox, PS2 and GameCube. For a fun quick fix game NFL Street 2 is still surprisingly sophisticated when it comes to the control scheme and depth of gameplay and that's the hook of the whole "Street" franchise it seems. There's plenty of quick payoff, but there are many levels to master to that an expert player on the sticks will looking nothing like a rookie who picks it up and has a blast the first time.
The biggest thing missing from NFL Street 2 is more. More personality, more wackiness and more outrageous elements that would really drive home the fun-arcadey message. The first game was a nice effort and a fine surprise for those of us who can't get enough football, but we all knew that it was just the tip of the iceberg. We all knew that there was potential for a lot of cool stuff coming out of that game engine that Tiburon created. There are definitely a lot of enhancements and improvements in NFL Street 2, we just want the evolution to be a little faster. With two NFL Street games in the same calendar year, it seems we're getting all that that short time frame allows.
There are all sorts of game types built around the basic premise of pickup football, including mini-games, two-extended career modes and quick play modes with tons of tweakable options to keep things interesting. But the hallmark of the EA Sports Big lineup is plenty of trickery using press and hold button combinations to control the fun. Street 2 maintains this but adds to this with an all new system of wall moves. The walls were a part of gameplay in the original, now you'll be using them for specific advantages and bonuses throughout NFL Street 2.
In a nutshell, you can run up walls during a play to avoid tacklers when you have the ball; you can run up a wall to launch a pass or run up a wall to make a reception and you can make these plays off of posters or "hotspots" on the walls for added bonuses. The offensive move ratings for your players now include how well they can use walls to their advantage as well as how effective their juking, spinning and stiff arming can be.
Using the walls effectively is something you'll eventually master in Street 2 once you've got plenty of games under your belt and it really opens up a whole extra layer of action for veterans of the first game. It's an example of how a seemingly simple arcade football game can offer more depth than you'd expect and keep delivering new experiences. Running up a wall to fling a long bomb on a play action pass is cool because you have to avoid the rush to get to the wall, time your wall run appropriately with the right button combo and the height advantage is obvious once you're up there. Same goes for using a wall to get your receiver up there to make the snag. And all of this is on top of the pre-existing system from the last game of laterals, trick plays and showboating moves from the original game. You get all of that back and then some with the new wall move mechanics.
The handful of hot spots on the walls of any field will quickly add to your Gamebreaker meter whenever you leap off of one on offense or tackle somebody into one on defense -which is a much tougher trick to pull. There are of course two levels of Gamebreaker in Street 2 with the first level giving you a finite amount of "unstoppability" energy on offense and the ability to rip the ball out of a player's hands on defense. Saving up your level one and continuing to build energy until you get to level two will unleash a cinematic that shows your players doing something nutty like leaping off a teammate's back or hiding the ball before you're eventually given control again over the play and you can finish off the TD (you'll end up with the rock if you call a GB2 on defense) yourself. It's not unlike the GB2 we saw in NBA Street 2 where the outcome of the cool cinematic was guaranteed to be in your favor. Of course, big plays and pulling off a hotdog move are still the main ways you'll build up your Gamebreaker energy and Street 2 does a good job of balancing gameplay with the "race to Gamebreaker" mentality we all have.
Multiplayer is where NFL Street 2 really shines, as is the case with most sports games. The options you can adjust in head-to-head games lets you match sheer gaming skills with 14 auto selected players or you can open up every player in the game, including NFL Legends like Joe Greene and Cris Carter and measure your drafting abilities before hitting the park. Taking Street 2 online offers a performance as consistent as anything else we've seen from EA Sports this year on PS2 online and Xbox Live.
The solo gamer can compete in the Own the City mode that comes complete with guidance from the almighty Xzibit. In this mode you create a character and battle in games and special events to earn points that can be used to improve and customize your character over time. The ultimate prize is squaring off against Xzibit's team and importing your juiced up footballer into Madden NFL 2006 aka The Only Game in TownTM. Just like we saw in NBA Street 2, the key here is winning consistently to get points you need to make your character more fun to use since you'll determine what stats to and gear to focus on. This mode is enjoyable but the inability to customize the shoddy players you start off with makes the NFL Challenge mode a little more appealing.
NFL Challenge gives you 150 days to build a team that can compete against a squad of Legends by sharpening your skills in specific challenges. Your roster of seven nobodies is fully customizable and you can spend points any way you like to upgrade their attributes so you can keep your seven on seven squad sharp. Both Own the City and NFL Challenge have you playing games around different Bay City turf, but it feels like you're given more freedom in NFL Challenge mode. Mainly because you can got to any neighborhoods and take on any challenges you like at any time. The dozens of challenges range from the simple (complete a wall pass on this drive) to the amazingly difficult (complete 2 wall passes, 1 wall catch and 2 wall jukes on this drive) to the downright confusing (perform 2 wall hurdles and 2 hurdles). Many of the challenges will follow the attempt-screw up-reset pattern extreme sports fans will be used to, but that's only if you know what you're supposed to be doing. The distinction between a wall juke and wall hurdle can be unnecessarily confusing, for example, unless you pay close attention during the tutorial mode which you may or may not play through. The moves like a lot a like so you can think you're pulling a juke (one foot plants on the wall quickly) when you're pulling a hurdle (both feet quickly touch the wall as you run along)
Earning and spending points in the various modes can be a little confusing if you try to keep track of where you're getting customization points and credits. Both Own the City and NFL Challenge let you spend points on player attributes but new gear can be bought in department stores, jewelry shops etc using credits earned all over the game. It's fun if you don't worry about where your loot is coming from. But since player attitude and flashy clothes and outfits is such a big part of the Street 2 experience, you're going to want to know what it'll take to get enough money for that tiger striped afro hairstyle for sale at the barbershop.
The rosters that ship with NFL Street 2 are a bit problematic. Too many known NFL players are missing considering which obscure NFL pros made the cut. No Roy Williams and or Larry Fitzgerald means Lions and Cardinals fans, respectively, will have something to be upset about even though they're both mathematically alive in the playoff race as of press time. And what no Deion Sanders or Antonio Gates? If the rosters are updated enough to have Jerry Rice on the Seahawks and Ben Roethlisberger has appropriately gaudy ratings, then why can't we get a little Primetime in our lives?
The look of Street 2 is stylized for several reasons. Communicating the "out-of-the-stadium" feel of the game and letting gamers appreciate the personalities of the players is a lot easier when you can see facial expressions and outlandish outfits. Also squaring a few edges here and there makes for smoother frame rate. Even though we're talking third and fourth generation game engines here, the developers are Tiburon are still doing the little things to keep the visuals looking smooth.
The details in the players is very impressive when you're on the character customization screen but for the most part you're not going to be able to see most of the tatts, medallions and G-Unit sneakers during the run of play since the camera perspective is so far above the football field. During the quick on-field close-ups and cut-scenes after touchdowns and big plays you can see the specific little things that make players unique. You can see Keenan McDardell's face under his bucket hat or recognize Randy Moss's scowling mug when they give the first down sign or flap their arms after a TD.
The animations are pretty impressive once you get into the game and start appreciating how nuanced the different moves can be when you're pulling off one after another in the blink of an eye. In fact the animation is a huge part of the Street 2 experience since reading and reacting to moves that aren't a part of conventional NFL football is the whole point of the game. Knowing where to be to pull off a wall move on a hotspot is done by feel more than anything, because the player zips into the wall plant animation unexpectedly. The hotdogging moves are easiest to recognize since the player and the game slow down a tad to make sure you see it. It's the same for laterals and pitches. Whenever the ball is loose on a fumble or other exchange it can be hard to see, even with that crazy orange, white and black paint job. You get used to it, but for those that are new to the NFL Street experience it can make the learning curve a little tougher.
I still think custom celebrations and more interactive playing fields are necessary if this franchise is going to reach its potential. The subtle differences between playing surfaces are just that: too subtle. And if ESPN NFL 2K5 can have user-controlled, custom celebrations, then why can't we have all that and then some for this over the top arcade game? It's got so many other fun over-the-top visuals already with the trick plays, and showing-off during the run of play that the lack of a full fledged celebration system when you score a touchdown is conspicuous by its absence.
It's nice to have the player chatter and zany sound effects to help bring this unique football experience to life. Because other than those elements, all you've got is the music to fill your ears throughout gameplay and menu surfing and that gets old quickly. The mix of hip hop and rock tunes is pretty fresh with a few familiar tunes scattered here and there. You'll have to check IGN Music for opinions on the songs themselves but as a group the tracks from everybody from Nas to Mase to Papa Roach seem to fit in well.
Veteran West Coast rhymer Xzibit lends his unique voice to the game and his character is the one that'll guide you through the single player create-a-character mode. He's got a new song included in the game but after watching him slang EA games on his MTV show for months now, he's a natural fit in NFL Street 2.
The sound effects are crucial to the game since they serve to let you know what animation a player is doing even if you can't quite make it out on screen. The sounds of a player doing style move in the open field is unique and you should get used to hearing it. The sounds of juke moves, wall moves and other special animations will have to be music to your ears, especially if you're going to get through some of the events and challenges in the single player modes.
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