NFL Street is dead, long live NFL Tour! Okay, so the official word from EA Sports isn't that the Street football series is dead and buried, but we do know that the publisher is focused firmly on its new arcade pigskin game, one that is reminiscent of the old Street series but not without a few twists of its own. At a recent EA Sports press event, we got our first hands-on look at the game, and managed to score a few touchdowns and blow up a few QBs in the process.
In some ways, NFL Tour will feel familiar to Street vets. It's still seven-on-seven arcade football, full of spectacular moves, (a bit toned down) wall-running jukes, and exaggerated character models. Consequently, what sets the game apart is the approach. First, from a presentation standpoint, this is an NFL game through and through. (Did you see the San Diego Chargers' Shawne Merriman on the cover?) In the game's single-player career mode, you'll create a character from scratch and then send him across the country to take on all comers in an effort to gain the grandest of grand prizes: an NFL contract. Will you be able to upload your created character to next year's Madden after you beat the single-player game? Producers said it's something they are investigating at the moment, so expect more news on that in the coming weeks.
As the first EA Sports arcade football game on next-generation consoles, NFL Tour will also be a step up visually from the Street series. Though we haven't seen all of the stadiums the game will offer, the one on-hand during our play time with the game was a flashy-looking outdoor arena full of bright lights, bustling sidelines full of onlookers, and fireworks displays for big plays on the field. Of course, there's still work yet to be done: The lighting was a bit too bright in some areas, the frame rate needed work in both versions of the game, and character models weren't always in tip-top shape. Considering that there's still a few months left in the development process--the game is due for release in January--we expect to see big visual improvements in the near future for the game.
Where NFL Tour really sets itself apart from the Street series is with its controls and features. For example, take passing. In an effort to simplify the sometimes bewildering number of button options a player has when dropping back in the pocket, NFL Tour has attempted to simplify things a bit. First of all, the A button (or X on the PlayStation 3) will pass the ball to whoever is your primary receiver. However, instead of using icon passes, you'll cycle through your available receivers with the B button (or circle). It's an old-school touch that, after years of playing Madden, takes some getting used to. But Madden vets, have no fear, because you'll still be able to enable icon passing if you want.
The default controls in NFL Tour will encourage button mashing of a sort. For instance, when controlling a defensive lineman, you'll want to repeatedly press the A button to break through the offensive line and get after the quarterback. When running the ball, you'll sometimes be required to press buttons to muscle your way out of a potential tackle. Finally, there's the counter-and-reversal system, which adds an entirely new level of interactivity to running with the ball.
Here's how it works: When a ball handler is approached by a tackler, you'll have the option to reverse his tackle by pressing the A button. An icon will pop up that shows you the window of time you have to perform the reversal. A reversal can be countered by the other player by pressing the X button. There's some subtle timing involved in determining who wins these reversal/counter matchups, beyond the mere twitch mechanic of pressing the buttons at the right time--the player getting hit has the first opportunity to reverse the play but, more importantly, the player initiating the contact (in this example, the ball carrier) always has the last chance at getting the best out of the contact.
The result is that, when running the ball, you are constantly looking to initiate contact first by pressing the A button. In addition, any contact at all will slow down a ball carrier. This gives the opposing team enough time to catch up and try to bring him down, which often results in yet another reversal/counter minigame. These minigame matchups don't happen on every play from scrimmage, but they're frequent enough to keep things interesting each time you snap the ball.
Gamebreakers are a thing of the past in NFL Tour. Can we get a hallelujah on that? Having never been fans of the old gamebreaker mechanic, we certainly aren't sad to see it go. That said, the so-called smash meter is reminiscent of the old system. Performing successful plays in the game will fill up a meter at the bottom of the screen. When you've filled it completely, you'll have access to a special defensive play that will more or less take away a play from the offense. Producers liken it to the old Tecmo Bowl method of calling the exact same play as your opponent and shutting things down completely for that play. It won't result in an instant score, or an automatic fumble or interception; instead, it's an easy way to shut down the offense for a single play. However, it can have an effect on the final score when used strategically. According to producers, you can expect to earn around five of these smash-meter moves per game.
As in Street, playbooks in the game are pretty rudimentary on defense. There are a handful of plays for sets such as man, zone, and blitz. On offense, things open up a bit, with plays organized between run, short pass, and long pass. You can expect to see run-of-the-mill plays, as well loads of specialized trick plays, such as the option and the flea flicker (the "flicker" portion of which wasn't actually working too well in the build we played).
Beyond the single-player NFL Tour mode, the game will also include quick play and exhibition modes. In exhibition matches, you can set the rules and scoring as you like. For example, you can choose to play "make it, take it" rules, where the player who scores a touchdown gets the ball back immediately. Another cool rule variation is the fantasy game type, where you can attach point values to things such as sacks, interceptions, complete passes, etc., which results in a fantasy-football-like game that can result in some truly over-the-top scores. Online head-to-head play will be part of the NFL Tour package, as well as a couple of minigames: a "kill the man with the ball" minigame played in a circular stadium, as well as red-zone rush, which will pit you against a defensive team and challenge you to make as many reversals or counters as you possibly can.
Although the game makes its concessions to arcade styling with wall runs and over-the-top catch animations, the pace of the game feels slightly slower than the Street games of old. It's not Madden but, in our opinion, it could stand to be sped up a bit. In addition, Tour's passing needs some work--the build we played featured no way to lead receivers or toss bullet passes, which resulted in lots of lobbed, easily picked-off passes. The good news? No punting, no field goals, heck, no kicking at all. Ah, football without kickers. It sounds like such a nice dream, doesn't it?
With Street possibly going the way of the dodo, and no word on another Arena Football game in the works, NFL Tour looks to fill EA Sports' "midwinter" football slot nicely.