I'd suspect that Chad Johnson breathed a little sigh of relief when they chose him for the cover of NFL Street 3. That now puts him out of the running for a position on the box of its bigger brother, the perennial Madden, and the ominous omen of doom that accompanies it. That infamous curse which purportedly lands injuries and performance dips on the bold stars that grace the front of each year's edition may be a lot of superstitious nonsense, but it never pays to be too careful, you know. Instead, the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver gurns on the front of the last last-gen EA Big American football title. Look! There he is thrusting a multi-coloured football in our faces, flicking three of his digits at us in a gangsta-style pose. He's safe.
Certainly, he's an easy fit for the game inside: Johnson's showboating style on the pitch and his excessive touchdown celebrations are at the core of the NFL Street games, each of which desires to pull away the blanket of reserved sports professionalism that Madden snuggles up in for a grittier, bare basics version of the game. Fields are ad-hoc venues: grassed-over drive-ins, empty warehouses, and abandoned historical sites (and at least one street, worried pedants) with no crowds, no cheerleaders, just burly men easing out some aggression. Players lack padding, playing in mismatched jerseys, trash-talking their opponents with obligatory sass. Games are first-to-win challenges, lacking quarters, referees, punts or field goals.
Anyone who sniffed around Tiburon's last efforts will know the drill. New to this addition is an improved Game Breaker mode. After scoring a set number of points from successful manoeuvres, you gradually fill up a bar. When full, you can assign a special, near unstoppable, game-imbalancing special move to offensive and defensive plays. Also present, and adding to the wall-running feats introduced in the second game, NFL Street 3 introduces in-air play. Players can jump to aid in pitch passes or leap acrobatically onto and over the various objects that scatter the field. To that effect, advantage tokens and collectibles litter the impromptu gridiron, grabbed by a short hop into the sky.
It may sound OTT, but despite its claims of instant gratification, you'd be better off thinking of this more as Madden Lite and less Madden Arcade. At its heart it still retains a hardcore foundation that prevents it from being the truly essential quick-blast play it'd like to be.
But the real problem with NFL Street games are that they veer towards EA Big's slick, corporate image of cool more than they do the ridiculous, sublime exuberance of something like the awesome SSX Tricky. You can see it in the haute couture shopping feature where you get to play dress-up with a range of largely pointless clothes and accessories. Or in the godawful hip-hop / guitar metal soundtrack played through the branded EA Trax front (which hyperactively insists of restarting a song every time you switch to a menu screen, etc. which, given the short nature of most games, quickly becomes irritating). Yet it also seeps into the actual game itself somewhat. It's hard to put a finger on it, but it's missing a certain rawness. There's an ‘oomph' that's not there which would have blessed it with a special touch. The players lack a weight to their tackles or a grace to their spins and jukes. Tiburon's system works perfectly fine with Madden as we know, but Street play should feel more rough and ready. The new jumping feature for instance, seem like inclusion for inclusion's sake rather than changing the dynamic of the game considerably.
Don't get me wrong, it's perfectly fine if, like I said, you want a cut-down Madden. It's certainly not lacking in modes and features. The central Respect the Street mode moves you through different US locations facing up to regional teams in different styles of game. One may ask you to run or pass a certain amount of yards to win, another to score points by playing defensively, or even just play traditionally and get more than the other side does within a certain amount of time. Winning games and earning - that's right - Respect points unlocks better teams to play against in different venues and allows you to boost your stats. On the side, single play and mini-game modes offer high-score distractions such as trying to catch as many passes as you can, or hold on to the ball longest. In addition, an Achievement-aping points system also makes an appearance, rewarding you for successful feats, although it's a little disparaging when you realise you can't exploit them in an online peacock-style ritual of dominance, only buy a new hairstyle and a pair of trousers.
With all the good intentions in the world, though, overall enjoyment in the modes quickly loses steam within too short a time. Even with a spit and polish to the visuals and the usual effortless presentation it can't help but feel tiring after a while. Maybe if it hadn't been much more than a re-iteration of the last couple of games, or if it had been two steps instead of one away from Madden, I'd have liked it more. Of course, EA Sports fans are used to minor increments in their games and this is no exception. As always, it's a safe bet to say that this is the best in the series so far, although if you've played previous and don't have a single-minded devotion for any kind of sports-corporate cool, you'd be better off holding your breath for the inevitable next-gen instalment.