NFL Tour promises "intuitive controls" and "fast paced gameplay", which means "for stupid people" in blurb speak. Well, when it comes to American football, a lot of us are stupid. Never mind knowing the teams, how many of us know what a safety is? Probably not that many. But a game that dumbs the sport down to an approachable arcade level could actually work here. Possibly. With Superbowl XLII on Sunday to give it some context (go Patriots!), let's find out.
Things start off brightly as an Exhibition match dumps you on a reduced-size pitch with padded walls, seven players a side and about two buttons to remember: B changes the receiver, A throws the ball. You pick a play that looks good from the two-dozen available and then either throw the ball hopefully towards your chosen receiver once all the tackly people have head-butted one another, or run the ball forwards hoping to take advantage of the other team's poor movement. Meanwhile, a man says things over the top and any and all success no matter how insignificant is followed by grotesque dancing and climbing all over the scenery.
Physical confrontations are met with button prompts above the players' heads, allowing runners with good timing to steam through challenges. Defenders can do the same sort of thing with the opposite result. Those after a bit more control can also break out a three-button system that assigns a button to each possible receiver and lets you throw to them by mashing the corresponding letter, which is a bit more traditional, and there are also more advanced controls for things like diving to gain a final yard (so, press X). Fumbles and interceptions are about as complicated as turnover gets. For those who have never understood American football or made any effort to, the only other (basic) rule that's relevant here is that as the team in possession you get four attempts (downs) to push forward ten yards, after which possession is turned over.
Adding a bit of variety to the otherwise-repetitive cycle of short games against the usual NFL "franchises" are a pair of mini-games: Redzone Rush and Smash & Dash. The latter is played in a round arena where the idea is to hold onto the ball for as long as possible while the other player or group of players tries to tackle you, and the former is a one-on-one or two-on-two game of taking it in turns to rush the endzone without being blocked off.
These are absolutely rubbish. Redzone Rush is an easy way to get 150 gamerpoints, but otherwise about as much fun as penalty shootouts in football games. Smash & Dash is kiss-chase with commentary and clunky controls.
Apart from a feature-light character creation tool at the front end of the single-player Tour mode and ranked and unranked online matches, and 14 unlockable Achievements named after other EA games (Need For Speed, for example, is for a 40-yard touchdown with no turbo boosting) that's the entire game really. Ta-da. It's easy to see how NFL Tour could still be good, as you both duck and weave and manoeuvre to execute your choice of play, with reaction times as well as strategic thought rewarded. Unfortunately, though, it isn't good.
There are lots of reasons for this. First of all, the artificial intelligence is pretty dreadful, utterly failing to block simple attacking runs that can turn a game completely. On everything but "Legend" difficulty (the top one of four), I was able to win by double-digit margins on my first go. And while the controls are responsive enough, the reversal system of matched-button mashing dominates and turns out to be a poor substitute for letting skill determine breakthroughs. In the end it's a toss-up between trying for a run or hoofing the ball long and hoping it's caught. It might be. You never know.
Across the pond, EA's presentational decisions have divided opinion. Some people like the commentator, Trey Wingo, who doesn't just talk over the game but actually appears in the Tour mode wearing a suit, with what looks suspiciously like a bundle of dollars sticking out of his breast pocket, asking if you're ready to go baby yeah woo go etc. I don't mind Trey Wingo - he's certainly got an excellent name - but he is massively repetitive. He says things like "Second down, but no gimme here for a first" about a dozen times in the space of your first two games, and rather apologetically EA has filled out his repertoire with self-referential jokes about how rubbish repetitive commentator dialogue is in games, which is funny the first time and then self-fulfilling forever after.
On the pitch, which looks like Neapolitan ice cream, animation is quite impressive apart from when the players' movement is interrupted by the wall at the end of a play and they run up against it, legs rotating bizarrely, in front of a comically synchronised crowd full of low-poly grey-shirts as spotlights probe the gridiron and the camera sweeps around capturing the amazing car park graphics in the background. I'm being harsh - it's not offensive, it's just bland, much like NFL Tour itself - but the game hasn't given me much else to talk about. Would you like to hear about the soundtrack, featuring the likes of Biffy Clyro and Young Dre?
Probably not. I guessed at the beginning that NFL Tour is an NFL game for thickos. There are no injuries, field goals, audibles, safeties, penalties; it's just pick a play and then pick up and play, with as few things to think about as possible. We expected that, but it turns out it's also the main reason that NFL Tour is rubbish: American football needs these things. It needs a bit of complexity and nuance. Without it, it's only ever slightly entertaining, and if you catch the Superbowl and it catches your interest, you're much better off reading up on the rules a bit and buying one of the much better Madden games instead.