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I wanted bling. They gave me bland. To be honest, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting upon playing the latest arcade-football offering from Orlando’s own EA Tiburon, purveyors of gridiron goodness.

Through three iterations, Tiburon’s NFL Street series had garnered a tidy arcade football–lovin’ following (including yours truly) by offering something that was a cartoony, occasionally exhilarating counterpart to the stat-heavy seriousness that is Madden.

Lining up a set of Minnesota Vikings in 2006’s NFL Street 3 – each wearing matching fedoras and purple sunglasses – was hilarious. Winning 10 games in a row and having the Chargers’ Antonio Gates ask to join your squad was cool. Edging the Indianapolis Colts with only one play remaining in play-elimination mode was legendary.

Exactly none of those things made it into NFL Tour, EA Tiburon’s reboot of the Street series that hit stores and next-gen consoles last week. The producers claim that they were aiming for a game that captured the feel of what would happen if the NFL actually held tour events featuring their star players in short, seven-on-seven competitions.

Mission accomplished, but the casualties may be heavy. In chasing a more “professional” look, Tiburon has managed instead to pay homage to the image of the NFL as the “No Fun League.” Playing through yet another four-minute matchup, I found myself reminded of The Superstars; that Saturday-afternoon ABC Sports show aired in the 1970s and focused on athletes from different sports competing in meaningless games of skill – that is, before they realized that the athletes could get hurt running playground obstacle courses.  

Phil Frazier, senior producer for NFL Tour, politely denies that the heavy hand of NFL commish Roger Goodell, who’s been spit-
shining the NFL’s image to a blinding glare, had anything to do with the switch from street to staid. “They didn’t push us to go this way,” he says. “The NFL did support the decision, however.”

That’s probably not surprising, given all the thuggish elements that had become synonymous with Street – racking up points for taunting, the oversized gold necklaces, playing games in deserted warehouses and trash-strewn alleys. Those features have evaporated into something much more benign: NFL stars going through the motions in oddly similar arena-style stadiums.

In more ways than one, NFL Tour is a stripped-down affair. The playbook is so thin you can see through it – no reverses, only four-man coverages. And with only five play modes, two of which are minigames carried over from Street 3, there’s not that much to do. In part, that’s by design.

Like a lot of the gang at EA Tiburon, Frazier cut his teeth in the Madden trenches – he spent 10 years working on the game and as the years went on, he began to notice something.

“The game has gotten a little unruly,” he says. “Frankly, I was getting intimidated by the product.”

Frazier’s got a legitimate point. Anyone who’s picked up a controller and tried to call a play in Madden over the last three years knows that the complexity of EA’s signature series has become overwhelming, even to skilled players. A newbie surviving at the veteran level in Madden NFL 2008 is as likely as a third-grader blocking Michael Strahan.

But while noobs will probably appreciate the fact that completing games takes about 10 minutes instead of 40, they might not be willing to invest in the game’s Tour mode, featuring repetitive matchups with every other NFL team.

Here’s hoping they like bad jokes. ESPN’s Trey Wingo provides commentary that can only be construed as verbal torture, cycling 10 jokes about repetitive video-game announcers. (“I am video-game announcer; hear me repeat.”) Player animations are totally out of sync with the on-field action – players flex and preen after dropping passes and getting sacked.

NFL Tour does have at least one groundbreaking feature, which gives hope for the possibility of NFL Tour 2: that’d be the reversal system, which has you mashing buttons on offense and defense to break tackles or wrap up slippery running backs.

“We’ve taken elements that have traditionally been in the control of the computer and put them in the hands of the player,” Frazier says.

It’s currently too tricky to manage on defense – the CPU opposition goes Adrian Peterson on the D three or four times each game. Combine that with the game’s total lack of pass defense, and it becomes clear that the only reliable way to chalk a “W” is to always go for the two-point conversion and always be the last team with the ball. (Think of it like facing the Patriots every game.)   

Ultimately, NFL Tour – and by extension, Tiburon – is blindsided by the same kind of pass rush that sacked Madden as it tried to navigate the next-gen gap. Madden trotted to the line of scrimmage with no dynasty mode and more holes than the Chargers’ lineup in last week’s playoff game; two years later, Madden ’08 is feature-packed and receiving raves.

The difference – and it’s a sizable one – is that Madden has a rabid, built-in following that’s generally willing to overlook an off year, the same way that Dolphins fans have overlooked most of the last five seasons. The arcade lovers may not be as forgiving a bunch. By tossing out the bling and the edge in search of a more casual audience, Tiburon may have tossed out its arcade fan base as well. Guess we’ll find out next season – assuming there is one.


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