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GAME REVIEW: NFL Tour

De-Tour de Farce :Tiburon's latest arcade effort tackles identity crisis

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NFL Tour
Xbox 360, Electronic Arts, $40
Rated E
www.ea.com

I wanted bling. They gave me bland.

To be honest, that wasn't what I was expecting from EA's latest arcade football offering. Through three iterations, the NFL Street series had garnered a tidy following (including yours truly) by offering something that was a cartoony, occasionally exhilarating counterpart to Madden's stat-heavy seriousness.

Lining up a set of Redksins in matching fedoras and red 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 elimination mode was legendary.

Exactly none of these made it into NFL Tour, the reboot of the Street series that hit stores and next-gen consoles in January. The game's producers claim they were aiming for a game that captured the feel of what would happen if the NFL held tour events featuring star players in short, seven-on-seven games.

Mission accomplished. But casualties are heavy.

In chasing a more, um, "professional" look, EA has managed instead to pay homage to the image of the NFL as the "No Fun League." Playing through another four-minute matchup that felt an awful lot like the 10 that had preceded it, I found myself reminded of The Superstars, that Saturday-afternoon show ABC Sports used to air in the 1970s featuring 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.

When I spoke to Phil Frazier, the senior producer for NFL Tour, he politely denied 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," he says. "The NFL did support the decision, however."

That's probably not surprising, given that 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 — 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 almost see through it — no reverses, only four-man coverages. And with only five play modes, two of which are mini-games carried over from Street 3, there's not that much to do.

In part, that's by design.

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 become intimidated by the complexity of his product. 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. For newbies, trying to survive at the veteran level in Madden 08 is like a third grader trying to block 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 videogame announcers. ("I am videogame 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 try to break tackles or wrap up slippery running backs.

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 is likely to be blindsided by the same kind of pass rush that sacked Madden as it tried to navigate the next-gen gap two years ago. Madden 06 trotted to the line of scrimmage with no dynasty mode. 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.

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