NFL Street 3 and its cover star, Chad Johnson, seem like a match made in heaven. NFL Street 3 for the PlayStation Portable is a fast-paced and hard-hitting game and, like the talented and outspoken Cincinnati Bengals receiver, is not averse to a bit of trash talk. Unfortunately, NFL Street 3 isn't consistently entertaining, and the new wrinkles in its gameplay don't do enough to differentiate it from previous games in the series. Unlike Ocho Cinco, Street 3 is probably a bit too safe for its own good.
Within the EA pantheon of NFL-licensed games, the Street series is the hard-hitting, fast-moving answer to the Blitz series of old, sans the over-the-top wrestling slams and gleefully cheesy voice-overs. As are previous entries in the series, NFL Street 3 is a stripped-down version of football with simplified playbooks, seven-on-seven gameplay, button-mashing simplicity, and a nice sampling of real-life NFL players to play as (or against). Where the third game in the series differs from its predecessors is with its single-player career mode, known as "respect the street", a number of new twists on the standard street-football game types, and a few control tweaks for good measure.
Respect the street is the centerpiece of the game's single-player game, and if nothing else, there are an awful lot of games to play in this mode. Spread across a number of US locales (all of which are the homes of one or more NFL franchises, naturally), the mode has you taking on teams comprising NFL players and their fictional buddies, as well as full-fledged NFL clubs. Winning games earns you cash to buy new gear with and, more importantly, respect. As your respect piles up, you'll open up new areas to compete in and new plays in your playbook, as well as the option to cherry-pick players from other teams and spot points to your opponents (and earn more respect in the process).
Respect the street mode features a number of different match types, and not all of them have to do with the number of touchdowns you score. New match types, such as time attack, play elimination, and bank are a welcome change of pace. Time attack puts a time limit on the game itself, as well as each team's possession; if you fail to score within a minute, possession switches to the other team. Play elimination is even more interesting--should you fail to gain any positive yardage with a running, passing, or trick play in your arsenal, that play is removed from your playbook. The first player to erase all the opposing player's plays is the winner. Bank is another fine addition. Here, all the gamebreaker points earned by either team are put into a common pool--the first team to score a touchdown earns the balance of the points, and the first team to earn a certain level of points wins the game.
The central strategic component to these match types (as well as the more straightforward games) is the new and somewhat improved gamebreaker system. NFL Street 2 was criticized for its gamebreaker system that took much, if not all, of the control over a play away from the user. In Street 3, not only can you decide when you want to use your gamebreaker, but you also have some control over the plays themselves. Gamebreakers can be used on both sides of the ball. On defense, you can lay a punishing hit on a ball carrier or leap up into the air for a guaranteed interception. On offense, you can use them to break open huge holes for your runner or make rocketlike passes downfield. A concussive shockwave effect--more muted than that found on the PS2 version-- accompanies each gamebreaker, which is supposed to knock down surrounding opponents but doesn't always work.
Unlike in the previous game, using a gamebreaker does not necessarily guarantee a touchdown--even if you make a long pass downfield with a gamebreaker, for example, you can still be tracked down and tackled. It won't be long before you figure out clever strategies using these power-ups, such as banking the maximum of three gamebreakers during play elimination matches and then using them in quick succession to finish off your opponent's playbook.
Other modes in the game include quick game; exhibition modes, where you can play through a number of different match types, including the aforementioned bank, playbook elimination, and time attack; and street events such as four-on-four and open-field showdown, among others. If you've got a buddy close by who owns the game and a PSP, you can take advantage of wireless play, which will almost certainly provide a stiffer challenge than the majority of matches you'll play in the single-player game.
NFL Street 3's fast-paced, over-the-top gameplay is often successful, though it has frequent moments of utter frustration. In respect the street mode, for example, your created team is mismatched against your opponents in the first few challenges. You'll have to rely on whatever skills you have remaining from previous NFL Street games to get you through those early matches, and if you've never played the series before, it can be that much more exasperating. It's only once you've participated in a number of the special drills found in the mode (which consist of minigames such as the familiar crush-the-carrier and jump-ball challenges) that you can earn some attribute points and improve the members of your team. After the first few drills, your team will improve dramatically, but because attributes get more expensive as you increase them, the incremental improvements in the late game aren't that noticeable.
No one expects a realistic game of football from the Street series, of course, and the flying tackles and wall-jumping backflips are a nice escape from the more straightforward play in the Madden or NCAA series. The wall moves, in particular, have been beefed up. Not only can you literally run sideways on a wall temporarily, you can also perform a number of spins and leaps off the wall that can net you a few extra yards as you go. Style counts in Street 3, as well. Stylish catches, runs, and throws will earn you more gamebreaker points, but as a nice game-balancing decision, using the style modifier too much will often result in costly turnovers.
Still, despite these stylish flourishes, the most frustrating aspect of Street 3's gameplay is its inconsistency--there are times when you will be absolutely dominating a team, only to have them turn around and score three unanswered touchdowns thanks to cheap-feeling interceptions and fumbles, as well as runners who instantly turn from cream puffs into the second coming of Jim Brown. Players getting artificially sucked into blocks is also an annoyance, especially when defending against the run. It's tough to blame an arcade game for rubber-band gameplay--it's practically standard in these types of games--but that doesn't mean you'll want to toss your PSP against the wall any less.
Graphics that look hazy and indistinct on the PlayStation 2 actually fare a bit better on the high-res screen of the PSP, almost as if the game was developed for the Sony handheld and they shoddily upscaled on the PS2. The illegible text in the game is readable, for one thing, and the beefy player models have a bit more personality on the small screen. For the most part, the environments look better too, though some of the nighttime games are a too dark on the PSP's screen, making the darker-skinned players on your team all but invisible on the field. On the plus side, the animations look fine and the game runs at a mostly solid frame rate throughout. The ridiculously long load times of NFL Street 2 have been streamlined a bit as well, though not as well as this probably could be--it takes about 30 seconds to load a game, which is still too long.
The trash talk that's such a big part of the console version of Street 3 has been toned down a good bit--as have the many brief cutscenes that cropped up between big plays on the PS2 game. Still, you won't miss it that much, as the sounds on the field are just fine, with big, chest-caving hits and lots of on-field grunts and yells that keep things interesting. The soundtrack is a standard mix of hip-hop and rock, featuring artists such as Hatebreed, KMFDM, and Sen Dog, though the EA Trax logo that introduces each song manages to take up a huge chunk of the lower screen, which is a minor but consistent annoyance. The best song on the soundtrack is a pretty cool industrial-style remix of Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction" that is edgier than practically anything else found in the game.
And, in the end, that's the biggest trouble with NFL Street 3--it plays it too safe. Though its fast-paced play and pick-up-and-play simplicity work to the game's advantage, there's simply no sense of menace or danger to the over-the-top antics. Sooner or later, even the varied game types and multitude of real-life NFL players begin to blend together and you wind up simply going through the motions in each match. A story mode might have helped here to add a bit more immediacy and involvement to what amounts to simply playing game after game for little more than respect points. Whether a matter of being constrained by the NFL license, or simply going through the motions for another go-around on the PSP, there simply isn't enough that's new in NFL Street 3 for fans of the series to pick this one up. Series newcomers might enjoy this alternate take on football, as there is some fun to be had with the game. But if you're an NFL Street vet, you've had this kind of fun before.