Another day, another EA Sports game. Soon scientists will be able to ditch the decay of caesium atoms and base all time measurement on EA Sports' release schedule. Notorious for pumping out a new FIFA title every 56 days, some genius at EA came up with the Streets brand of sporting games. These are basically the same vapid cash-cows as the proper sports games but radically simplified and then restyled into an urban theme so as to capture the 10-16 year old market. Somewhere along the way the essence of the sports these Street games purport to emulate has been radically altered, leaving gamers with fully branded and licensed sports titles that are more akin to Dance Dance Revolution than the World Cup.
FIFA Street is ostensibly four-a-side football played out in a variety of urban settings like dust pitches in Rio to skate parks in Marseilles. Five-a-side has sporadically made an appearance as an extra football games. Here it is reduced by a man and tricked it out into a full price standalone game. If there was nothing more to the game than FIFA 2005 with seven men stripped out and tarmac replacing grass, then interest would dwindle quicker than your libido after a come on from Janet Street Porter. So FIFA Street takes the trick style approach, with more buttons on the controller being assigned to performing flashy moves than kicking the actual ball. The right thumbstick is the trick-stick which you wiggle in a random fashion in combination with trigger and button presses in the hope that some useful chain of moves will build up in the combo meter, racking up trick points until you get enough to light up the Gamebreaker feature. Common to the Street series of games, the Gamebreaker is basically a super-powerful shot which is most likely to go in the back of the net.
Now maybe there is some method to this flashy trick business, but the very brief non-interactive tutorial film remained coy on any of the specific moves and the lack of a manual left this reviewer floundering away at the joypad more in hope than control. It is satisfying when your team manages to bounce the ball between their heads a few successive times before passing it on to your striker who does a backwards bicycle kick to bury the ball in the back of the net. However, when this happened it often seemed in direct contravention of the commands I thought that I had passed onto my players. And here we come to the first of a multitude of problems which plague FIFA Street. I never really felt in full control of my players. They seemed more concerned with doing their own thing, which often seemingly involved inspecting the graffiti on the walls for tags they recognise. During dead ball situations it's not infrequent for all the players to stand stock-still like they are engaged in a mass impromptu impersonation of statues. As the same thing can happen when the ball is shooting around the tiny pitch, I often found myself hurling the worst abuse at my players that any virtual footballer has had to endure in my may years of playing football games.
Your team-mates will try to stick to their man like glue, even for a few crucial milliseconds after you assume control. Otherwise they have absolutely no initiative and will saunter around the pitch as if they were trying to figure out how to how to solve Fermat's last theorem using nothing but a twig and sprinkle of salt. Intelligence is not a word often associated with the real game of football: intelligence is nowhere to be seen in your virtual players. Even selecting them manually is a chore with control often going to a man off-screen before that vital defender. Direction changes also tend to present huge obstacles. It's as if the momentum system from the full FIFA game has been lifted straight into Street with no alterations made for a pitch that is about a tenth the size of normal. So what should have been a reasonable amount of distance to turn on a full grass pitch is ridiculously lengthy here, with your player getting round to running in the right direction a full second after the opposing player has screamed past them. In fact, I would imagine that very little tweaking has been done to the underlying football mechanics other than ramming in some behavioural code from an NHL or NBA game.
The skill of your starting players in Rule the Street is so low that it can take them over a second to get up after a tumble, and their ability to string together combos is so poor that it takes an age to accrue the Skill Bills which are the game's currency. The fact that even the earliest opposing goalie has a skill of 30, (the player's will be around 11-13) gives a big hint at the sort of cheats going on to make the game work at all. There's also not much finesse to this game. The tiny size of the pitch leaves little scope for actual football. The tricks can lead to some amusing moments, but as success in the match and especially the campaign is so reliant on racking up huge trick scores the dexterity required by the control system is obscene. For example, to pull off a fancy high pass you have to hold down the left trigger, press the B button and flick the right stick. I don't have that many hands. So rather than stringing together a bunch of successive passes or opening up the defence with a searing run down the wing, FIFA Street is won by pushing buttons like beat-em ups are going out of style.
The meat of the game is the aforementioned Rule the Street mode. Here you build up a squad which you then play off against other street teams, (all made up of international sporting superstars, naturally) in kick abouts. Playing these matches supposedly increases your player's skills and will accrue you SBs depending on how stylish your match was, which can then be spent on upgrading your team. Get your team's rating up high enough and you can enter that area's knockout tournament. Win this and another zone in another country unlocks so you can repeat the process all over again. As matches are won by the first team to score five goals the relative strength of the opposing goalies to your player's abilities means games can last upwards of twenty minutes. Consider that you will have to win eight matches before you get to enter the first competition and you can begin to appreciate just how long it would take to finish the campaign. The constrained pitch size and reliance on tricks leave little room for gameplay which is a pleasure and a challenge to master, so the desire to play through to final victory was utterly absent from my mind.
Irrationally, EA have decided to remove all Live functionality from the European releases of their sports games. Even though all the coding has been done and is present in the North American versions, for some inexplicable reason EA have seen fit to provide European gamers with a lot less product than their North American cousins. What you are left with is local multiplayer where up to four gamers can face off in teams of two. There's also a friendly match option where you can just have a leisurely kick about with the team of your choice. There's also the option to create a dream team, but as you can only use this team against the computer or in multiplayer it's not much of an attraction.
Like all EA sports games the curse of The Sims is all too evident. Apparently, a while back someone at EA made the decision that what gamers really wanted was the chance to play Barbies with their favourite sporting stars. Accompanying the now-standard player appearance options, which are typically comprehensive to the point of ridiculousness (this gimmick is wearing seriously thin), there are a host of clothing options to unlock. Yup, play for twenty hours and you are rewarded with a pair of bright orange surf shorts. Which only your virtual dollies, I mean footballers, can wear. For all its purported ghetto toughness this fevered attraction to girly dressing-up makes me wonder whether this game should be in the psychiatrists couch rather than the shelf. Additionally, the animation is often left wanting. Players sometimes move around the pitch in stiff jerky movements and the joins between many of the moves are often rough, with obvious jumps in both ball and player movement all the more obvious because of the close up nature of the action. The graphics are otherwise rather good, with the players looking particularly impressive even if their bodies resemble NBA players. The pitch backgrounds are varied yet there's no life to them as they are devoid of any incidental animations.
Being a Street title, the presentation is seeped in urban ghetto culture. Or what the marketing men reckon is urban ghetto culture. This means that there's a whole bunch of frantic licensed tracks and some over-zealous commentating. If the entire game was full of that shite called urban music, or even more laughably, R&B, that floats around the British music charts like so much effluent, I would have been hurting inside. So it's a relief that the music is pleasingly varied, with music from most of the cultures in the game getting a look in. While they occasionally let some crap seep in, whoever is in charge of EA Tracks licensing division really has a good handle on their job.
As do the EA marketing people. This game has been heavily promoted on TV and print and will no doubt sell in large numbers. And even though the game is often very sloppy and a mess to control and despite the fact that the trick system makes FIFA Street less about football than THPS, most of those consumers will probably be fairly content with their purchase. You see, even though I was astonished by the terrible controls, infuriated by gameplay and dismayed at the barrenness of game modes I did find myself playing this game more than was necessary to write this review. It did have a certain pull over me which I am somewhat ashamed to admit, considering the slapdash and cynical nature of the title. I doubt I will still be playing it in a week unless it's with a few friends over some beers, but for a while I did manage to take some enjoyment from the game. FIFA Street could well be a good game by the time it comes round to its third or fourth sequel, but for the moment it stands as a testament to the creative and technical desolation that characterises so much game development these days.