EA Sports well and truly have the magic touch at the moment, and their FIFA football franchise is leading the way. Now finally receiving the critical praise to go with the exceptional sales, FIFA 12 has scored an exceptional 90 overall on Metacritic and by January was the fastest selling sports title of all time; a successful year by anyone's standards. Now, it would be unlike EA to flog a horse once it's bolted so low-and-behold, the FIFA Street franchise, long gone after a slow, painful death (anybody who played cel-shaded incarnation FIFA Street 3 will know exactly what I mean) has resurrected just in time to fill the three month gap before FIFA Euro 2012 is released, which in turn will be three months before big daddy FIFA 13 appears. Is that enough football for you?
For those who don't know, FIFA Street is the little git on the park who pulls 3 step-overs and a shuffle from side to side until everybody gets bored waiting for him to do something, as opposed to the sturdy, reliable, Scott Parker-esque normal FIFA. FIFA Street is your MTV of football games, and the worry is that, as a footballing experience, it's more style over substance. Unfortunately, a few hours on the demo have not eleviated these fears.
As you would expect, everything is very flash, very in-your-face-popping-360s cool; kits have been replaced by sleeveless tops, three-quarter trackies and the like. Admittedly, when it says street, this is not like any streets I grew up in Manchester on; these are arenas, with announcers, audiences, huge lights and not a car in sight (I may be in for a long wait for the 'jumpers for goalposts' edition). It went the other way in career mode; I was 'texted' for a game in the North-West of England by my creepy looking mate, where we ended up playing in what looked like a prison yard in Compton. The general idea is either a 5 v 5 or 3 v 3 no-rules game in which contests are a matter of skill, pace, and skill. These can take the form of either normal matches i.e. score more than the opposition, or free-style matches i.e. get more skill points than the opposition. Skill points are unsurprisingly earned by doing skills, taking on the opposition etc; the more skills you do and can build into a combo the more points you get. Simple. In the demo, the system is a little bit rough; the CPU was getting points for walking past me whereas I would do a triple-loop-nutmeg-whatever and get a sarcastic applause from the crowd as if I'd tried to juggle a cat.
This is not the only place the demo is rough. Criminally, especially after the hoo-hah over the new defensive system in the FIFA 12, most of the new options for tackling have been removed, making most contests for the ball a non-event; you are simply not supposed to tackle in this game. Even the obligatory slide-tackle is removed, a vital component of any no-rules game; instead, you have a jockeying manoeuvre which does not work and a standing tackle which does not work. Annoyingly, the standing tackle has the same punishment/trade-off system as FIFA 12 but without any possibility of winning the ball. This is a huge mistake on EA Sports' part; if the cocky kid in the park starts pulling tricks, you kick the bugger (at least I do). It may not be pretty, but at least the point is made; you have a chance. Football is all about finding ways to beat your opposition, be it hook or crook. Here? No. Instead, you basically take part in a multiplayer version of air hockey as the ball bounces from one player to another, with no real way to stop them scoring; instead, you must sit and admire as another shot goes through your keeper's legs. Equally, tactics are non-existent; you just stick on five men and watch them pirouette. All aesthetics, no substance.
But, do the aesthetics make up for the lack of real defensive artistry of the game? Do they focus more on attacking play than the defensively revolutionary FIFA 12, allowing for the kamikaze attacks of old? Well, yes and no. The tricks are fun, and getting used to them is easy, but again you're left with the impression that you're just watching a load of pre-determined animations run their course with very little actual input. It's a strangely soulless experience. Gone is the need for tactics or passing; tackling is so bad that nine times out of ten you will beat your man trick or not, but to compensate for it EA have removed any accuracy in the shooting, meaning that a player can beat 3 men, round the keeper and blaze wide from a yard. For all the tricks and moves, the simplest way to score is similar to real 5-a-side football; pass it long up the middle to your goal-hanging striker to slip under the keeper. Simple, but effective, unlike the rest of the game. In many ways FIFA Street is a very haphazard experience, akin to a football version of Need for Speed: Underground. There's lots of posturing, ooing and ahing, comparing of equipment and all that, but no real heart, or identity; it's all very superfluous. It's a shame, because at times it's fun, and pulling a trick on a mate never gets old; but that's all it is really, pulling off tricks.
I think this is the crux of the matter; as a game, there is absolutely no reason for FIFA Street to exist, other than as a flashy, expensive gimmick. Indoor pitches have been done before in FIFA, such as the legendary one on FIFA 98, and there is no reason why this could not have been included as an extra game mode for the normal FIFA; in many ways, it just feels like an expansion pack anyway. EA have taken what could have been a decent feature and turned it into a game which, on the basis of the demo, doesn't really stand up by itself. What should be a fun outing is instead a shallow, hollow comparison to the full FIFA experience, removing all that is good about the real game and replacing it with a series of show-boating animations. If that's how you like your football, fine. Me? I like mine with a little more grit and soul.
The full review will be in shortly. This demo was played on the Xbox 360.