rating:4In the grand tradition of unnecessary disclaimers, this review starts with the assertion that the "Street" of the title doesn't really refer to where the games are played: yes the stadia of world football are replaced with parks, indoor arenas and car parks, but Street is about an ethos, an underground cool that supposedly takes away the ostentation and superfluous ceremony of big stadium football and reclaims. Who it reclaims it for exactly is up for debate: there's obviously an attempt to recapture the after-school, play-til-your-Mam-shouts spirit of backyard football, thanks to the Futsal-like game set-up (small teams, with the impetus on individual flair), but it's still packed with superstars, and there is a typical slickness that sort of undermines the faux-grittiness. This is EA Sports after all. It would perhaps have been a more shrewd move for EA Sports to have named this FIFA Futsal, given the spirit that the game is presented in - but then this latest addition to the behemoth sports title publisher is a reboot, dragging an earlier version of the brand into the modern market where it will hopefully enjoy better success than it did between 2005 and 2008. And the Futsal idea would probably have alienated too many of the casual fans who will have been sucked in by the strong advertising campaign that has backed the release, and really, the five-a-side here isn't really Futsal per se. Saying that, the Futsal brand of football is available as a playable mode, along with conventional five-a-side (both have five players per team), Panna Rules (two-a-side, with mini-goals like those exceptional Nike adverts with Eric Cantona) and Last Man Standing which is similar, but with larger teams. There is more than enough variation to make Street an entertaining endeavour, though there is one over-riding theme that runs through all game modes - the fore-fronting of skills and flair.
Again, this being EA Sports, the game is as slick as you would expect - player likenesses are very good and in-game animations are as impressive as in FIFA 12, while the control system, with its new close control shoulder button system that allows for fancy shielding, is responsive and rewarding. EA have also consciously avoided the problems of the last three titles in the series, at least grounding the fantasy football play in reality (even if some of the included players wouldn't ever be able to pull off the kind of tricks you can make them do) sticking to the simulation side of things rather than power gauges that always felt alien to the fundamental spirit of other EA Sports games. The actual gameplay rewards skills and flair through a points-based system: with rewards for beating your opponent, and the points allocated depending on the type of skill used. To encourage more tricks, the game introduces a further scoring mechanic, with points earned "banked" and added to any goal scored before your opponent, persuading a less direct approach. Sam Allardyce would not be interested. Although the game won't have the same kind of shelf-life as FIFA 12, that's not exactly a fatal impediment. After all, longevity is not really the point for this rogue sibling: the depth of the two games are incomparible, but Street is presented as a break from the bloated excess and occasional grind of its stadium based big brother. It fills the gap left by the criminal decision to remove the indoor arena from FIFA's playable venues, which initially offered something that the authentic development of the main FIFA series has all but sucked out - simple, nut-megging fun. I get it, and I commend EA Canada for doing so.
Make no mistake, I love the game, and precisely because of that greater fun element. There is something very enjoyable about making a fool out of an opponent with some ridiculous skill or other, and it's not something that can come this thick and fast in the full FIFA 12 game. Online games in 12 between veterans invariably end as wars of attrition, which is of course still entertaining in its place, but I'm far less likely to play multiple games back-to-back with FIFA 12 than I am to spend a lot of time immersed in a more varied gaming experience led by narrative for the simple reason of diversity in experience. For that reason, I prefer to think of FIFA Street as a companion to FIFA 12: a pleasant diversion from the monotony of match-play that offers something completely different, but which crucially has my interest in fun as a chief concern. That is not to dismiss the game as a superficial one, because this is certainly the finest FIFA Street game yet released, and there is a lot to be said for the gameplay - and besides, the idea that fun has to mean superficial is one of those critic-led fallacies that simply infuriates.
I do however take issue with the marketing campaign that has backed the release, which perpetually pushed the idea of the game as authentic and a "real Street experience". It plainly isn't: there is no grit here, and no scabby knees and Sunday morning park football hangovers. In place of huffy "star" players prematurely stomping off home with their ball under the arm, or match abandonments for lost balls, we have Premiership and world star players, slick, beautifully designed arenas and ridiculous trick-sets that is as alien to the modern English game for the most part as humility and sensible contracts are. None of that is a problem, but it makes the marketing campaign a downright lie, and I can't abide that sort of false advertising. Besides, who wants to buy an authentic street game experience when EA Sports' version is so much more fun. Give me Rooney's nutmegs, Hatem Ben Arfa's cruyff turns and Van Persie juggling over jumpers for goal-posts any day. And it's well worth the money, if only as a pleasant diversion from dull 1-0 victories on FIFA 12 online, no matter how short the appeal of endlessly nutmegging Nemanja Vidic might be to some.
Fifa Street will be released this Friday 16th March on XBox 360 and PS3.