The EA BIG brand seems to be gaining popularity, but outside of the SSX series, it’s hard to understand why. The concept and artistic style of the Backyard sports games – featuring little-tyke renditions of current pro athletes – always appears more imaginative and nostalgic than anything the Street games have had to offer. And, after a recent under-whelming review experience with NBA Street V3, EA’s FIFA Street does little to indicate that the Street sub-brand is going to improve any time soon.
It’s not difficult to perceive that all these videogames start with a spark of an idea from some guy locked in a development cubicle, his ideas stolen, beaten down and stripped of anything innovative, then stuffed with lowest-common-denominator content. Somewhere deep inside EA’s nefarious volcanic lair, a table of marketing evildoers say: “Hey, that Tony Hawk’s game sells like hot cakes, it must be all the tricks and the extreme urban culture! Surely with our robust MBAs and vacuous ideas of what’s fun we can build a purely fun-based, pick-up-and-play alternative to the structured and complex simulation sports videogames we’re currently churning. Or, at the very least, something the kids will buy so they won’t get made fun of at school.”
So, what – if anything – does FIFA Street do right? There is a competent, if somewhat stale, set of play modes and options. You can play a tournament-style season against other teams featuring some of the hottest soccer studs from around the globe, or you can jump straight into a random game where all you need pick are the teams. There’s an in between mode where you can also pick players and the arena, so there’s some redundancy. Speaking of which, every arena is fundamentally the same rectangle with a hole at either end. The scenery is a little different between Marseilles and Rio, but it doesn’t affect the gameplay at all. Too bad really, since wacky playing fields and environmental interaction could have added immensely to the overall level of enjoyment and given a real reason to pick between available locales. Yet another missed opportunity.
The roster of players isn’t terribly deep – fewer than ten per team – and the game boils down to four-on-four play. The play area is considerably smaller than an actual soccer field, and yet players still play zone or man-to-man in some ridiculous situations where improvisational defense would have been great. In general, the game’s A.I. is pretty feeble and inconsistent. For example, it’s not unusual to watch as the opposing goalie repeatedly stops tricky one-timers, then let’s a lone striker’s shot sail into the net from midfield.
The big draw of the game lies in skillful and fancy footwork and ?beating’ opponents – that is, to perform a slick maneuver and fake them out. All these moves and taunts build up to the series darling ?Gamebreaker’ feature. There are several problems here. For one, any time a ?beat’ move is used against you, you lose all control of your player and are left to watch helplessly as he’s made a fool of. Some kind of reversal or combo-breaker moves based on clever timing would have been a great deal more exciting and engaging. As it is, as soon as you see yourself getting beat – a process that can last several, frustrating, non-interactive seconds – you might as well Switch to another player and make a beeline for the guy with the ball.
Another obvious problem lies with the Gamebreakers themselves. They aren’t nearly as exciting or rewarding as the work needed to execute them would imply – they consist of merely launching a totally unblockable shot. The ensuing whooshing sounds and camera effects try desperately to make something totally bland appear thrilling, but they fail. The only vaguely entertaining Gamebreaker aspect occurs when the ball rockets straight into the goalkeeper’s face, knocking him on his ass, while the ball ricochets into the net. Then, of course, the goalie rights himself, completely unfazed, and tosses the ball out to one of his teammates. This keeps things flowing fast and furious, but it also makes anything and everything you do lack punch. You can maliciously slide tackle the opposition, but they don’t seem to mind in the least. It’s almost as if, when watching a recipient clamber back to their feet, the tackler is saying: “Thanks, mate. I needed that!”
The players also control unevenly. There is a speed burst button, but no obvious indication of how long it will last or when it runs out, other than seeing the entire opposing team suddenly catch you, drop you to the ground, and take the ball with ease. Occasionally you may want to perform a quick 180? turn and sprint around a defender, but hitting the speed burst makes your player run back towards your goal, despite wrangling the analog stick to have him Switch directions, or at least cross the field. The controls in general just feel way too loose all around, and the trick stick implementation also lacks precision. This may be why EA added a random-trick button, thus allowing those who can’t find a Zen point for utilizing the funky controls to still look cool during the game. Everything depends on the camera, and the control is relative. Sad to say, the camera is largely fixed and can’t be moved at all. No overhead. No ? view. Nothing. Just a close, medium, and far zoom from the imaginary press box angle.
You can create a player with fairly rudimentary options and start building a legend from scratch, but with such uninspired gameplay, you won’t want to play FIFA Street long enough to get him further than little league. The player models themselves are rather bland, which is odd considering they’ve looked better in older simulation soccer games that feature twice the players and turf onscreen at once.
The review tone is set by this juncture, and it won’t come as a shock to discover that the sound is also pretty forgettable, too. From the ?ethnic’-sounding announcer to the ?Europeans love football?and techno!’ soundtrack, you may find yourself fighting the urge to thumb the mute button every step of the way.
As far as multiplayer options are concerned, four-player contests await you, but there are no online opportunities in any console iteration of the title. The Xbox version sports the most visual polish – perhaps not surprisingly – and the PS2 controller boasts the most symmetrical and comfortable control layout, leaving the GameCube version sadly lacking in all departments.
The Street videogames tend to be reminiscent of the infinitely more fun Mutant League games from the heyday of the Sega Genesis, but today the accountants at EA must constantly remind the developers that they’ve paid a pretty penny to license all those leagues, players, and likenesses, and they’d all better be used. What does it matter if it results in substandard games? Well, it matters to you, and me, as consumers. FIFA Street is a game with a thin sprinkling of style, no soul, and absolutely no redeeming qualities.
Some gaming cynics proudly state that playing videogames is a waste of your time and your life. Unfortunately, for us all, games like FIFA Street prove them right.