I can't say that EA's announcement event for FIFA Street 3 was high on my list of things I couldn't miss last week. FIFA Street and its sequel were both rather underwhelming, focussed on style over gameplay and proved to be more frustrating than fun. So, when I tell you that FIFA Street 3 is damn good fun you should have some idea of how the game is shaping up.
But how has a mediocre, trick-obsessed arcade football game suddenly got a whole lot better? It's simple: FIFA Street 3 plays like football. You'd think that making a footy game play like football is common sense, but it seems not. Anyway, there are two things that have made FIFA Street 3 such a fun game to play. Firstly, it uses parts of the FIFA gameplay engine. Secondly, it uses the graphics engine from NBA Street Homecourt.
The guys at EA Canada were able to get the game up and running relatively quickly and since then have been figuring out what elements of the FIFA engine they want to keep, streamlining the experience for casual gamers rather than targeting FIFA's sim audience. One of the biggest changes on top of the engine itself is an increase in players on the pitch to five per team and larger arenas to play in. It's amazing what a bit of space can do.
Whereas previous FIFA Street games have felt a little cramped, and at times quite awkward, FIFA Street 3 lets you pass the ball around and pull off some moves without running straight into an opposition player. All your tricks are performed using the right analogue stick, while the Triangle button (on PS3) and Y (on Xbox 360) flicks the ball into the air. A new animation system (which EA calls ANT) means that you can link moves together seamlessly and pull out at any time to unleash a shot or pass - there's no waiting for an animation to finish here.
Ball control is vastly improved in FIFA Street 3, with some truly stunning moves being possible after only a few minutes with the controller. Each player has his own class (someone like John Terry is a hammer, and therefore is more defensive, whereas Rooney is a striker and can perform better attacking tricks) so you can't pull off the same skills with every member of your five-man team. A skilled player can flick the ball into the air, control it so it stops dead, let it go and then smash it into the net on the volley. The game definitely assists you, but for a moment you feel like you've done something only a football god would be capable of.
Tricks can get you past players, but they also serve to build up your gamebreaker meter. Any points earned can be banked by shooting and when your meter is full your gamebreaker can be activated (or saved for later). When in gamebreaker mode all your players have maximum skill in all areas, making every player a danger when in front of goal. Of course, if you counter an opponent's gamebreaker with your own, your players become super skilled too, so timing is essential.
Game modes are on offer for playing alone, with friends or online (4v4 online using two consoles). As well as the standard head to head mode, you'll get a challenge mode that lets you unlock numerous players and a Playground Picks mode that puts 10 players on the pitch and asks each person to pick, taking it in turns. It's classic school playground stuff and makes for some different team line-ups. The goal (the actual objective) in each game can be changed, so you could just play first to three goals, or set some more random criteria for winning.
Our hands-on time with the game wasn't nearly long enough to see if the depth of the control system will be enough to keep FIFA Street 3 in our disc trays for months, but with the game not due out until spring 2008, it should certainly be highly polished - both the PS3 and 360 version are looking great already, although the 360 game has the slight edge visually. Both titles should run at a smooth 60fps on release, and a 1080p mode that runs at 30fps is on the cards - NBA Street Homecourt featured such a mode, so there's no reason FIFA Street 3 can't.
As expected, the game features the FIFA license, so you get all the big players from the international teams (no club teams), but they don't look like the semi-photo realistic models seen in FIFA 08. In keeping with the game's arcade feel the developers decided to go for an almost caricature approach. As examples, Peter Crouch is practically all bone, has a severely drained face and towers above the other players; Wayne Rooney, on the other hand, resembles a shorter Incredible Hulk, with the emphasis firmly on his stocky build.
Animation in EA Sports titles is usually of a high standard, but simply motion capturing pros wouldn't have been enough in such a flamboyant title. To add some spice to the game EA captured the moves of Parkour performers, so in the game you can see the best footballers in the world flipping off walls, running along them and generally being a little more acrobatic than you'd expect.
Presentation as a whole is excellent. The game arenas look great and also play a part in the gameplay, with the seven on offer (plus two coming later via DLC at no extra cost) each being unique and interactive in different ways. With FIFA Street 3 being all about pros just getting together for a game, EA felt that a crowd and real commentator wouldn't work, meaning the annoying commentator has been ditched in favour of general chatter. It sounds a little odd on paper, but if you're playing as France, when you're in possession the French players will be heard talking over the game, and this will change to the other team's players once they get the ball back.
There's a lot to be said for football sims like PES and FIFA, but sometimes it's good to have something a little more laid back to play. FIFA Street 3 could be that game, and for once it shouldn't feel like you're playing some phoney sport that looks like football but really isn't anything like it. If you play FIFA you'll instantly pick up FIFA Street 3 and be scoring screamers in no time. We've got a few months to wait before we can say for sure if EA has succeeded at creating a brilliant arcade footy game, but things look very promising right now.