Version tested: Xbox 360
FIFA Street 3 is EA's latest attempt to make a football game that's a bit like those Nike adverts where Ronaldinho plays volley tennis against the crossbar and Thierry Henry smashes up his house. It's high-scoring, five-a-side football on enclosed pitches, where tricks are fast but movement is laboured, and everyone's wearing bespoke t-shirts and running around stylishly with one trouser leg rolled up. Offside doesn't exist, there are no fouls, and it's physically impossible to do a handball.
The most obvious difference between this one and the others is that EA's using caricatures rather than realistic player models, so Carlos Puyol looks like Rambo and Hakan Sukur is the Wicked Witch of the West. We had some fun giggling at the player faces on the selection screen, but this time EA is in on the joke. Unlike FIFA and PES, the comedy chins and goblin faces are part of a deliberate approach, so when Peter Crouch ambles onto the screen - a golem's head on a flailing whirlwind of bleached Twiglets - you laugh in appreciation, think well of the man for agreeing to put himself through the process, and then accept it (watch us obtain a Peter Crouch Achievement on Eurogamer TV).
Another benefit is that traditional quirks of animation - lightning movement to cover for cracks in the blending, awkward body shapes and absurd, high-jumper twirls into perfect, gyroscopic overhead kick coordination - can get away with looking odd, because the whole game does. Shimmies, feints, step-overs and Rebonas all look great in this new context, and the more exaggerated Nike-advert nonsense like defenders running up the wall to flip over an attacker's outstretched leg in a tight corner are coherent details. Performance is consistently good, although there is a bit of screen-tearing in our 360 review code.
The ball is generally glued to the players' feet, which is a bit old-school, but then this is football with a basketball mentality, where dribbling and ball retention are necessarily automatic to facilitate creative self-indulgence. As you dance around the pitch you can juggle the ball indefinitely by tapping a button as it lands back on the player's foot, and perform a range of skill moves by twiddling the right analogue stick. You can also pause the play by holding the left trigger (even catching a juggled ball with the back of your neck and balancing it between your shoulder blades, or between heel and calf), feinting with the left analogue stick before distributing the ball elsewhere. For every nifty trick you pull off, points go to your "Gamebreaker" bar, although you'll need to fire off a shot to reap the benefits; if possession is turned over, your hard work starts to drain away.
Shots can be unleashed from virtually anywhere, usually by charging up the shot button in advance of receiving the ball or while in space. Stronger shots appear to have a better chance of going in, although it's hard to figure out what really governs success and your team-mates' movement is inconsistent. For the ultimate, "autogoal" effect, you need to fill that skills bar and then tug on the nearer of the two right shoulder buttons to go into the sepia-tinted Gamebreaker mode, during which your rainbow-trailing assaults on the goal are virtually unstoppable, providing they're fired in from within the opposing half and on target. Your creativity is limited by the range of moves pre-programmed into the game - this certainly isn't a trickster's workshop - but the ball is relatively free of rails. Crossing to a team-mate off the side-boards and sweeping home a scissor-kick is certainly pretty satisfying (and you can watch us score a few of those on EGTV).
The defensive side of the game is understandably less elaborate. Tackles are limited to barges and roundhouse sweeps, rather than proper slide-tackles (presumably they don't want to scuff up their designer jeans), and at their most effective when timed to counter an opponent's attempt to pass you with a trick.
There is a sprint button, but it's rarely enough to close players down from behind, even on such a tight pitch, so patience and timing are more important than strategic thought. The most satisfying thing to do on defence is intercept the ball and hold onto it for the duration of the opposition's Gamebreaker, and inevitably there's an Achievement for overcoming that disadvantage skilfully enough to score a goal on the counter-attack. Decking a show-boater as he balances the ball behind his head is a decent thrill as well.
In terms of gameplay modes, offline the main attraction is FIFA Street Challenge, where matches are grouped together and you get a set number of attempts to complete each cluster, after which you unlock some more. Winning conditions are varied too - sometimes it's a simple case of scoring the most goals before the clock runs down, but sometimes it's first-to-five, the first to build up a particular lead, or the first to score five headers or volleys. There are also games where only Gamebreaker attempts will score goals, or when Gamebreaker is turned off completely. In FIFA Street Challenge, you also gradually build toward targets, like 20 Gamebreaker goals, which unlock new teams. Rather than splitting things into clubs and countries, there are line-ups like "Stocky" (hello, Mark Viduka), "Tall" (Crouchigol! Voller! Ibrahimovic!) and "Veterans" (Sukur, Lehmann, etc), and while you can only pick five players, bundled into superficial brackets like Enforcers and Finishers, you do get to choose from a larger squad for each team.
Other offline modes are Head-to-Head, where you and up to three friends pick a game mode and a number of rounds to play, and the nostalgic Playground Picks, where you and a friend choose a particular country (say, Brazil) and then pick teams from the ten players available one by one, as if you were dividing up your friends on the playground. There's also a Practice mode for mucking about with no one to beat but the keeper. Online, options are much the same as off, but with more supported players, with Playground Picks available, ranked and unranked matches, and leaderboards.
Overall then it's shallow, unpretentious fun, which isn't good enough to build up a big score but is enough to satisfy the undemanding football fan who loves those Nike ads. Attacking quickly becomes repetitive and limited, and Gamebreaker encourages you to simply sit back and juggle boringly until you've got enough juice to fire off a shot and bank the accumulated skills-meter earnings. Defensively there is a logic to uphold, but more often than not things descend into frustration and mashing, which isn't much fun. There are also times when it goes a bit wrong, resulting in some comical own goals where the ball bounces down off the back-boards and your defender gormlessly chests it past his No.1 (and of course we get it all wrong a few times on EGTV).
There is a great, great game yet to be made in this subset of the football sub-genre, where the depth of a beat-'em-up lurks beneath accessible showboating, but this isn't it. You can't really blame EA for not going that far - inevitably it would rather funnel that kind of resource into its bazillion-selling FIFA mother-series - and a lot of people will undoubtedly buy this and enjoy wasting an hour with it on a Sunday afternoon after lunch and before Football Italiano. There's no point pretending it's amazing, though, so we won't; you'll know whether you're up for it or not, and the demo you can download from Xbox Live or PlayStation Network will have no trouble settling the question in your mind. We like it, and the new graphical approach is an inspired choice, but we can't imagine paying 40 quid to add it to our heaving shelves.
6 / 10