Version tested: Xbox
Rarely have critics united so biliously against a game brand as FIFA Street. Admitting that you thought last year's debut was a lot of fun earned you the sort of incredulous looks that were once reserved for Abba fans during the height of late '70s punk. But despite every critic in the entire world (except, um, me - don't hurt me!) deriding it as a 'disgraceful load of old toss' it still topped the charts and sold an absolute stack. Surely it couldn't have been that bad?
The over-emphasis on gratuitous trickery over actual football annoyed many, but the real deal-breaker was the presence of one of the most horrifyingly misguided soundtracks you could imagine. Evidently EA realised its greatest ever error and put a lot of things right for the inevitable sequel, but at the same time managed to break a lot of the simple pleasures along the way.
Things have changed so much, in fact, and mostly for the better. Both the look and the feel of FIFA Street 2 couldn't be more different from the original, but in wiping the slate clean EA has made the game an incredible pain in the arse to get into for the first few hours.
Attempting to play the game's main Rule The Street single player 'career' mode in the beginning makes you feel like you've woken up with hooves instead of hands, and that someone's reversed your movement into the bargain. The controls might seem simple enough to start with (the usual: B to shoot/intercept, A to pass, X to cross/slide, Y to show off, right trigger for sprint) but you'll spend much of the time wondering why on Earth your players keep getting stuck in unbreakable animations and falling flat on their arse while some flash git nutmegs them repeatedly.
The original FIFA Street may have wound many gamers up for many valid reasons, but it certainly never handed your arse to you quite so joyously.
Worse still, all these visually impressive but hellishly annoying tricks build up combos for the opposition, allowing them to build up their skill points bar with alarming swiftness. Once at the maximum, players must run back to the middle of the pitch (where a coloured marker awaits) and activate the Gamebreaker. At this point, an icy hue descends on the screen, the sound of a thudding heartbeat ups the tension, and the game grants an opportunity to score an almost unstoppable goal from literally anywhere on the pitch. But your fortunes will take an even greater turn for the worse if they decide to start pulling off tricks en route to goal, with every beaten player counting for an extra goal if it goes in (and one less off your tally). To rub nitro glycerine into your already oozing wounds, if your entire three-man outfield is taken out and a goal it scored, the opposing team wins by knockout. Jesus wept.
Without any hint of exaggeration, this is pretty much the story of our first hour or so with the game, wondering how on Earth we could pull off such superhuman stunts, and how to stop the crazy computer from dishing out so much routine humiliation.
Ragbag are back, woah, woah.
It doesn't help, as such, that your customised player is devoid of any skill to begin with, while your team mates aren't much better either, but at least the game still rewards your in-game efforts with skill points to spend regardless of the end result. Once you've earned enough Skill Bills you can set about improving the five main attributes (speed, shot, power, defence, tricks) and work your way through the many challenges on offer.
But to even stand a chance of succeeding you have to pay far greater attention to the business of being skilful. Merely knocking the ball around the park and trying to play football like a normal human being gets you nowhere - even less so than last year's pretty straightforward version. Essentially the entire game relies upon your mastery of the trick stick (the right stick), in conjunction with the two triggers, and once you start taking heed of the handy video tutorials it all starts to slot into place a little.
In logical fashion you can send the ball through an opponent's legs with by hitting down on the trick stick, or over his head by tapping up while moving towards him, or to his left or right by (you guessed it) hitting the corresponding direction on the trick stick. But to counter these seemingly unstoppable manoeuvres, the right stick also lets the defending player either barge an opponent out of the way or guess which way the attacker is going and block it by hitting the same direction at the right time.
Out of control
It sounds logical enough, but in practise the window of opportunity to defend these tricks isn't at all clear. As a result, the gameplay tends to descend into an unholy blur of frustrating stick waggling as you desperately try and retrieve the ball by whatever means you can. Sometimes it feels like you've got the measure of the game, with the barge tactic seemingly a good one, only for the opposing player to somehow go on a mesmerising run, leaving you cursing as your players fall one by one into a series of tear-inducing uninterruptible animations. When the result of a match is balanced on a knife-edge and you succumb to this kind of nonsense, the very concept of the GameBreaker seems entirely apt.
Even taking into account this intense initial frustration, the actual progression structure of Rule The Street is superb, and what seemed like impossible challenges suddenly start to get chipped away at, and - good grief - you start to have fun.
The main reason for this is because EA has added tons more variety to the tasks you'll face, with some matches won by merely scoring goals by whatever means, while others are won by meeting a skill points target, by scoring a set number of Gamebreaker goals, by winning by a set margin of goals, or simply on pannas (putting the opponent on their arse with your skills). And by setting these targets for you, it becomes a necessity to learn how to play the game properly; in particular the need to meet skillpoint targets (rather than just scoring) forces you to really get to grips with the skill mechanics, and as such makes you a far better player very quickly.
And then just as you're getting proficient with leaving opponents for dead for fun, the game will then up the ante and ask you to simply win the game without using any combos or Gamebreaker: you know, scoring real-life goals. It comes as a quite a shock, given that all the skills and trickery in the world don't necessarily help you carve out easy shooting opportunities.
By stripping away all of its self imposed layers, you get to appreciate a different side to FIFA Street 2 - and it's the one you would probably have settled for in the beginning. Somehow, though, without all the skillpoint-based shenanigans the game doesn't quite feel right. It's simply too easy to make precision passes, tee up crosses and fire in volleys and headers without going to any real effort at all - especially when all it takes to beat your man is tapping the trick stick first. In truth, as massively frustrating as the combo/Gamebreaker system is at first, without it the game feels quite hollow.
Once you've ranked your player up to level 40, the game starts to open up somewhat - though it's a far better idea to clear the entire Kickabout tier of challenges before attempting the much tougher Team Captain mode. Taking its cue from the original, this mode plays much the same as Kickabout, with the added bonus of building up the overall strength of your squad by winning matches and unlocking superior players.
In terms of the matches you play at the higher levels, they essentially adhere to the same principles as before, but the demands are far greater, and against much tougher opposition - opponents which think nothing of stringing together 5x combos and winning by knockout within the first minute of the game. Although you'll still be able to keep upgrading your player even in defeat (and eventually unlock the International mode if you get him up to level 85/100), by this stage the slightly broken, cheating nature of the AI's ability to pull off and easily block skill manoeuvres makes further progress a terse, expletive-filled war of attrition.
Elsewhere, the game offers a slightly bolted-on trick based mode for up to eight players (taken in turn), where players must choose from whichever world star they want and then engage in 'match this shape' analogue stick twirling exercises until their time bar runs out. As pointless as it feels, it does offer an education in how to pull off the more advanced trickery in real matches, but whether you'll ever use them is entirely another conversation.
Aside from that, there is, of course, the ability to dive straight in and play friendly matches between the major nations (plus a custom team of legends) against the computer or a pal, but - once again - EA hasn't bothered with an online mode, which is an oversight to say the least. Despite that minor annoyance, being able to jump in and play with the world's best teams and players offers a short-cut to the fun that shouldn't be overlooked.
With the benefit of extensive experience in Rule The Street, playing with the top players makes the game an even more fast, frenetic affair, and in the right hands between players who know what they’re doing it's undoubtedly a game you can have a lot of fun with. But stood next to, say, Mario Smash Football, it's neither as instinctive or as fluid, with game mechanics that turn the game into a ball juggling fest where results are gained not from pin-point passes and skilful tactics, but through humiliation. Encouraging players to win games by leaving them flat on their arse looks great in the videos, but in practise it's a peculiar hybrid that never quite comes off.
Still, there's much to admire in the package, with most of the audio gripes ironed out thanks to a varied and eclectic radio station selection that caters for most tastes (big thumbs up to Live FM, featuring the likes of Editors, The Flaming Lips, The Subways and numerous promising new acts). Even if you're not impressed with what's on offer, all can be customised and fine tuned to weed out the irritating tracks. Visually it's no slouch either, with the Xbox version boasting a pin sharp 720p mode (on the US or modded machines) and impressive motion captured animation, along with some decent likenesses of all the world's top players. The only criticism is the strange elongated nature of all the character models, making them look slightly squashed. Peter Crouch, in particular, looks even more hilarious than usual, but overall it gleams with the usual EA polish and is vastly more impressive than last year's slightly plastic-looking effort.
For all the glitz and glamour of real-life players and the promise of a truly engaging progression structure, the core gameplay of FIFA Street 2 never feels anywhere near as much fun as it ought to be. Even after a week of playing it, the trick and combo system just feels like you're cheating the whole time - or being cheated - when what you really want is to feel the thrill of scoring glorious goals, not the smugness of humiliating opponents. Amidst the frustration, FIFA Street 2 houses a fun game of trickery that feels quite unique, but its relationship to football is cosmetic at best.
6 / 10