The third of EA Sports' first quarter releases is the only one to overlap with an existing franchise, but even in a market dominated by the FIFA juggernaut, there's room for FIFA Street's more personal approach.
FIFA Street shares some common elements with SSX: Both are rebooting their respectives series after a break of several years, and both have toned down an over-the-top aesthetic which put players off the last instalment. Where the former has the advantage over its snowboarding stablemate is continuity; while EA hasn't touched the boarding genre since the last SSX game, FIFA Street has a massively successful sibling to draw on.
Built on the FIFA 12 engine, the first of its line to share tech with its serious elder brother, FIFA Street is already solidly positioned. It is also benefits from a developer switch; EA Big has been replaced by a team led by creative director Gary Paterson and producer Sid Misra, which works closely with the core FIFA team, of which Peterson and Misra are veterans.
As a result, the cartoony styling of past games has been thrown out, and while FIFA Street is probably still the light-hearted side of the franchise, its emphasis on skilled gameplay and a realistic depiction of street football as it is played around the world makes it a complementary addition to any football simulation fan's collection - not a cheap arcade knock off.
"We want to build an authentic game. We feel like this is the kind of game sports people want to play," Misara said during a preview event.
In the context of street football, "authentic" has a number of meanings, most noticeably a focus on the classic human drama of one-on-one battles. The game as a whole is a team sport, but when one player passes another's defences, he does so with an eye for netting a personal victory.
"Expressing yourself, potentially even humiliating the defender," Misra said; the game's camera, constantly positioned to show the players, not the pitch, only emphasises this.
To this end, FIFA Street has overhauled FIFA 12's dribbling mechanisms. While dribbling, the player always faces his opposition, allowing for movement in any direction without ever breaking away from the eyes-locked combat. With a squeeze of the left trigger, players can go into a a new position in which their character remains static, and the left stick controls the ball, not movement. This is a perfect position to pull off a trick, mix things up to confuse the defender, or pull off the classic nutmeg, or panna - kicking the ball straight through the gap between your opponent's legs.
This trick is so popular that some of the game's modes are focussed on it entirely, but there's plenty of others, including a number of wallplay tricks. Switching between stances and positions primes for different moves - the left trigger sets up for a panna; the right bumper gets the ball up in the air for an over-the-head pass; the left bumper adds "flair", transforming a simple apss into a two-heel pass; the right stick pulls off a skill move; R3 lets you stand on the ball.
Tricks are achieved with simple gestures which remain the same regardless of which stance the character is in, but the more flamboyant moves are harder to pull off. Better tricks and more stylish play in general award a greater number of entertainment points, which are used to progress your characters and learn new skills. Characters have a number of different progression paths available, allowing for mix-and-match teams - speedster, trickster or freekick specialist among them.
As well as the player's own custom character, teams can be populated with random NPCs or, if you're online when you first fire up, custom characters created by your friends. When you take your team on tour, your opponents will be other players' created teams where possible, too.
There are 15 divisions to be mastered if you want your boys to become world champions, and due to the nature of the sport, that means a lot of different play styles to master. In London, play is brutal, while in South America, it's all about fluidity, and so on. EA sent researchers to major street football centres around the world to discover how the locals actually play the game - not just how the rules varied.
The rules do vary, though, from five or six a side right up to 11, plus variations like Futsal, and the 37 different arenas have different physics attributes, too. Even within locations one surface may react differently than another, meaning you'll need to be flexible to get the best results.
You'll want to playing at the top of your game because FIFA Street incorporates Autolog-like social features called Street Network, so you'll be racking up bragging rights against your friends. You can challenge mates directly, and go head-to-head with up to seven other players in a mode called Online Team Play. On top of that, any EA Football Club Points you earn while playing don't count towards the daily cap imposed by FIFA, potentially doubling your progression speed should you have both titles.
Plus, it's all wrapped up so stylishly; the menus have a glossy sports magazine feel to them, and the music varies from location to location. The teams were chosen based on their "sexiness", Misra commented, and eahc location has been lovingly detailed. This is a serious sport sim, there's no doubt - but like their real world equivalents, FIFA Street is the colourful, engaging, and human entertainment option to FIFA's deadly serious combat. In addition to authenticity, EA Canada chose "aspirational" as the game's second design pillar; your FIFA Street in-game avatar is the football player you could actually see yourself becoming, something FIFA's team emphasis rarely captures.
FIFA Street releases on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on march 13 in the US and March 15 in Europe.