England and Spain loved it. Germany, not so much. We're referring to the new and elongated character models in the upcoming FIFA Street 3 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. After all, one look at the new, even-taller-and-lankier Peter Crouch in the game and it was obvious that the developers behind the game at EA Sports have flexed their humor muscles when it came to portraying some of the biggest athletic stars in the world.
When the preliminary character models went around to FIFA officials and national team players from around the world, that sense of humor didn't always come through. As producers explained to us today while demonstrating the game, the new character models acted as a sort of impromptu litmus test of the senses of humor for various countries. English and Spanish players immediately took to the new character look of the likes of Ronaldinho, David Beckham, and Wayne Rooney (who had one request for his in-game avatar: Make me thinner.). It wasn't exactly the same story with the Germans, however, who initially thought the caricaturelike designs were making fun of their Teutonic heroes. It wasn't until EA showed off gameplay--and the cartoonish players doing the spectacular leaps, jumps, and kicks that are a hallmark of the FIFA Street series--that the German players "got it" and got on board with Street 3's look.
That look feels like a natural evolution from FIFA Street 2, released in 2006, albeit with a brighter, more colorful palette. Most of the pitches you play on are still in urban areas, but the dark environments of Street 2 have been replaced with luminous environs that look more friendly and inviting. There are seven environments to play on in all, from a sunny beach court to a soccer pitch situated on an oil rig.
While the characters look a good deal different than in previous games, the amped-up animations that series fans have come to expect have been taken to the next stage in FIFA Street 3. Influences (not to mention motion capture) for character movement came for everything from gymnastics to martial arts, and, naturally, traditional street soccer moves. The same branching animation system that has helped power games like NBA Street Homecourt, NBA Live 08, and FIFA 08 is also behind the moves in Street 3, giving you the ability to quickly and naturally break animations on the fly--meaning you'll be able to pass or shoot when you want, where you want, no matter what trick your controlled player is attempting. Different abilities will also be available to different player types--FIFA Street 3 categorizes players along four types categories: enforcer, trickster, playmakers, and finishers.
When it comes to controls, looking good on the pitch won't be hard. You'll pass and shoot the ball with the A and B buttons, respectively (or X and circle in the PS3 version of the game). Pulling tricks is as easy as moving the right stick in any direction, and flicking and juggling the ball is handled with the Y button. There's an element of timing to juggles that brings some additional skill to the process; to keep the ball bouncing on your foot or head, you have to press the button at the right time. In addition, holding the Y button down will result in a higher juggle--for example, allowing you to move the ball from your foot to your head.
But the basics will only get you so far in the game; sooner or later you'll have to explore the new and improved gamebreaker system in Street 3. By performing tricks and juggles, you'll build up your gamebreaker meter. Once it's filled, you can press the right bumper to enter gamebreaker mode, where your moves will be fancier (including some truly cool flips over your opponent) and your shots will be both more accurate and more powerful. One nice touch is that you can keep a gamebreaker going by performing tricks as you go, essentially extending its life by playing with style. Unlike in previous Street games, a gamebreaker shot won't necessarily mean a guaranteed goal; you'll still have to choose your spot if you want to get it past the goalkeeper.
Speaking of the keepers, the team behind Street 3 has worked to improve the net-minders too. That includes more realistic artificial intelligence, plus new animations that reflect that a good portion of the shots in Street 3 will come from close to the net. As a result, a keeper will be more apt to slap the ball away (keeping the ball in play) than necessarily catching it or wrapping it up. The result is a quicker style of play with fewer breaks in the action.
FIFA Street 3 will include a number of ways to get into instant footy action--from timed games, score limit games, or games that will only score goals made off of headers and volleys. Your main port of call in the single-player game, however, will be the FIFA Street Challenge. Here, you will start with a team of decent players and will take on a variety of different squads as you look to increase your team's reputation as you go. There's no create-a-player here; instead, you'll choose from several teams (including those you unlock by winning matches). These squads might be composed of current and past FIFA legends, or all of players of a certain category (for example, a team made entirely of enforcers). Once you've beaten a team you can use them in a future challenge.
FIFA Challenge might be the heart of the single-player game, but sooner or later you'll want to take FIFA Street 3 online, where a number of modes will be waiting for you, including playground picks (also available in the offline game). Here, you can handpick a team of your favorite FIFA players--from the nearly 300 found in the game--and then take them online against an opponent. If that sounds like fun, check out the world challenge mode: Here, you play as your favorite national team (choosing from the 18 available in the game). Servers on the EA side will be keeping track of total wins and losses for each country in the game, and you'll be able to check out those overall results in the game. Nothing like a little nationalism to fuel that footy fever, right?
So with the mode descriptions out of the way, how does the game play? So far, it feels very much like previous Street games in that it's easy to pick up and play. The stick-based trick mechanic is easy to learn, though it sometimes feels like passes aren't going in the direction you want them to. Scoring goals is easy from the get-go (which is probably a good thing); playing defense, on the other hand, can be a bit of a struggle. Sure, this is an arcade soccer game, but the tackles (of which there are two variations: normal and aggressive) both feel a bit ineffective. On the plus side, the physics of the ball and players seems to be very good--we had several shots by the opposition saved simply because we managed to get a player in the way of the ball.
In all, FIFA Street 3 looks like breezy fun on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, even if it is very reminiscent of previous games. The online play, a new addition for the series, looks to be the feature that will keep people coming back to the concrete pitch once it's released in February. Stay tuned for a full review.