The urbanization of sports games isn't exactly a new trend at this point, but it is still a burgeoning one. Thus far, EA has been the primary purveyor of urban-themed sports games with its NBA and NFL Street games, and the similarly themed game, NBA Ballers, from Midway. So, it is with no small amount of predictability that with the success and quality of those titles, other companies are beginning to put together their own urban sports titles, and they are branching out into slightly more obscure sports beyond the reach of the standard NFL and NBA fare. Released a short while ago as a Blockbuster exclusive rental (and now available in select retail locations), Acclaim's Freestyle Street Soccer is one of the first fruits of this branching-out, featuring gangs of urban thugs not settling their differences with the industry-standard gats and bats, but rather solving these disputes with a soccer ball and a pair of nets. To its credit, Freestyle Street Soccer does manage to do just about the bare minimum required to make a game "urban" at this point, including plenty of curse-happy characters with baggy pants and crazy hairstyles. Unfortunately, it doesn't manage to do the bare minimum to make it a playable soccer game.
To sum up Freestyle Street Soccer in a quick and concise manner, imagine if someone decided to make a street soccer game, but instead of taking the time to design a cool new gameplay engine, this person simply recycled an older engine from, say, FIFA 98, added a bunch of lame style moves, and then decided to just break the whole thing just for the heck of it.
The basic gameplay is pretty straightforward: When you have control of the ball, you can lob it to a specific player, pass it to a player, send it as far across the field as you can, or shoot the ball. When shooting, you'll begin doing some sort of ridiculous spin-kick animation (or at least something similar), and while you're waiting for that to take effect you can use a small targeting icon within the net to aim your shot as best as you can within the brief time window allotted to you. Additionally, if you hit the L button while holding down the shoot button, you can do one of a few different style moves that generally involve flips or head-butts or any other sort of silly trickery you can think of. Off the ball, you can slide tackle, step tackle, and perform some more vicious check moves by, again, holding down the L button and pressing one of the main controller buttons. If you build up enough style points by doing crazy stuff on the field, you can eventually perform a "netbuster" attack, which is a nearly unblockable shot.
These gameplay mechanics sound pretty standard on paper, but the way that Freestyle Street Soccer executes them is what makes the game incredibly dumb. Ball possession is rarely much of an issue, as passing and lobbing the ball to specific players is not usually a risk. When you possess the ball, it's pretty much glued to you unless someone specifically comes in and knocks it away from you. Sometimes you'll be performing some kind of hackneyed, Matrix-looking move that actually sends the ball to the ground while you're in the process of doing a 720-degree head-spin. Then the ball will just magically float back up to your legs as they spin in the air, sending the ball toward the net. Not only does it look dumb to begin with, but it is totally incorrect.
The defensive game is where Freestyle Street Soccer really starts to fall apart. Computer opponents aren't particularly adept at intercepting passes, tackling you, or really doing much of anything except running back and forth. When your opponents possess the ball, they are capable of mounting some offense, but defensively they're absolutely worthless. Goalies on either side are especially horrible, challenging at completely ludicrous times, and often just standing idly by as the ball sails right past them. Furthermore, several goalie animations are extremely glitchy, and you'll often see goalies simply teleport around near the net as they poorly transition from one animation to another. In a couple of instances, we even had the goalie teleport from outside the net to inside the net while holding the ball, effectively giving the other team a free goal.
Freestyle Street Soccer features 10 different teams, or "gangs" as they're referred to in the game, and they're all based on one stereotype or another. There's the gang of sassy African-American girls, the scraggly "Skater Boys," the group of Latino gangsters known as the Lowriders, the extremely Rasta Jamaican posse, and the überurban Street Ballers. Each team features an excruciatingly uncreative roster of four players, with one acting as the leader. The leader is really the only one that spouts off any dialogue during the game, which is good, because if every player on the court was rattling off the same painfully bad dialogue as the leader characters, the effects could be devastating to your psyche. Dialogue consists of a healthy mix of forced swearing and perplexingly off-kilter lines. One second you'll hear "I don't believe this s***!" followed immediately by, "We need some composure!"
On the plus side, Freestyle Street Soccer does have a decent array of gameplay modes. Aside from a simple quick or versus match, you can play turf wars--which is basically just a progressive tournament that lets you beat and unlock all the gangs in the game. Home turf is the opposite of turf wars, where all the opposing gangs in the game will try to come and take your home territory. There's also a street challenge mode, which lets you participate in a points-based league tournament. Unfortunately, getting through any of these modes doesn't really require much time. Beating and unlocking everything in the game doesn't take more than maybe five hours, tops.
Freestyle Street Soccer already has style and technical points knocked off for its lame team designs and glitchy animations, but that isn't all that's wrong with the graphics. None of the soccer arenas have much going on in the way of interesting design, as there are just a few scattered set pieces and occasional skateboarders running up and down ramps in the background. A few visual effects show up now and then when performing netbuster moves, but they don't look very impressive at all. Between the Xbox and GameCube versions of Freestyle Street Soccer, the graphical differences are pretty much give and take. The Xbox version features significantly better lighting than the GameCube version, but the GameCube game also doesn't have the same bland, washed-out look that the Xbox version has. The aforementioned horrible voice acting is the primary knock against the game's sound design, but the consistently lame sound effects aren't much better. The only positive aspect is the game's soundtrack--while it is not particularly well balanced in terms of genres, it at least features a few good songs from recognizable artists like Queens of the Stone Age, Feeder, and Method Man. However, the good soundtrack isn't quite enough to salvage the whole thing.
While games like EA's Street series and NBA Ballers have proven that street sports can be done right in video games, Freestyle Street Soccer proves that you can also do them very, very wrong. If nothing else, this game should serve as a fine example of what not to do when developing a street sports game, and if it serves this purpose well, hopefully no one will ever have to endure another urban-themed train wreck like Freestyle Street Soccer.