Gamescom 2011: Fifa Street preview

The urban footie sim returns with a new development team and a really rather compelling interpretation of the five-a-side experience

Fifa Street, to me, was always more of a marketing concept than a genuine game series. Hey, the kids love football and they love urban culture – let's jam the two together, add a licensed soundtrack and jive all the way to the bank. And that's kind of what EA did for a couple of iterations.

When Fifa Street appeared back in 2005, it was part of EA's ill-judged BIG label, in which development teams were expected to bring street chic to the sports genre. By the end of the series, Fifa Street had become a bizarre fantasy of millionaire footballers repeating mystical tricks on fairyland parking lot pitches. It had become totally divorced from reality. It was an interactive Nike advert.

But, as announced at EA's GamesCom press conference, Fifa Street is back. And it could well be the surprise success story of this year's event.

In some ways, the foundations remain unchanged. This is a stylised simulation of urban football, in which the emphasis is placed on attacker vs defender face-offs and cool tricks. Players can take part in anything from 1 vs 1 to 6 vs 6 matches, as well as Futsal, Fifa's official five-a-side competition. There are also novelty modes like Last Man Standing (if you score, one of your players leaves the pitch, the first team with no players wins), while participants can create custom matches in which they modify the size of the goals, or get points for pulling off skill moves.

Ah yes, skill moves are the basis of the experience. The basic controls are typical Fifa – there's a short pass, a shoot button, a lobbed pass and a "manual pass" – a tactical attacking punt that replaces the traditional through-ball (considered too incisive for the small court game). But on top of this, players with the ball can press the left trigger to stop the team member with the ball; now, the left analogue stick can be used to move the ball around in a series of close-quarters flicks and feints.

Defenders always face attackers, so you have these little one-on-one moments – the guy with the ball is playing with it, waiting for the defender to commit; the defender has to stand his ground and see which way the ball will go. Now, the guy with the ball can hit right trigger, point the analogue stick in the desired direction and make a break for it. Time it right and point toward the defender and you perform a satisfying nutmeg.

But there is also an array of more than 50 skill moves, accessible via the right stick. Faves such as the flip flap, rainbow flick and heel chop are all accessible, providing an armoury of possible offensive options. In a sense pitch encounters become like very fast RPG turn-based battles, each player routing through their collection of special moves. To add further depth, the left shoulder tab provides access to a series of modifying flair moves, that add extra bite to passing and shooting attempts. The right tab makes the player kick the ball up into the air, opening up a series of keep-uppy manouveres.

It sounds fiddly and inconsequential, but it's really good fun. Matches become very close and very considered battles of special move prowess as attackers probe and push for gaps, and defenders seek to anticipate passing moves. There's a nice staccato pace, the ball flows easily between players until a tackling showdown presents itself – then it's all ball tricks, taps and shimmys. It should feel over-structured and fussy, but every confrontation is a satisfying battle.

Part of the reason it works – a very large part, I suspect – is that the DNA of the main Fifa series runs through the title. Development has been at EA Vancouver, using the Fifa 12 engine. The animation, then, is lovely; it's detailed, and the intricate moves look smooth and detailed.

The project is also headed up by Gary Paterson, one of the team responsible for Fifa's renaissance. His demo of the game is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He is quick to recognise the weaknesses of previous Fifa Street titles. "Fifa Street 3 was a fantasy game," he explains as he shows me the game. "We feel that street football in itself is very exciting, very stylish, it's got crazy moves – there's no need to exaggerate that. This is authentic street football. It's all about beating the defender, humiliating the defender. In our research we saw cases where street footballers would have an open goal, but they wouldn't score, they'd wait for the defender to get back, then they'd beat the defender and score. It's all about that one vs one."

Paterson also reckons the game catches the differing cultures of street football around the world. Fifa Street features 35 environments, taking in everything from playgrounds to underpasses, from London courts to Shanghai rooftops. In the Dutch game, the emphasis is on the numeg – or panna – the fleet-footed humiliation of your opponent; in the UK sections, there's much more wall play and it's more physical (though out-and-out fouls are tough to commit here). The ball physics differ depending on the surface, so grass is more sympathetic than concrete. And the rules change too: if you opt for Futsal, there are no walls to rebound the ball off of – instead, you get kick ins and corners.

This being Fifa, there are licensed teams – somehow, players from all the major European leagues, as well as the MLS, are present, though Paterson won't say how, and to what extent. There is also a suite of online and "connected" features, similar to Fifa's online modes and EA Sports Football Club options, though the details will come later.

So yes, Fifa Street. After a couple of matches I was beginning to glimpse the complexities of the control system, the way stepovers, slights and nutmegs can combine with shielding moves to create very tense, very satisfying little encounters. I guess the question is whether there's a market for it now.

Apparently, Futsal is the fastest growing indoor sport in the world, but with the main Fifa title so dominant, Fifa Street will need to perform a few impressive marketing moves to prove that it has a place in the EA Sports line-up. Yet already, it's a really fascinating prospect, guided by an experienced development team.

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