Review: FIFA 09

FIFA licensed football games always sell well as hardcore football fans lap up the annual update with the latest players, kits and stats. Partly thanks to a high profile advertising campaign ‘09 has been the fastest selling FIFA game of all time. The marketing department has obviously done their job well, but has the development team?

This year’s update sees new game modes and features added and the core game mechanics upgraded. Most notable is the improved physics engine, which gives a feeling of momentum to runs and adds a bit of crunch to the tackle. Players will jostle for the ball and their physical characteristics will come into the equation to decide who wins the challenge. Improved physics is also applied to the ball where poor first touches can cause the ball to dart away and blocked shots can rebound erratically.

New and more fluid player animations breathe some life into the thousands of professional footballers on the FIFA rosters. Coupled with the more realistic physics engine, it looks and feels like players are making contact and late or rash challenges at pace can result in some impressive spills.

Individual footballers’ skill levels now affect gameplay more markedly in all areas. Pinpoint passes and will be significantly easier with skilful midfielders, shooting from the edge of the box very difficult with the average defender. There is, of course, a high level of skill input required from the gamer. Trapping a ball when receiving a pass requires positioning of the right analogue stick, which if done correctly will allow you to guide the ball away from your nearest opponent. Even with assisted passing on the weight of a pass is determined by how long the button is held.

All these subtle tweaks to the engine have solidified FIFA’s claim to have the most realistic football action. As a result, match tempo and movement of the ball is reminiscent of what you might see in a real football match. Retaining possession and exercising a little patience in trying to expose gaps is key to scoring goals. Although it is a little harder to score than in arch rival PES, it is that much more rewarding and satisfying when your skilfully executed shot hits the back of the net.

A quick glance at the control manual presents a slightly daunting array of control possibilities for those new to the series. Football fans may see this as a necessary depth to digitally represent the subtleties the beautiful game. An improved roster of skill moves is available although they are slightly fiddly to use and would require some serious playtime to learn and master. A nice feature is the ‘Arena’ mode that initiates when the game first starts up and during loading screens, this is basically a kick around one on one with the keeper and gives you a chance to practice shots and the catalogue of skill moves available.

The most interesting of the new additions is undoubtedly the Be A Pro career mode. Here you can create a professional footballer from scratch or choose an existing one from the massive catalogue of real-life professionals and try to achieve legendary status for club and country. During Be A Pro matches you control your chosen player only and the classic TV broadcast view is switched 90 degrees to face straight at the opposition goal. This shift adds more than novelty value as suddenly your biggest concern is off the ball movement you will need to see all the available space. Controlling a single player for the duration of a match is not as boring as you might think, calling for the ball will see team mates responding very politely even if it results in losing possession. An onscreen performance meter and pre-defined criteria to get experience bonuses have been incorporated to keep you interested. Experience points earned can be spent on improving your player’s stats so he may be transferred to bigger clubs and make international appearances. The process of playing an entire season in this mode is an arduous task, but gameplay can be switched back to team control before a match or games can ‘simmed’ to generate the result.

Football games always have been and for the foreseeable future will be, games that shine when used for one screen multiplayer. Pass the controller, 2 V 2, whatever…get a few friends round, pick sides and kick off and it is immediately apparent why football games are so popular. It is the original pass the controller game: pride will be staked, gloating is standard and everyone knows when to shout. Take the experience online and a bit of the magic is lost – there is something slightly under-whelming about making an online opponent sit through goal replays. This year includes the option to play 10 V 10 where each gamer controls a single player. If EA really wants to push for realism they are going to have to do it: force some poor sod to go in goal and take abuse over Xbox live head sets for every howler. Why stop there? 2010’s version should include the option to play as referee, linesman and fourth official, for ultimate griefing potential.

For the truly obsessed FIFA ’09 sees the introduction of the Adidas Live Season, a new online feature that updates player stats based on real life performances via weekly downloads. This may seem a little excessive to some, especially as it carries a pay-per-league charge, but it highlights EA sports’ commitment to representing real life football, and, making a few quid on the side. Purchasing an actual football may prove a better investment

Although we are seeing football games striving for realism there are always going to be strange quirks and glitches that bring you back to reality. Within 10 seconds of starting my Be A Pro career two of my Plymouth Argyle team-mates had got themselves booked in two separate incidents. Following certain goals, seemingly random players from either team received yellow cards; looks like referees are finally cracking down on swearing. Personally, I feel strange and inaccurate commentary is part of the kitsch appeal of football games and should be celebrated and preserved, clearly the good people at EA Sports agree with me. In all fairness this is still the best in game commentary in a football game, but the inclusion of Andy Gray on every single match is a little cruel.

The battle between the FIFA and PES franchises is no longer an arms race but has entered tactical maneuvers. FIFA has the license and massive catalogue of players, FIFA offers the most realistic representation of football, but is it more fun to play than the video gaming stalwart PES? The answer to this final question comes down to personal preference. PES 2009 certainly has its work cut out as EA Sports have set the bar high for 2009.

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