Only a few months have passed since EA Sports launched Euro 2008, and already they are back on the scene with their yearly iteration of FIFA.
EA is traditionally chastised for its annual updates which often feel more like a new lick of paint than a new game. The questions all soccer fans will be asking is: what makes this year's FIFA worth buying, and how does this one stand out from all the rest? Well, it certainly seems that with the launch of FIFA 09, next gen consoles are finally getting a taste of what made last gen FIFA titles such a hit.
FIFA 09 is most certainly not simply a new lick of paint on last year's title. The developers have been boasting that it has 250 additions and enhancements to core gameplay, and for once we can honestly say we can believe it.
This year’s iteration plays like one of the most exceptional soccer experiences ever brought to any sort of virtual medium. The game play is fast and fluid, and the player physics and movements are exceptional. Collisions occur between players realistically, and all bodies on the field will interact accurately with one another. Everything has been motion captured to make it as realistic as possible, and this level of smooth fluidity in the way that movements are strung together means that goal scoring never happens the same way twice. There are simply too many dynamic factors involved in the game, one major factor being the game ball.
EA has included an enormous amount of teams from all of the major clubs around the world, and even the smaller clubs. The New Zealand national team is in there, and several leagues from the UK, Germany, France and the like. Chances are if you have a team you support, they will be in the game. All your favourite players are there, Rooney, Podolski, Beckham and Ballack, and they all play and look like their real life counterparts. Each player has an area in which they will perform better, and it is about maximising each players traits to perform as good as they can.
What would a soccer game be without good ball mechanics? FIFA titles have for a long time struggled with a ball that was tethered to the players foot, and then flipping to the other extreme, an unpredictable ball that simply behaved strangely. FIFA 09 seems to have finally hit the nail on the head in this respect as well. The ball reacts as one would expect, impacting both people and the referee (yeah - we’ll get to this) as you would anticipate. Overall, the ball and player physics are simply exceptional. It is quite satisfying and often amusing to see a player trip over a fallen player and hit the deck. They are complex enough to mean that the game continually plays differently and surprises you, but FIFA 09 proves that complexity does not have to mean unpredictability. The game still allows you to shoot goals with reasonable ease, however you will be reacting on the fly to what the game throws at you much like players would have to in real life soccer matches.
What is nice too is that the computer controlled players are far more intelligent than what we have previously seen. They are found running towards a lost ball far more often than simply standing around watching. It happens still, but its not nearly as blatant as in the past. Occasionally, too, the computer will pull an absolutely masterful play out with an almost inevitable goal, where you can only pray that your keeper is fast enough.
The graphics and player animations are also a real treat. It does feel though that graphically some past iterations may have had a slight edge, including UEFA 2008, however the graphics are exceptionally functional and the players look very much like their real world counterparts. Unfortunately, when the camera pans out further the image loses focus. This has possibly been done to fix the slow down that we have seen in the past, as there is absolutely no sign of that - the game is silky smooth, making it a worthwhile trade-off. Not to mention the weather effects including rain and snow, which each affect the ball handling, and look dramatic on top.
The animations that have been implemented help to give you the feeling you are watching a real game. Players hands will come up calling for penalties and off-sides, and the linesmen’s flags are always noticeable to show you whose throw in it will be. The referee is also there and you always will receive visual feedback from him as you play. Once in a while (and this wasn’t such a treat) the referee would get in the way of my players or the ball. This hasn’t happened often but when it does happen you can’t help but feel a tinge of anger toward him, and consider aiming a sliding tackle his way.
Goal celebrations are also well put together, allowing you to use the right stick and button combinations to create your own celebrations, one mentionable one being the robot, although you can be more daring and try back flips and the like. In FIFA 09 even the crowds have been animated in 3D; they wave a substantial number of flags and have a host of chants waiting to be unleashed at the appropriate times.
Custom team tactics have been included too, giving you control over a range of sliders that set such things such as pressure, defence and attack. You can adjust these during the game to attempt to take advantage of the weaknesses the opposing team presents, but we felt that these settings are a bit confusing simply being dumped on you. The manual was little help in explaining how these features really work, and so far we have rarely used them for fear of doing more damage than good. The booklet could generally have been more helpful, perhaps with some tips and tricks, or more fleshed out descriptions of the controls and different play situations. It would be nice to know how to take advantage of them, be they throw-ins or corners. Having said this, there is the ability to remap every button on the controller, meaning you can set the buttons as you want them and as you use them. This is a feature more games should have, but too few actually do.