FIFA 09 was immensely successful -- it won 25 international gaming awards, for starters. Many players (this one included) felt that FIFA 09 had finally hit the nail on the head and become one of the best soccer titles on the market, if not the best. Largely the experience was as close to perfect as we could have imagined at the time, and despite some frustrating problems the experience was nearly complete.

For this reason we struggled to think what EA could do to improve the formula now that FIFA 10 is bouncing onto the scene -- but somehow they’ve tweaked and ground away at their award-winning formula to wring something new and better out of it.

For anyone who has been playing FIFA 09 for the past year FIFA 10 will look immediately familiar. The GUI as well as the graphics have largely remained the same, which might make this feel more like an upgrade than a whole new iteration; and perhaps that is a better way of describing it. But many people will love FIFA 10 simply for the new season stats, including all the latest trades and team shifts (i.e. my team shifted from the 2. Bundesliga into the 1. Bundesliga). This is pretty satisfying for soccer fanatics as you now no longer need to update your rosters manually to keep up with all the latest trades. Though the graphics are very much the same, some textures actually looked worse in our review build, particularly the players' shirts. We hope that EA are still tweaking these for the release.

The player controls and the dribbling have been enhanced to be more fluid and more realistic. The overall effect of this is that defender and attacker encounters are more interesting and more lively, and therefore the entire pitch is more alive. The overhauled animation means that movements are more realistic, and the series is becoming less and less discernible from real life, only really being held back by graphical limitations. Players will now skid to a halt in front of players, avoiding an opponents feet. Dribbling is far more realistic and responsive with the new 360 degree dribbling control, which allow a player to push and dart through spaces that appear, and is a shift from the often frustratingly slow movements and reactions from FIFA 09.

Similarly too, the passing and shooting has been tidied up, and has also become more responsive. Passing is now quick and direct, and less often falls prey to the opposing team in what would otherwise have been pretty idiotic passes. The pre-play function that allowed you to line up passes long before the ball reached a player has also been toned down and made more user friendly, now not ruining what would otherwise be an excellent play simply because you hit the pass button five seconds before.

Other excellent game dynamic tweaks include the referee who now doesn’t get in the way of the ball (thank goodness) and will actually jump over it if it perchance does get under his feet. As well as play not always being stopped for minor penalties, the referee allows for an immediate continuation of play. It's these aspects that make FIFA 10 a significantly less frustrating, and more enjoyable and intuitive title.

With all these changes to the gameplay engine, the lack of any significant graphical changes is a disappointment. It would have been nice to see some updated player models, but then again, I guess there’s only so much EA can do with the series on current hardware.

The implementation of the Photo Game Face definitely helps though, where you can upload photos of yourself to the EA server over your computer, which you can then import into the game and insert onto your Virtual Pro. The Virtual Pro is essentially a character you create that will follow you (if you so choose) throughout all the game modes, and can even be taken online into the new Pro Club Championship where you can join other Virtual Pros around the world to form teams, and battle it out in virtual championships. Due to our copy not being a retail copy we couldn’t trial this, however if it works as EA advertises it will really look and feel great. The Virtual Pro can improve his stats as you progress through the game, and can become one of the top Virtual Pro players in the world as you can compare stats across all Pros.

Thankfully, with so much going on, EA has finally included a decent practice mode that allows you to practice set plays. This was necessary after the mysteries that surrounded some of the shot taking in FIFA 09. On top of this a bundle of tutorial videos are packaged into the game that give you an excellent handle on the basics and even some of the more advanced tactics in the game. Now that it's finally here, we can almost forgive EA for not including it in last year's title. Though some even more advanced training videos couldn’t have hurt, as the odd set shot still feels ambiguous.

The usual fare in the way of manager mode is available, but has had some upgrades to its realism. The match results are more closely matched to a team and player’s strengths and weaknesses, and player transfers have become much more advanced in that they are impacted by more realistic factors relating to the club. Overall when we tried the management mode we very much enjoyed it, and found it to be easier and less confusing than the previous mode. It also benefitted largely from the fine-tuned game mechanics as it made playing with your managed team a more enjoyable experience.

In our FIFA 09 review we hailed it for its exceptional link in with the online component. The news feeds, the downloadable performance updates for the teams, the excellent online connectivity -- it's all back in FIFA 10. Live Season 2.0 is in this time with more stats updated weekly than previously. The matchmaking has also been overhauled, and fortunately EA has really listened to fans and enhanced the ranking systems to take into account the teams that are playing, as well as giving reduced rewards if players take on the same opponent over and over again. This will really help to balance out the field online, as the game takes extra care to match people to players close to them, and in their skill range. Though you are also able to search after a set criteria which helps you to find the games that you want to find.

FIFA 10 is a worthy improvement over its predecessor. EA has left much of the core aspects the same with only small adjustments to the graphics engine and focused far more on getting things right. It's very apparent that this has succeeded not only in creating an even better soccer game, but in improving on almost every aspect and fixing most of the flaws from FIFA 09. Fans and newbies alike will enjoy the new title, though for some players there simply won’t be enough new content to warrant the upgrade, as the changes are mostly subtle. The improved gameplay mechanics, more responsive controls and smarter AI really do make for a far more enjoyable match engine than what we have seen before.

It seems that the grand changes we have seen in the past in soccer games are slowing down as developers master their craft. We may see some real shifts again with the next generation of consoles (and motion controls?), however for now EA is doing an excellent job in pushing the FIFA series to its maximum.