Like Michael and his ‘fondness’ for huskies, even the most extraordinary things become mundane if you get used to them. Like annual football updates: previously the scum of the release calendar but now a hotly contested battle between the publishers – an even changing ebb and flow between FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer has removed any monopoly and forced both teams to up their game. And here we are again, with the year moving quicker than a pointy Citroen, and another round of soccer sims upon us to whet our appetites.
We say ‘sims’ in the plural but as yet we’ve not received anything playable for Pro Evo 2009, so this isn’t some kind of comparison. This is purely a review of EA’s latest and although Konami has its staunt fanbase, still clinging to the notion that Evo plays a more ‘realistic’ game, we reckon anyone still in doubt over which to go for this year will find very little wrong with FIFA 09. Put simply, it’s the finest football game we’ve ever played.
So, the first thing you’ll do is grab the manual, head straight to the back page and find the special, unique code enscribed there. This code allows you to subscribe to any of the game’s major leagues, at which point the game will then automatically download form updates throughout the season. If a team is playing well in the ‘real’ league, the stats boost will be reflected in game, and of course the opposite is true. If a player gets married or buys a new mansion, expect the game in FIFA 09. Well, not the mansion. Or the marriage. The ‘free’ update subscription is sponsored by Adidas, if you want live updates from other leagues, it’s a fiver each from the Store, which is actually a pretty good price.
Also carried over from the Euro edition of FIFA 08 is the interactive league updates, where the player picks a team and then points scored in game are totted up along with all the others online and your virtual team is ranked worldwide. Again, expect a heavy bias for the better known teams (loads of Manchester United selections from IP addresses outside of Manchester, for example) but it’s still a cool feature.
The best new feature though is the fully developed ‘be a pro’ mode. First seen in FIFA 08, this ‘control a single player for the whole match’ was a nice idea in single player mode, but now it’s usable online with 9 other players per team. In effect, this means a 20 player match (the PS3 still controls the goalies) with each player assuming a real role on the pitch. It’s a great idea, and works well assuming everyone’s internet connection is up to scratch, and the behind-the-player camera is especially cool. The roadie run from Gears is still there too when you’re sprinting towards the goal, creating tension and more than a little bit of pressure.
If you’re not really good enough for ‘be a pro’ then try ‘Lounge’ mode. It’s still a 20 player max limit but it’s a one-player-per-team league with the twist being a more relaxed set of rules. Probably better with people you know, it’s a casual way to enjoy FIFA where you can boost and reduce stats to level out the playing field, and works well enough to be more than just a novelty. The single player has been bolstered too though: alongside the offline ‘be a pro’ matches there’s a set of seasons to work your way through, with the PS3 awarding you for good play and decent results, starting you at the bottom of the league with the ultimate goal of captaining your country. It’s fundamentally just a career mode, but feels extremely polished.
Additionally, there’s Clubs for those of you that like your online clan matches, and a full offline Manager Mode for anyone that likes sheepskin overcoats.
Thankfully, the gameplay mechanics have received as much attention as the menu options. Right from the kickoff this feels more like football than any previous FIFA. EA have been heading down the simulation route for some time, but this year they’ve cracked it with a heavy emphasis on passing and keeping possession. It’s all about trying to find an opening and pulling at the defense rather than holding down sprint and crossing it in from the wing, and watching skilled players at work, coupled with the amazing visuals on offer really does look like you’re watching a live match on the television.
The d-pad is used for tactical changes, mid-game, and can naturally be tweaked to suit your playing style, but the real improvements are in the use of the right analog stick, which can now control how your first touch is handling and coupled with the triggers gives you a wider range of moves than ever before. Instead of just lame shimmies you can now modify your passes and shots on goal (and even fake a shot) and the improved animation, computer AI and physics really do hammer home the differences between this and FIFA 08.
So, with the official license, stunning graphics, a whole host of online options, 7 player local matches and a lengthy single player campaign this is the ultimate football game. Sure, it’s all zeroes and ones but they’re dressed up in a realistic simulation that has finally shed it’s Megadrive roots. The argument is over: FIFA is the new king, and unless Pro Evo comes with a free copy of Metal Gear Solid 4, this one’s in the bag, EA. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.