EA’s FIFA series has in many people’s eyes been stuck in the lower leagues compared to PES’s perennial Premiership performance. The 08 iteration changes this dramatically as the always excellent graphical and audio flair is finally joined by a game of football to match.
The game opens up in the arena, where you get to take charge of a footballer of your choice while practicing all the attacking controls on offer. Viewed from a behind-the-player angle, it’s a great introduction to the game as it’s just you against the keeper. You can happily spend twenty minutes doing this without even starting the game proper. Once you’ve marvelled at the animation and learned a few skill moves you can progress to the real action.
Step onto the pitch for the first time and even before kick-off you’ll be immersed like never before. The quality of the animation is superb, although player likenesses are as always a little more Shrek than they need be (Rooney excepted), but it’s the quality of the commentary over the ground-sensitive crowd noise that really sets this apart. Hearing an Anfield crowd singing You’ll Never Walk Alone is a joy, but when it’s matched by a commentary that’s as good as a live Sky broadcast you know you’re onto something special.
Eventually though the ref has counted the players and he’s ready to blow the whistle to start the match. And when he does, you’ll find that FIFA’s game is an engaging balance of realism and arcade action. On the lowest skill level players will quickly learn to skip past challenges and burst the onion bag with precision shots. Move up a level or two, or better yet take the game online, and the challenge is such that a more considered game is required. The control options allow the play to be PS3-assisted or totally manual, where every mistake and every piece of genius is entirely down to you. We prefer the manual style, because although initially harder to master, in the long run it allows more control over everything you try to do.
FIFA’s skill moves add an extra dimension to attacking play as they allow you to dribble like Ronaldinho and really open up a defence if you can pull off the moves. Taunting the opposition with a series of keepy-ups before flicking the ball up for a devastating volley is a skill well worth learning. The manual comes with a full guide to the skill moves with handy little graphics to show how to move the sticks.
The defensive side requires concentration at all times to prevent the other team running amok. The skill moves can be used against you, and reckless sliding tackles will be punished not only with yellow cards, but by displays of skill that’ll leave you a goal down quicker than Henry racing onto a defence-splitting pass. A combination of pressing and jockeying for the ball, along with well timed tackling is required to turn defence into attack.
Each match plays out in a way similar to many matches you’ll see on TV. You may dominate a team and lose 1-0, or play for 90 minutes on the back foot, but somehow manage to score the only goal of the game. YOu need to take your chances in front of goal when you get them or you’ll pay the ultimate price.
There are still control oddities, like the ‘super cancel’ move to stop players chasing a lost cause, which requires a contortionists dexterity to pull off, when it would simply have been easier to have the player stop moving when you stop moving the sticks? It’s a bold idea, we know, but the current approach makes as much sense as Steve McClaren.
FIFA is fleshed out with a couple of extra modes to add some longevity, the most notable of which is the ‘Be A Pro’ mode, which allows you to play as a single player throughout your career. You can be the midfield maestro or striking sensation, but to get the most from this mode you’ll have to play the full part, which means tracking back in defence, filling in for out-of-position teammates, and generally doing some of the more boring dirty work. It’s a bold experiment and one that pays off in many ways. Playing the perfect game in your chosen position can be more gratifying than any other aspect of FIFA, but these times are outweighed by matches that can pass you by. The Manager Mode adds an aspect of team management for those that wish to dabble.
Online is another area that FIFA scores at, as it allows automatic leagues to be created. This is a brilliant way of getting a group of your PSN buddies together and takes FIFA to another dimension of competition. We’d like to see this area expanded to include cup tournaments so that big competitions can be created. Perhaps a patch could include this? The only downside of the online play is the lag, which although never ruinous does occasionally see moves breaking down through no fault of your own. It’s never bad enough to make you scream like Carragher after a bad decision, but it’s an annoyance all the same.
FIFA is now the complete package; it combines all the licensing you could want along with graphics slicker than a Gerrard through ball and adds a match engine with more play-styles than Rafa Benitez has rotation options.