FIFA 09 PS3, Xbox 360
Here in the UK, FIFA and Pro Evo’s annual October release is practically a national holiday. Both always have excellent opening weekends and debate over which is the better of the two floods the internet for days afterward. It used to be a very clear cut situation – FIFA was always the inferior game; once the champion, but after years of updates full of gimmicks rather than real innovation, it became the one that mothers would buy their ignorant children for Christmas, mainly due to red-faced Manchester United fatty/striker Wayne Rooney’s gurning mug gracing the cover, whereas Pro Evo was always regarded as the connoisseurs’ choice. Sure, it may lack the official licenses, proper kit sponsors and whatnot, but it played a better game of football, which was surely the point?
However, in recent years, things have changed. FIFA 08 was a complete overhaul of EA’s football game engine, creating a more cerebral, more real footballing experience. Sure, it still had their usual high-end presentation and authenticity, but for once FIFA was no longer the inferior title, but instead a genuine alternative. Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 was more of the same, meaning it was a perfectly enjoyable kickabout, but perhaps Konami were starting to rest on their laurels a little bit, much like EA did with FIFA, costing them their crown in the first place.
The irony is delicious.
So, now out in front, EA have decided to keep the quality gameplay from the previous game, tweak it and slap on enough extras that you’ll be left wondering if there is anything left for other football games. As expected, every important team, league and cup competition is included and, officially licensed, of course, and all of the modes from last year are still here.
The big new feature is the inclusion of the 10 vs 10 online mode. Previously, the “Be A Pro” mode allowed 5 players a side to play against each other online, each playing as an individual, much like ancient PSOne title Libero Grande, but in the space of a year EA have managed to get a fully manned game of football up and running. At first, it is an incredibly weird experience, as it involves getting used to being one cog in a much larger machine, as opposed to the norm of having total team control, but when perfected is a unique and rewarding multiplayer experience. Sure, not everyone can be Christiano Ronaldo (mercifully), but even being the unsung left-back that performs a goal saving tackle is so satisfying in its own right. It does require a fair bit of patience to get into it, but the rewards are worth it. There is nowt else like this on the market right now, so in that aspect, EA have already earned some serious praise.
Another new feature is the “Adidas Live Season”, where real life results will affect the in-game statistics, meaning that us poor Newcastle fans will probably end up playing with some crippled three-star team come Christmas, while Chelsea and Manchester United fans will no doubt have no issue with this at all, no doubt watching their teams go from strength to strength! You get one league for free in the box, while multiple league updates will cost you a few quid. It’s a complete gimmick that doesn’t really add anything other than keeping the game insanely up to date, but FIFA has always been about authenticity.
Speaking of gimmicks, the create-a-celebration mode from Euro 2008 has returned, and is a pointless yet fun addition to the proceedings, allowing you to pull off everything from the Thierry Henry understated “shush” to the glorious Peter Crouch robot. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the Nicolas Anelka “bird” celebration…
The gameplay itself remains largely untouched from last year, with a few background tweaks to AI and the engine itself, giving everything a feeling of additional weight to defensive situations and a real sense that shots should only be taken when you create a decent chance, rather than just jabbing the shoot button whenever you get a sniff of the goal. It is still a somewhat slower paced game of football than Pro Evo, but one that favours realism over instant action. The addition of customizable tactics is a welcome one, allowing you to map your own personal presets to the d-pad. So, should you suddenly find yourself with a one nil lead with Walsall against Barcalona at the Nou Camp, you can “park the bus” on the goal line for the rest of the match at the touch of a button, as well as a huge selection of other options.
As per usual, the bulk of your time will be spent either playing with friends, online or offline, and the multiplayer still shines. Human opponents are far more ruthless than the A.I and a game being won with a last minute bullet from 30 yards will absolutely bring up the same emotions you’d get in real life – winner or loser. The online components are solid and lag-free, which deserves a special mention when you consider the 10 vs 10 mode. The live leagues are still running, where real life fixtures played online are totalled up, and the team that won the most of the encounters gets the points, providing an insight into which teams fans are the best gamers – or, more likely – how many glory-hunting Man United and Chelsea fans are out there. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
There are still a few hiccups that haven’t been addressed from last year. There is a fair bit of slowdown in crowded penalty box situations, which makes things like trying to time a header frustrating, while the referees are still, perhaps realistically, quite inconsistent. Sometimes what seems to be a perfectly timed tackle will be pulled up for a freekick, whereas sometimes you have to be pretty much assaulted in order for the ref to stop the play. Goalkeepers are also a little wonky, being able to stop almost all one-on-one situations but get beaten from some of the more speculative long range efforts. Like Heurelho Gomes. Sorry, couldn’t resist, again.
Ultimately, FIFA have improved on their previous effort, perhaps knowing fully that the ball is in Konami’s court to improve this year. If Pro Evo was still at its best, then FIFA 09 would be a genuine alternative. As it is right now, FIFA is the new home of the hardcore football gamer. The changes are just enough to warrant a slightly higher score from last year, but based on this form, it’d be a shame to see FIFA rest on its laurels again, especially if Konami come out all guns blazing for the second half. The match isn’t over by a long shot, but EA are currently in the lead and cruising to the final whistle.