UEFA Euro 2008 Xbox 360, PS3, PC, PS2 Review

Well, it’s here again. The football tournament that infiltrates our homes, hearts and minds every leap year is once again upon us, and EA have once again been kind enough to grace us with yet another addition to its flagship footballing juggernaut. Thankfully, due to the drastic improvement present in their last couple of Fifa releases, this is no longer something to be frowned upon with horror and disgust, but rather a real opportunity to put the failures of the home nations to one side and enjoy playing out the competition in a much more satisfying manner.

As is tradition with these Euro editions, the sole focus is on this summer’s Euro 2008 tournament, with no options available to play league matches with club teams. Of course, anyone expecting otherwise obviously hasn’t gotten used to EA’s formula of milking these sports franchises for all they’re worth, but in fairness ‘it does what it says on the tin’, and there’s always the excellent Fifa 08 to satisfy any other needs. In any case, enough changes have been made to justify forking out once more for this latest incarnation, with several new modes and play devices introduced which substantially alter the way the game is played.

The first of these, something which is explained in a handy but rather long intro movie, is ‘Battle of the Nations’. Not exactly a mode as such, BotN encourages countrywide unification across the globe, with players first selecting the nation they wish to represent and then earning points for them based on all their own results in-game. One interesting aspect of this is that more points are earned for winning with weaker teams, something which is sure to encourage at least a little more variation in team selection from time to time in the more patriotic fans out there. The culmination of BotN coincides with the end of the real Euro 2008 tournament, when the country with the most points will be crowned as ‘Champions of Europe’. Even if it is more of a gimmick than a useful gameplay mechanic, it still adds to the sense of occasion and brings the game’s global audience together in a fun and unique way.

The most interesting and enjoyable new addition is the aptly-named ‘Captain Your Country’, a mode which sees the return of controlling just a single player in a team. Starting off on the bottom rung of a chosen international outfit, either as a real player or a created one, you earn experience points by performing well in matches, which you can then spend on improving all aspects of your captain-in-the-making, such as shot power and accuracy, acceleration, balance and goalkeeping ability. The amount of customisation on offer is huge and really affects the way future matches are played, as shots start to fly towards goal with greater precision and speedy runs help to leave the opposition’s defensive line for dead.

Actually playing the matches as a single person for the whole 90 minutes is a joy, and a welcome break from the familiar and well-trodden normal match modes. Arrows indicate the rough position your player needs to be in order to have the best chance of doing something useful, whilst different buttons are used to tell the computer players to pass to you, start a forward run, play a through-ball or have a shot. Obviously, everything would fall to pieces if the AI wasn’t good enough, but it’s surprisingly adaptive to different play styles, with your team-mates always willing to pass to you when you call for the ball and happy to try and break through the opposing team on its own if you’re in a bad position.

During each match, a rating is constantly present which fluctuates between 1 and 10 depending on how well you’re playing in your current position, with increases for good tackles, smart passes, assists and scoring goals and decreases for things like losing the ball and committing fouls. With a bit of practice, it’s not difficult to maintain a high rating, as just a few neat touches or clean tackles can increase it by large amounts at a time, but it’s surprising how much your own tactics are altered by striving to achieve as high a rating as possible. Higher ratings mean more experience points and more recognition from your manager, something which eventually results in your championed player being granted the team captaincy and a greater say in team formations and substitutions. It all works very well, and provides a sense of achievement as you fight to qualify for Euro 2008 as well as battle it out to keep hold of the captaincy for as long as possible.

Another pleasantly distracting and extremely challenging mode is ‘Story of Qualifying’, in which defining moments from past European Championships are recreated and provided as specific challenges to overcome, such as scoring a crazy amount of goals in one match or rescuing a team from certain defeat in the last 15 minutes. One for the more experienced players, the challenges on offer are both varied and difficult, and serve to increase the lifespan of the game that little bit more as well as educate people with some of the most notable events in Euro Championship history.

The normal match modes and multiplayer are a step up from Fifa 08, with player movement and ball control even more realistic than what has come before. Gameplay is fluid and extremely enjoyable, with a refined pass and through-ball system and improved AI all adding up to provide the best Fifa release yet. Graphically, everything is still as beautiful as ever, even though a large amount of the players still look like mutant abominations instead of their real-life counterparts. Audio-wise, the commentary from Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend is acceptable if nothing special, with fairly generic comments interspersed with the odd interesting fact, but crowd chants have been enhanced to become more team-specific and generally more recognisable. The addition of interactive goal celebrations is on the more pointless side of things, but even so it can lead to some hilarious arm waving and other random frantic movements as players attempt to pull off one of the many possible finishing moves, such as somersaults and backflips. The opportunity to play through your own Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, along with a plethora of multiplayer options, also add to the extensive longevity of the game.

For those of you bemoaning the absence of a few certain teams from this year’s European Football Championship, this companion release is sure to at least offer some entertaining distractions to even the most heartbroken fans out there, and the continuing improvement with each subsequent release is a very heartening sign. EA, how we’ve missed you.

8/10

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Competition time

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Version tested: 360, PS3, PC, PS2

Developer: EA Sports

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Genre: Sports