Jul 30, 2008

Last year's FIFA was something of a landmark for the series, the game emerging as easily one of the best examples of the long-running franchise, while at the same time Pro Evo's form unexpectedly dipped. For the first time in a while FIFA was at one with the critics, and it was Konami who, if you'll pardon the pun, were left frantically back-peddling, seeking to reacquire what had made PES the best the genre had to offer for so many years.

FIFA 09, then, seems to carry on in the same vein as the commendable FIFA 08, as well as this summer's tie-in title, UEFA Euro 2008. FIFA 09 is looking just as rock solid as the 08 outing, judging by the hands-on time I recently enjoyed at EA's invitation. What's more, EA Sports are working hard to tweak and improve the minor issues outstanding, as well as expanding the series in exciting new directions.

Producer David Rutter, in town from Vancouver, says there are 250 improvements planned for the new release (on the Xbox 360 and the PS3 at least), with gameplay refinement abound, in addition to feedback from the community which is also being internalised.

EA's stated aim is a "superior gameplay experience", and this is demonstrated through more responsive gameplay linked to more realistic player movement, enhanced physics and all manner of AI changes. Playing the game, this improvement certainly make a difference to the animation, which looks superb, while players also collide more convincingly, the weight and direction of colliding players offering a real sense of momentum for the first time. In a bid to speed up the game, trapping and passing has also been overhauled, allowing for more fluid moves.

Dribbling is slicker, and feels more detailed than ever before, while this also seems to be the most 'random' FIFA ever, 09 boasting more authentic moments of madness, such as flapping goalies, rebounds, and other unpredictable asides that help the game lose the 'robotic' feel that some titles include. As previously mooted, the physics also behave in a more realistic manner now, bigger players brushing smaller ones off the ball, or missing them entirely as the ferret-like attacker slips between beastly centre-backs towards the goal.

Making the game feel quicker and more responsive being one of EA's stated aims with this revision of the never-ending series, it is little surprise that AI has received some attention. Players now respond in a more natural manner to a given situation, while once again that sense of the unpredictable can lead to some highly entertaining play. Producer Rutter admits that the goalie was one of the elements of 08 the team were least satisfied with - so the humble keeper has been rebuilt from scratch to behave as a real keeper might. Shots that should have gone in, in the last game, now probably will; while the keeper has an enhanced chance of keeping-out those well-timed half-chances that never seemed to fail in older versions of the footie series.

Tactics will prove an important part of this. Not only does the play ebb and flow in a realistic manner based on unique tactical configurations, but they also impact the game at a wholesale level too. Get the tactics wrong, and even the greatest team can suffer, while a spot-on strategy when playing as a minnow can produce some surprising results. All in all, this side of the game is a welcome advancement, FIFA 09 looking and feeling more like a real football match than perhaps any title before it.

Rutter reveals to us that players will also be able to share tactics online, and the Be A Pro mode also makes a return, allowing players to hone an individual talent to the ultimate goal - to become captain of their national team. In line with this, you'll also be able to assume the role of an individual player online - via full 10 on 10 action (no goalies) across Live or the PlayStation Network. Rutter assures us that this ambitious mode is already working a treat, EA having cut their teeth with 5 on 5 play in FIFA 08.

Aesthetically the game is looking better than ever, especially the detailed stadia and player appearances, which are a cut above anything we've seen before. Again, EA's efforts with the realistic, responsive player movements helps produce a free-flowing experience that looks almost as slick and 'liquid' as real football. The celebrations, crowds, and other nice little touches add to this sense of realism. The licensed music selection, sleek menus and general aura of intense polish add the ever-present sense of quality.

Rutter is quick to point out the 250 improvements being made, and in my limited time with the game I certainly got the impression that this is the most complete FIFA ever; the flaws very few and far between, while core fans will be happy that despite the tweaking very little has changed of the seismic variety.

We were also afforded a few minutes with the new Wii version of FIFA 09, EA Sports having a conjured up a smooth and user-friendly experience similar to Pro Evo's impressive stab at Wii play. Two control modes are on offer, one for 'hardcore players', the other dubbed 'All-Play', as it helps the player get to grips with the game, offering forgiving responses and providing near-constant on-screen help. This approach is so integral to the game that the Wii version is actually called FIFA 09: All-Play, EA pulling out all the stops to make non-gaming types feel at home.

The Wii's classic controller is now supported, the game's producer tells us, and there is an 8 versus 8 Footii mode to enjoy; players able to take their Mii avatars into the thick of the action.

The Wii version was looking every bit as well thought out as PES did on the same format, so it will be interesting to see how the final version is received, especially given the proximity between both editions of the game.

Even the PC version wasn't forgotten, EA promising an experience tailored to each format. The PC version, for example, is crafted for those playing closer to the screen - while those non-hardcore gamers might be rather taken with the mouse-based control scheme which positions the PC perhaps closer to the Wii version than the next-gen outing we've focussed on earlier in this article. Hardcore players will be able to choose to use the 'WASD' controls, should they wish to. Clearly Peter Moore isn't too worried about spending money on creating a PC game, when it comes to the FIFA series.

Our time done, we're left itching for more time with what must surely turn out to be a first-rate FIFA experience. The only factor we've yet to consider, in fact, is the opposition... who must surely be plotting something of a rear-guard action this year.


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