It's another year and as expected another FIFA is taking pride of place at your local video game store. It's like clockwork, but for PC gamers it might not have been. EA Sports decided to cut back on its sports output for the PC, with FIFA being one of the lucky ones that didn't get the chop (not so lucky for Madden and Tiger Woods), so perhaps PC gamers should be happy it's arrived at all. Still, that's not the way things work, with a competent and PC centric game being needed to please football hungry fans with a mouse in one hand and keyboard under the other. EA isn't getting a free pass just because it decided to support the format.
The good news for PC FIFA fans is that, for the first time in years, this does feel like a game designed for the PC. As soon as the game loads you're greeted by a web 2.0 like user interface, complete with customisable widgets. By default we could see our online stats, check out how our chosen favourite team (Spurs) were doing in the Adidas Live Season stats (poorly), keep track of our offline stats and see what the community is up to. If you don't like these you can choose from a few others and there's a good chance the community will make plenty more once the game hits stores. We haven't even kicked a ball and yet we're already quite impressed.
Feature and game mode wise the PC game is very similar to its Xbox 360 and PS3 cousins although it is missing a few high profile features. You've got pretty much every football team and player that matters, all the big leagues, game modes for every occasion (friendly, season, Be a Pro, management, online play, and more), editing tools and the new Adidas Live Season player stat tracking and updating (free for one league, but it'll cost you for any more). Sadly there's no 10 vs 10 online play in the Be a Pro mode and the new tactical options seen in the 360/PS3 versions are nowhere to be seen. Still, there's enough here to keep football fans happy for a long time, and even longer if they have friends. All good stuff, but it's on the pitch that FIFA is really judged, and this year EA Sports has taken a very different approach.
You can play FIFA 09 like a standard football sim, either with your keyboard or preferably with a game pad, but EA has also included a brand-new mouse and keyboard control system - the mastery of which completely changes the way you can play the game. Player movement with this control set-up is handled with the keyboard and all defensive and offensive actions are handled with the mouse. Aim the on-screen reticule and tap the left mouse button to pass, hold it down longer for a long pass. Aim with the pointer and shoot with the right mouse button. Alone these extra control options make for a more precise game of football, but they're just the tip of the iceberg.
By using the mouse and a fair bit of skill and general football smarts you're able to orchestrate the most wonderful moves that even Arsenal would marvel at. It's all down to the mouse wheel. Hover over a player and roll the wheel and that player will make a run, but hover in space and roll the wheel and a player will move into that space. It takes some getting used to but soon enough you'll be pulling off moves that look so real it's scary, dinking little balls through the gap for your onrushing striker to run on to and bury in the back of the net.
It's not all rosy in the land of mouse and keyboard football though. Although using a mouse allows you to perform passes and moves that you'd struggle to dream about in console FIFA, using a keyboard to move your players about isn't ideal. If you've been playing FIFA like this for years then you won't care, but if you're a console gamer attracted by the exciting prospect of mouse control you've been warned. Player movement with a keyboard simply isn't as good as using a controller. Because you kick the ball where you're pointing the mouse cursor you'll need to be on your toes at all times. What is an easy defensive clearance using a game pad can be a terrible pass back to your keeper if you're not in full control of the mouse.
An area in which the development team has tried to make strides is the visuals. Previous FIFA games on PC were little more than slightly enhanced PS2 ports, but FIFA 09 on PC features many of the next-gen effects seen in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. Player faces are detailed (if not exactly life-like), sweat can be seen on skin, the grass on the pitch looks 3D and animations are much improved over last year's game. As much as these improvements were needed and appreciated, FIFA 09 on PC still looks nothing like the stunning next-gen home console versions. An improvement for sure, but there's still a lot more that can be done.
PC FIFA fans have wanted a little more effort put into their version for years and finally the moaning and commitment to the series has paid off. FIFA 09 is the best FIFA the PC has seen in years and a great step forward for the series on the platform. The mouse and keyboard controls take some getting used to but offer an incredible amount of control once mastered and the visual improvements have brought the game up to a modern standard. If you're choosing between PC and next-gen console versions we'd still give the console games the edge, but PC gamers shouldn't hesitate to pick FIFA up this year.