There is much about football that doesn't make sense. How Chelsea can let go of Jose Mourinho, one of the greatest managers in the world, is one example. That England fans expect the national team to win every game despite having failed to win anything in over 50 years is another. But the fact that the world's two premier football video games are made in Canada and Japan, ranked 54 and 34 respectfully in the FIFA World Rankings, is perhaps the most mind-boggling piece of nonsensical football trivia ever. It also makes you wonder how they manage to produce such spell-blindingly good football games.
We'll acknowledge the FIFA VS PRO debate now, but actually leave it alone until later in the review. Instead we're diving straight in at the deep end like a Cristiano Ronaldo pirouette in the opposition's penalty area. First thing you'll notice about FIFA 08, developed by EA Canada, is how impressive the game looks, especially on a large HD TV. In a normal match, with the camera in its default position, the game looks stunning, and would fool non-gamers into thinking they are actually watching a real-life football match. The game is perhaps the closest the industry has ever got to achieving a photo realistic virtual game of football.
You'll be amazed at how life-like the players move about the pitch. Animations are varied and fluid and players interact with each other with an impressive degree of aggression - arching their back to shield the ball, tugging and jostling for 50 50s and raising their elbows for headers. Add in the genuinely impressive way you can tell individual footballers a mile off and what you have is perhaps the first truly next-gen looking football game. At least for the first half-an-hour of gaming anyway.
But we're not in the habit of playing a £40 game for half-an-hour, putting it down and declaring it the next Maradona. Unfortunately for FIFA 08, the more time you spend with the game, the more you'll notice that the EA polish is once again papering over rocky foundations. A bit like little Mickey Owen.
As soon as you get a replay you'll notice something strange about the players' faces. We know it's EA's trademark sweat effect, but it just looks like someone has rubbed Wayne Rooney's head through a car wash. You could shave your face looking at his forehead, so shiny and polished does it look. While the sweat effects might work in an EA basketball game, where there are less players on screen and more detail in each, in FIFA 08, when you zoom in close it looks depressingly false. All this does is further shatter the 'you're playing like a real footballer would' illusion the game is so at pains to push.
We noticed slight graphical differences between the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions too. It looks a little better on 360 - crisper and more fluid, despite EA's claims that both would run at 60 fps. It's a very subtle difference, but noticeable nonetheless. Generally, EA Sports next-gen titles haven't looked as good on PS3 compared with the Xbox 360 (Madden 08 runs at half the frame rate on PS3), and FIFA 08 is no different. If you're lucky enough to own both consoles, the 360 version is the one to get, unless you have an affinity to the Sixaxis controller, which we know many football game fans do seeing as it's essentially the Dual Shock sans the shock.
Did we mention the players look fat? Not in normal view, of course, but up close, the players don't look built like brick walls, they look like walls of lard. Didier Drogba is huge, and the creases of his shirt make it look like his belly is rolling over his shorts. Super Franky Lampard won't be impressed with his virtual alter-ego either. While we welcome any effort to make the players feel like they carry some weight on the pitch, and don't simply skate around on an ice-rink made of grass, this is going too far. We didn't sign up for Lard Ass United VS Five Bellies FC.
Another nail in the simulation coffin is the commentary. Again, play for 20 minutes and you'll think it's the best commentary you've ever heard, as you would expect with an EA sports title. But play more than a few games with the same team and you'll start to get very annoyed by repeated commentary for specific players. If I have to hear Sky Sports presenter Martin Tyler say Shaun Wright-Phillips is a "bundle of energy" one more time, I'm going to throw my controller at the TV. There are also points where it falls down, like when Martin gets very excited for nothing, or is completely calm when he should be jumping up and down and having a fit.
Presentation apart, the game plays well enough. The impressive ball physics creates a much better feeling of randomness than in previous FIFA games, and is approaching the 'no two goals ever the same' feel of PES. It's not quite there, but again, a marked improvement. EA has also implemented a new manual mode of control, which is basically playing the game without any assists not only for passing and shooting, but for through balls and crosses too. This makes the game brutally hard. The games we played in manual resulted in numerous misplaced passes, woeful shots and a general war of attrition in the centre of the park. Think Everton VS Bolton on a bad day. While it feels like gamers willing to practice hard in this mode will certainly reap reward, we're not sure it's suitable for casual gamers who love FIFA for its high scoring games and pick up and play arcade feel.
When played with assists on though, it's still very hard to score. Dare we say it, even harder to score than in PES. How ironic. The fancy skills are practically useless in a multiplayer game, and it's almost impossible to go round a player. Instead you have to craft openings with slow building moves from the back, which is how it should be of course, but perhaps not this hard.
So, we finally turn our attention to the inevitable FIFA VS PES debate. This isn't for the decided, since the loyal will probably stick with their preferred game no matter what. This is for the undecided, the floating voter, the glory hunter, the one who goes where the money is. Should you wait a month and get PES 2008, or should you take the plunge and get FIFA 08 now?
The answer, inevitably, depends, and can't be properly answered until PES comes out at the end of October anyway. Most hardened PES fanatics will admit that the last game, Pro Evolution Soccer 6, was somewhat of a disappointment, especially on the Xbox 360, which hardly had any editing options or game stats. But the game was still unmistakeably PES, with perhaps the greatest football game engine ever conceived carrying it through its undeniable flaws. In many ways this year is the perfect time for EA to step it up against its great rival, which it may see as under a degree of pressure from its own rabid fanbase. Could previously loyal PES owners risk ultimate disgrace and dump a sinking ship, like Sol Campbell leaving Spurs for Arsenal?
It's clear that EA has concentrated on improving the realism of its engine, and made sure the graphics and presentation remain just as good as ever. The Be A Pro: Co-op Season mode is a case in point. In it you control one player from the team, calling for a pass, telling players to shoot and keeping your performance rating up by staying in position, marking your men and doing a professional job. You even do a Gears of War style roadie run when you have the ball and run at players. It's interesting in theory, and certainly will be more fun multiplayer than it is on your own, but we're not sure it will ever prove more popular than the normal mode of play.
Gamers are screaming out for a truly next-gen football title, and in this FIFA is leagues apart from PES. FIFA 08 also comes with perhaps the most comprehensive set of online features ever seen in a football game. You can access real world tables and statistics from all the major leagues, the latest news on your club, as well as a sticker album-type accomplishment system which looks very nice indeed. One of them is win 20 man of the match awards using teams from the Mexican league. That's accomplishment 100 and certainly won't be gained by many players.
EA is also promising five-on-five online play next year via a future patch, which immediately puts PES 2008 under pressure to do the same. Tack on the what we know is always better about FIFA - the menus, loading screens, real player names and teams - and this really is shaping up to be one of the more interesting PES VS FIFA battles for some time. A bit like the Premier League then.
But none of the sheen stops us feeling a degree of sadness when playing FIFA. Sadness in that here we have a lovely looking and functionally excellent game, but it's just not got that certain je ne sais quoi, that va-va-voom. If we could just combine FIFA with PES, perhaps creating FES, or PEFA, we would probably never need another football game, and we'd all be singing from the terraces. As it is, it's a gorgeous, decent football game that's trying a bit too hard to be PES when it should be celebrating what it already was.