It's interesting times in the world of virtual footie. For years Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer series has scored the winning goal in the gameplay stakes, and EA's FIFA franchise has lifted the trophy in the graphics stakes. And for years gamers have, on the whole, considered PES the superior game. But last year something happened. Something happened that was very interesting indeed.
Overall, FIFA 2008 was a better game than PES 2008. It came as somewhat of a surprise to us here at VideoGamer.com. Perhaps it shouldn't have. For a while now EA's money making powerhouse has been creeping up the quality ladder, with solid tweaks to its game engine, functioning online play and a more simulation approach to gameplay. FIFA 09 is the culmination of all of those tweaks. It is the coming together of a game engine now supremely confident that it is the most realistic representation of the game of football the industry has to offer. And it is the best FIFA game ever made.
Why? Because it plays superbly, a more important factor in the game's quality than the new 10 versus 10 online play, the new Adidas Live Season (which imports real world, real time stats every week to keep the game up to date) or the new four season Be A Pro mode.
Despite the fact that you can change the game speed, FIFA plays almost sluggishly. The players are more responsive than in previous efforts, and turn quicker, but if you're not controlling a speed demon - Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, for example, there's absolutely zero chance of you putting clear blue sky between your heels and the defender's hacking big toe. Sure, you might beat a man - using one of the many tricks assigned to the right analogue stick - but you won't get away from him.
What you will do is immediately notice the new player physics which make shoulder barges and 'turfing' opponents off the ball a realistic reality. For example, if Chelsea sledgehammer Didier Drogba chases for a ball with lightweight Manchester United left back Patrice Evra, he'll out muscle his opponent - fairly, if he's appropriately positioned. This doesn't happen all of the time, of course - it's not a guaranteed win - but it feels like it happens when it should. And it's class.
This has an overwhelmingly positive impact on how FIFA plays. More than any game in the series, FIFA 09 makes you think before you shoot. You're forced to craft goal scoring opportunities cautiously, eking out killer through balls only when defenders have been pulled out of position, or players have made penetrating runs (they now raise their hand when calling for a pass, Wayne Rooney style - a useful and realistic visual clue for when to hit through balls). At least that's how it plays out during the first hour or so of a match.
After that, just as in real life, games start to get stretched, players get tired and space begins to present itself. You won't be able to simply wait for this to happen, however. You'll need to react to how your opponent is playing and adjust on the fly, with the excellent new custom team tactics system. Here you'll be able to change tactics on the fly from three overarching types - defensive tactics, attacking build up style and attacking chance creation.