“Chip shots are cheating,” bellows FIFA line producer David Rutter. It’s a disclaimer of sorts - in the build of FIFA 10 we’re playing at EA’s Guildford HQ, goalkeepers rush out aggressively – just one of the many improvements the Vancouver development team has made for this year’s game. Unfortunately, what’s not in this build is goalkeeper backtracking. As Chelsea powerhouse Didier Drogba bears down on the Arsenal goal, Spanish (or is he English now?) keeper Manuel Almunia rushes out to greet him. We chip shot, just to see what happens. It’s a feeble, slow effort. Almunia is frozen, however, – transfixed by our brilliance. We score. Rutter’s right – chip shots are cheating.
You won’t be able to do that in the final game, of course. In the final game, Rutter assures, goalkeepers will be much improved. They’ll be more aggressive on one-on-ones (faking round the keeper will be essential for scoring), they’ll realistically tip crosses for corners, and they’ll dramatically rush back to their own goal line and dive and scoop chip shots and rebounds off the line before they trickle over. Still, this fun little experiment has shone a light on EA’s entire design philosophy for FIFA 10: the devil’s in the detail.
FIFA 10 is the fourth iteration of the “next-gen” gameplay engine that last year produced what we described as the best FIFA game ever made: FIFA 09. That gameplay engine has, let’s be frank, shown Konami’s PES up. You might think last year was a good year to stop – retire undefeated, triumphantly hang up your boots… or something. Well, this is EA, remember. Another year, another sports game update. No rest for the wicked.
The wicked, in this case, is Rutter and co. And we’re back to the devil in the detail design philosophy. FIFA 10 will be no revolution - it will be a refinement. It will improve upon FIFA 09 in almost every department. He admits it’s becoming increasingly difficult to “fix” some of the identified issues. It’s the little things that count because, well, that’s about as much as you can do at this point. We’re approaching, it seems, the peak of FIFA’s powers.
So, what exactly are the little things? Rutter goes through them – contextual knockdowns, in air knockdowns, ball avoidance, blocks, reflex traps and increased effort in defence and attack. When players are under less pressure they will go for the easiest trap. Defending is more useful and based on timing. Players will trap the ball to intercept passes. Players will jump out of the way of a pass that’s not intended for them. John Terry now throws himself into blocks, as he does in real life – the proverbial kitchen sink. A tough, physical player is more engaging – jostling for the ball lasts longer. Drogba will knock down long balls for Lampard to smash in from 20 yards. Every tweak is a response to feedback based on the staggering 275 million online games of FIFA 09 that have so far been played – the little things.
But are they all little things? For many hardcore FIFA fans one gameplay change in particular will almost revolutionise the experience – the fixing of lofted through balls. If FIFA 09 had a flaw, it was that players were able to send lofted through balls to forwards for easy one on one situations, as pushed high up the pitch defenders left acres of space in behind them. It was an almost guaranteed goal - overpowered in every sense, to the degree that the technique is often banned in online matches.
So, here comes the fix. There will be more error on lofted through balls. Defenders will hang back in an attempt to prevent them. If John Terry, for example, goes up for a corner, Michael Essien will hang back as insurance. If you do find your defence infiltrated, the new and improved keepers will hopefully bail you out.
Despite our emphasis that FIFA 10 is all about the little things, Rutter reckons the game does innovate, and it comes in the form of 360 degree dribbling. This, he says, is a first for a football game. The end result is a more fluid and responsive feel. Dribbling is like an accessible skill move in of itself – press and hold LB to micromanage the dribble, get round the defender then sprint off over the horizon.