Last year I said FIFA 09 was the best FIFA ever created. Now, 12 months on, that statement is untrue, because FIFA 10 is even better.
For a while now I've been wondering how EA Canada would better FIFA 09. The game engine it's built on, one that's put PES into the shade since the release of FIFA 07, feels at its peak. Adding hundreds of subtle features is all well and good, and the team has done that this year, but, I've been thinking, there's no one revolutionary gameplay feature left for the team to implement that would result in a significant step up. I knew FIFA 10 would be good. Great, even. But I doubted it would be much more than a roster update with a few new bells and whistles. I was wrong.
The one revolutionary gameplay feature is the very first 360 degree dribbling system ever seen in a football video game. You don't notice it at first, but once you've got a few games under your belt it starts to make its presence felt. It does exactly what it says on the tin: with the left analogue stick you're able to move your player in 360 degrees. It sounds easy. So easy, in fact, that you might wonder what's taken EA Canada so long. Whatever the reason, it's here now, and it's time to rejoice, because it's brilliant.
With it you're able to weave out of situations that would have been impossible in previous versions of the game. Take, for example, sprinting down the wing. Before, the eight-way directional control often forced you, frustratingly, over the line, especially when being challenged by another player. Now you're able to keep the ball in play with skilled thumb control, directing your player away from the defender so that momentum and speed isn't lost by the "drag".
The 360 dribbling is an addition, remember, to an already superb game of virtual football. It's a combination of factors that go into making the current FIFA feel: realistic passing animations, smooth ball physics, convincing shooting. Even playing a long ball from one full back to the other sparks a satisfaction that almost borders on the weird. Cross field passes are flat and quick. Shooting, if you're controlling a good player, can often be unnervingly accurate. It feels, at times, as if the left thumb stick is somehow hardwired into your brain. More than any football game I've ever played, FIFA 10 is a simulation.
Fans will also notice that jostling for the ball plays a more prominent role this time around. Strong, physical players can easily turf smaller players off the ball. Chelsea powerhouse Didier Drogba, for example, has no problem easing all but the strongest defenders off of the ball when chasing a pass down the line. In defence, Manchester United rock Nemanja Vidić barely breaks a sweat when up against the likes of Robinho and Jermain Defoe.
Some tweaks, however, drew the odd complaint during our many office matches. Tom frequently bemoaned bopping winger Aaron Lennon's lack of afterburn, especially following a bone-crunching tackle from midfield bruiser Michael Essien. But he makes a good point: speed is not as influential as it once was. And sometimes it feels as if players are eased off the ball too frequently, to the point where frustration can set in.
This, combined with the emphasis on the physical side of play, make it much harder to beat players with skill or to latch on to lofted through balls with speed alone, one of the killer FIFA ploys. Instead, you really do have to manoeuvre your opponent's players out of position, leaving gaps for runners who, when they're doing their job properly, will call for a pass by raising their hand - a real world technique that doubles as a visual aid in the game. FIFA 10's harder, perhaps, than FIFA 09.