EA's franchise has now gone beyond being the glamorous alternative to Konami's PES, taking the role as the industry leader right from under Pro Evo's nose. EA can't be lazy though. If it's going to remain at the top and not slide into the trap of releasing barely improved yearly rehashes (we're looking at you Konami), FIFA needs to continue to evolve.
FIFA 10 is righting the wrongs of 09 and adding a few new ideas of its own. EA Canada has taken on board the feedback given by FIFA 09 players and is ramming 10 full to the brim with refinements and improvements. A passer by, taking a subtle glance at the game, might assume it's simply FIFA 09 with updated players rosters, but look closer and the finer details start to shine through. FIFA 09 was lauded by many as the best football sim ever, so EA had no need to start from scratch with FIFA 10.
Refinements have been made to all areas of the game. FIFA 10 has brand-new urgency logic, meaning the players on the pitch react to what's going on in a more realistic way. Your defenders aren't going to be running around like headless chickens at the back when the ball's down the other end of the pitch, preserving their energy for situations that need it. Players can now detect if there's a dangerous hole that the opposition can exploit, moving into a position to neutralise the threat - or at least that's the idea. For example, if John Terry is up to attack a corner for Chelsea, Essien will spot that there's a gap in the defence and move into the space Terry has vacated - remaining there until Terry has returned to his natural position.
In offence players show increased smarts too. Space is analysed more effectively, they curve their runs to try and stay onside, attempt to create passing lanes and generally try to give more attacking options. Part of this comes from the new trapping system, which enables players to more intelligently take control of the ball. For example, if the ball is coming towards them in the air, they won't simply charge at it and risk miss-controlling it, stepping back in order to get more time. Overall, in FIFA 10 players will get the ball under control in a more realistic fashion, in theory leading to less frustration.
FIFA 09 allowed for some brilliant shooting, but it's been refined here to make shots seem more realistic. The position of the ball when you shoot, the spin on the ball as it comes towards the attacker, and all manner of other things have been taken into account to ensure the timing and position of each shot has a realistic effect on the outcome. Attackers can make use of their individual skills too, so players like Henry and Ronaldo can momentarily stop the ball and then trick their way past the defender - the kind of thing we see in real football all the time. This skilled dribbling combined with brand-new 360 degree analogue control means you can find spaces that simply weren't possible in previous FIFA titles.
Defending has seen improvements over and above positioning AI. Slide tackles are now more dependent on each player's skills (good players have longer reach and are less likely to take out the oncoming attacker). Standing tackles are less forgiving too, so you won't simply be able to hold down the 'press' button to see off attackers. In an effort to mimic the kind of last ditch blocks that the best defenders make on a regular basis (even if they often use their hands - Mr Terry being the biggest offender) there's new clearance logic. The best players will be able to slide in to block shots and crosses, or perform overhead clearances.
The FIFA team has also made an effort to bring the physicality of modern football to this year's game. Described as Freedom in Physical Play, players will now jostle much more aggressively, running alongside one another, shoulder to shoulder. Out on the wing the attacker can try and keep the ball protected by ensuring his body is in the way. Vice versa, the defender can use his body to lean into the attacker, pushing him off balance, and either forcing the ball out of play or winning back possession.
On top of these improvements there are tonnes of smaller tweaks that should go a long way to making FIFA 10 the best FIFA yet. Goalkeepers now make saves dependent on their position and momentum, lofted through balls have been balanced, hitting the woodwork will be less frequent, off-side and the advantage rule has been adjusted, and you can no longer set your team out in an ultra defensive manner and let your fast striker do all the work - formation exploits have been looked at to ensure cheap tactics aren't so easy to pull off.
Visually it's still a superb looking game, with an added dose of realism from the improved animations and more realistic player AI - by behaving in a more life-like fashion, the game looks much more like a real game of football. Little things like referees handing out cards now happen seamlessly, meaning there's no interruption to the gameplay - no more semi-cutscenes as in previous FIFAs. Player models and the general visual quality is what you'd expect, and the commentary doesn't appear to have received any significant changes.
As well as improvements to the on-pitch gameplay, Manager Mode has seen extensive changes and tweaks to make it far more realistic than before. Matches are based on team strengths and weaknesses and calculated minute by minute. Transfers are now based on multiple decision points, with finance, prestige and career prospects playing key roles. Players improve in a more life-like way, based on a number of factors including the playing environment. As is the modern way, managers will also use squad rotation based on game importance, and the biggest transfers are made public knowledge to crate bidding wars.
The build we played of FIFA 10 was still some way from completion, but it's already looking extremely good. It won't be the kind of leap we saw from the series a few seasons ago, but the changes and improvements are in key areas and should make for the best FIFA experience yet. With EA set to reveal more new features and game modes in the coming months, there seems to be no chance that EA is going to sit back and let the competition catch up.
FIFA 10 is due for release on all leading platforms later this year.