EA's advertising for this year's FIFA has been pretty straight to the point. "This is the season" proclaims the ad, and seeing as the TV spot is shown more frequently than Shaun Wright Phillips falls over, the message is certainly being hammered home. With the next-gen version still a few weeks away, it would be simple to assume that this season hasn't really started yet, but on current-gen systems this is most definitely the season where FIFA feels like a proper football game again.
Not content to let time and new versions pass by with nary a new feature or tweak in sight (I'm looking at you Pro Evolution Soccer), FIFA has constantly evolved, adding new gameplay mechanics and game modes in an attempt to come somewhere near to the mighty PES. FIFA 07 is by far the biggest challenge PES has faced, as it feels like a real game of football, looks great and features all the official teams and players that have always given it the authentic edge. Pro Evo's gotten a bit cocky, and FIFA is ready to ruffle a few of its feathers.
As ever, pinpointing why a football game feels right isn't easy, but in FIFA 07's case it's a combination of ball physics and player AI. It's by no means a complete overhaul from 06, but in 07 you'll notice that the ball moves more realistically, with everything from passes to saves by the goalies looking right, and team-mates will actually make smart runs off the ball - something that can't be praised highly enough. When playing as a team with good chemistry, team-mates will make overlapping runs down the wing, and your strikers will make darting runs through the centre of defence. FIFA has always been a fun game to play, but this year it feels serious at the same time.
The rather excellent first-touch system returns, once again highlighting the leaps FIFA has made when compared to PES. If you're new to FIFA the right analogue stick on your controller is basically what differentiates the game from other football titles, especially this year where the basic controls and feel of the game are remarkably similar to PES. Upon receiving the ball you simply push the right analogue stick in the direction you want to take the ball - it's that simple. It works brilliantly, and allows you to move the ball with a fluidity that is lacking in other games, fooling defenders or taking the ball from the air and delivering a blistering half volley shot.
Tricks and skills are also handled with the right stick, but rather than simply being gimmicky moves, they actually add to the gameplay. At times it's hard to believe this is the same series that regularly received a good kicking from the video game press, never matching the greatness of PES. Shooting, an area which has been open to abuse in the past, has been refined too, with timing and player skill far more important than in previous games. Apart from goalies exhibiting a weakness against free-kicks (I'm not just talking about Cristiano Ronaldo's fluky blasts), it's another area where it feels just right.
Game modes certainly aren't lacking, either. You get the usual bunch, along with the FIFA Lounge, which lets you and a few mates play together; an addictive Management mode complete with a number of sim-like options, such as transfers and the ability to watch or play as your team; team creation, multiple official tournaments, such as the Premier League and FA Cup; and online play including online leagues. The online leagues are brand new to FIFA 07, and have been heavily promoted by EA, but aren't really as innovative as they seem.
The idea is that you play online as your favourite team, against other players in a schedule that mimics that of the real leagues. Results from all of the online games are tallied and overall results create a virtual league table. It's a nice enough feature, and certainly adds some spice to what could otherwise be rather tame online encounters, but it's not quite the killer new mode that EA would have you believe it is.
Online play is by far the biggest draw for players looking to get the most out of the game, but EA has crammed in a number of tricky and not so tricky challenges, which when completed earn you points. These can be spent in the fan shop, giving you access to bonus kits, new balls and a small selection of game 'enhancements', such as an overhead camera view and a selection of silly noises.
All-round presentation is as impressive as ever, with widescreen support, strong current-gen visuals, a load of licensed music, and brilliant in-game audio. Commentary once again fails to feel natural, but the sound of the fans has been captured brilliantly. It really does sound incredibly authentic, with cheers of joy when you score, and deafening jeers if you're not performing like they expect.
So, time for the big question. Is FIFA 07 the new king of football? To put it bluntly, no - but it's damn close. It's something I've thought long and hard about, but when the question is asked, PES still reigns supreme. FIFA 07 most definitely beats PES in a few areas, most notably in presentation and the brilliant first-touch control, but it's still not PES. While PES ambles along though, FIFA is making huge strides, so while in the end this might not be "the season," Pro Evolution Soccer's fall from the top might not be too far away. Still, FIFA 07 is a great game in its own right, and the best alternative players have had to PES in years.