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.
Say, for example, you're 1-0 up with 10 minutes to go. You're probably not going to want to pump players forward, so will instead want to concentrate on keeping possession and controlling the game. Here, quickly switching to the short passing attacking build up style should, assuming you're good enough, carry your team over the finishing line. Your players will position themselves closer when supporting and players further away from the ball will be less likely to make runs. The reward is that you always have close options and can keep the ball on the ground, Arsenal style. But with every tactic there's an associated risk. Here, you must advance the ball with the entire team, and you need a good deal of patience.
The custom team tactics system makes a hell of a difference to advanced FIFA 09 play. The more you play the better you'll get at identifying what tactic your opponent is using, and at deciding which tactic is best to counter that system given the kind of players you've got. It amounts to an easy to use layer of tactics we've yet to see beaten in the genre.
So, like we said, think before you shoot. If all this sounds too much like hard work, then know that you don't have to use custom team tactics to enjoy the game. In fact we suspect most players won't use them, just like most players use default formations when playing.
The custom team tactics system is by far the biggest innovation this year, even more so than the 10 versus 10 online play, which we have yet to test (and fear could end up being total school playground chaos, we'll have to wait and see). All the other new features are tweaks or refinements that don't fundamentally affect the way the game plays. One is the new heading system, which forces you to time when you press the button so that the player times his jump properly, rather than simply press the button at any time and wait for the animations to kick in. Players' weight and momentum is all taken into account here - so expect some meaty collisions. The heading will take a few matches to get used to - you'll jump too early and too late initially - but you'll soon get used to it, and enjoy the added satisfaction it brings to a headed goal or a flick on. And it might even have some surprising benefits - in one game I played against Tom, I positioned Chelsea winger Joe 'there's a bee hive in my hair' Cole in the box hoping for him to nod in a cross, but instead he spectacularly overhead kicked it into the bottom right hand corner of the goal. I jumped out of the VideoGamer.com sofa for that one I can tell you.
Bar this, it's as you were, at least in comparison to EA's last footie game - the summer's excellent UEFA EURO 2008. The goal celebrations make it in (watching Michael Ballack, for example, do 'The Robot' is as hilarious as it is ridiculous). The Be A Pro mode will keep players who like to go it alone entertained across four seasons (a tad short for our liking), with the ultimate goal of getting called up for your national team. You can of course, take your created player online and test your skills against the rest of the world. The commentary is solid. The graphics are stunning, when it's in wide view and in-game. During replays and close ups it's not so good. EA still hasn't managed to nail football players on the head - most look like hulking apes just as they did in the last game, with low foreheads and beady eyes. At least now they don't look fat though - one of our main graphical gripes with 2008's effort. And EA was clearly staying up late with the rest of the football world on transfer deadline day. Robinho's at Manchester City and Berbatov is at Manchester United.
We've hardly a complaint to make. But we do have them, and most are age old FIFA annoyances. Players will still hilariously fall over themselves for no apparent reason, falling victim it seems to the game's excellent physics. Crossing is a bit ropey, as it has been for a while. Yellow cards can sometimes feel like they're dished out too long after the offending foul. And to get a free kick in the first place you need to be physically assaulted, rather than fouled. But apart from those minor issues, we can't help but be incredibly impressed by FIFA 09.
We had worried that FIFA 09 was going to end up like EURO 08 with a Premiership skin. Luckily for us, we were wrong. Like we said, the best FIFA game ever made. Over to you Konami.