Football fans are a loyal, optimistic bunch. Each year they pin their hopes on their team, praying that their support with finally pay off. Yet each season, early promise gives way to inevitable failure. The parallels with football games are uncanny; each year we hope and we’re told that this time we’ll get the title we deserve. In fact, FIFA 07‘s motto was “This is the season”; it wasn’t. Euro 2008 was a surprisingly decent improvement over last year’s title, but has FIFA finally become the game we so want it to be?
In short, yes.
We should have seen it coming really; each perennial instalment has built on the last, slowly shifting the series from the arcade game it once was towards a more realistic experience. EA touts 250 gameplay improvements in FIFA 09 and while you’ll struggle to spot them individually, the overall feel of the action is unmistakably improved.
Passing is perhaps the most conspicuous refinement. It’s now the power of each pass, not just its direction, which determines which player receives the ball. Passing to a player the other side of your teammate used to be impossible, but now you can thread the ball through the tightest of gaps, even with your colleagues nearby. The exact direction passes are sent in is also better, especially for through balls, which are now devastating if timed correctly.
The AI for goalkeepers has also been overhauled, eliminating the comical errors that were present in previous games. They’re faster at recovering from saves and are better positioned to deal with what comes near them. Defending in general is also more realistic, with frantic moments in and around the box with players throwing their bodies in the way of impending shots.
What brings these and all of the other minor improvements together is the revamped animation system. Players stretch for balls that are just out of reach, jostle for possession and tumble over realistically when tackled. The animations of each player used to be loosely connected, but now they really are based on the context of where each person is when a challenge is made. This is perhaps most evident when players jump for a header; no longer is a single animation run, with the competitors stuck in place. Now you can jostle around for the right position to direct the ball to where you need it. The relative size and weight of each player also makes a tangible difference, so the likes of Robinho are unlikely to muscle their way past brutes like Ledley King.
On the pitch, FIFA 09 looks like the real deal. Games flow realistically, with possession just as important as you’d expect it to be. This is all helped by an improved tactics system, which has a larger impact on games than you’d perhaps assume. You’re now provided with a series of sliders to adjust the manner in which your team play, as well as being able to fine-tune their formation to your heart’s content.
This comes into its own in the Manager Mode, which tasks you with taking a team of your choice through several seasons, handling transfers, contracts and facility upgrades along the way. Little has changed since last year; transfer fees are woefully under their real levels even if they’re relatively accurate between players and scouting is still essentially pointless. That said, the home screen is vastly improved, allowing you to see relevant information at a glance, while a useful preview page highlights the strengths and weaknesses of your opposition just before you play them. While it still has room for improvement, Manager Mode provides plenty of replay value.
Be A Pro also returns, a mode which allows you to play as a single player, a la Libero Grande. FIFA 08 only allowed you to play single matches like this, but this year’s game features Be A Pro: Seasons, which sees you joining a club as an unknown and then play through four seasons, enhancing your skills as you go. If you do well, you’ll slowly rise through the ranks to become an international legend and can eventually attempt to win the World Cup. Be A Pro is now not just a novelty; it’s like a completely different game altogether. When you only have control of one player, it forces you to concentrate on and appreciate things that you would normally leave the AI to do, making for a refreshing change.
It’s the same case online, where EA have delivered 10 vs. 10 multiplayer a year ahead of schedule. With each player controlled by a real person, matches make people work together like real footballers, each with their own responsibilities. There are more conventional online modes too, along with online leagues and FIFA 09 Clubs, in which you band together with fellow players against other groups. Also new this year is Adidas Live Season, which allows you to download up to date player data each week; you get updates for one league free and then the five others are available at a price.
FIFA 09 feels like a game that’s been three or four years in a the making and yet it seems so familiar, since we’ve been able to see the progress EA have made over the last few seasons. Its refined gameplay is at the heart of a title brimming with confidence and its multiple modes will keep you playing for months. For years, FIFA has been seen as a vain but ultimately shallow reproduction of ‘the beautiful game’, but such assertions are now entirely invalid. A resurgent EA Sports has finally delivered the game we’ve been waiting for; this is the season.