Developing football games on the DS used to be like playing both Gerrard and Lampard on the same pitch, never quite worked, and the amount of titles made shows. Gameloft’s acclaimed Real Football series stands as its only competitor; the shambolic Pro Evolution Soccer went out with a wimper. FIFA’s typical multi-platform ubiquity can easily be dismissed as another EA style money-spinner, as brand-recognition is a sure sign of sales. But FIFA isn’t the complacent football title it once was. Years of trying has produced a football experience, dare I say it, surprisingly similar to the PlayStation 2 era iterations.
The menu may look a little minimalist, but the typical features of a FIFA title are here: oodles of officially licensed leagues from English, Italian and Spanish sides to even Australian and Irish leagues. A five year manager mode is the pinnacle of single-player, where you take a team up the ranks and draft new signings. There’s certainly no complaining about the multi-player options with single-card wireless or online play either. Most interestingly though, the hyped “Be A Pro” mode has been recreated and aspires to be the core new feature on single-player. By controlling just one player through part of his career, he must make consistently good performances with vital contributions to the team. There’s no hiding in the defence, as passes, tackles, assists and goals are essential to help develop the players standing.
But it’s not much use when it’s not much fun. It’s not the first time it’s been attempted, Namco’s Libero Grande attempted this a decade earlier, and it’s always been possible to control one player on PES. Be A Pro is EA’s annual PR boast this year, falling into the gimmick graveyard amongst the indoor stadiums, off the ball control and freestyle from years past. It’s been executed well enough, but the nature of controlling a player constantly running around aimlessly trying to get into position, whilst spectating the rest of the team miss badly taken shots, is rather boring. There are encouraging moments from setting up a decent pass or executing a hard tackle, but football games are fun you have constant control over the entire team. If you’re going to play Be A Pro you may as well play the bloody game for real.
And for that reason, that mode can be ignored as there’s plenty of other features at disposal. But like a big stadium with lots of fans, it’s no use without the on-pitch performances. And FIFA 09 is a surprisingly dogged fighter. Far from being a cheap port of FIFA 99, actually feeling like a last-generation FIFA is pretty impressive on N64-esque hardware. FIFA 09 plays a slick game of football, passing is smooth, shots have to be well-timed and the defence is certainly a tough-cookie to break down. 5-0 score-lines on world-class difficulty are non-existent here; this game presents the same level of difficulty as on the console and takes a lot of practise getting good. Tackles have to be won the hard with gritty pressure, and the opponent has to be well and truly outclassed to get to the net. There’s no burning past defenders here. The ball isn’t won with the magic touch of the A-button either. FIFA 09 makes you work and create those chances the hard way, and it sure feels satisfying when the ball hits the net. Grinding out a 1-0 win on semi-pro difficulty is tough when playing against opposition ready to pounce on the counter-attack.
It’s impressive how FIFA 09 consistently holds up an impressive frame-rate yet provides animations and physics that are smooth as Arsenal’s passing. It’s all thanks to a new engine, and the graphics also no longer look a blurred mess. You won’t get photorealistic graphics on this hardware, player models look rather blocky close-up, but everything is clearly distinguishable overhead. There’s even room for in-game commentary with Clive Tyldesley doing the honours albeitwith an understandably limited amount of phrases.
If there’s a reason football games have traditionally not worked on portable hardware, a lack of buttons is one of them. But that’s no difficulty for the DS. Those used to the standard PlayStation and Xbox 360 controls will have no difficulty adapting, and PES players can opt for the snidely named ‘Arcade’ controls. The touch-screen hasn’t been overused, but the set pieces are unique. A line is drawn with the stylus to determine where the ball needs to go, and the speed it’s stroked also determines the power of the shot. In open play though, the screen is no distraction, simply hosting the usual radar, but team tactics can be changed via screen controls. Buttons can be hit to automatically increase the emphasis on offensive or defensive play, or to adjust attack patterns either through the wingers or on the counter-attack.
FIFA 09 is a title winner. There were turbulent moments, Be A Pro is the dodgy transfer but can be ignored easily enough, and there is no scenario mode that would be perfect for the 10-minute nature of a portable console. Like Ronaldo’s first two seasons at Manchester United; the handheld FIFA was pretty patchy. Now it’s finally blossomed, cracking the conundrum of how to make football work on the DS. The controls work splendidly, and with PS2-quality game-play, tough challenges (partly thanks to the superhuman goalies) and excellent multi-player, this is pretty addictive. On the entire portable market, the superior PSP hardware naturally makes its version the Champions League winner. But if you like football games and just have a DS though, then FIFA 09 is undoubtedly the definitive choice.