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Following the huge improvements in last year's FIFA, EA Canada are back to continue the trend for 2008...
EA's FIFA games have always sold incredibly well. The series has been around since 1993 and every year has had commercial success. Critical acclaim has varied, on the other hand. For example, 1998 was a vintage year: the Road To World Cup edition in particular received high praise. The receptions of 21st century FIFAs, however, have been varied to say the least.
What's more, Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer series has grown over the last five years from a cult-classic, to a top of the charts contender. Presumably feeling the heat from their Japanese rivals, EA Canada took the series through some drastic changes last year and this appeared to do the trick. Sales were, as always, impressive; but the reaction of the press towards FIFA 07 was more positive than it had been in quite a while - FIFA was back. Having had a first look at a current -gen build of FIFA 08 (available on the PS2 and PC) earlier this week, I can safely say that not only have EA Canada cemented the series' return to form, they've also given the people at Konami a lot to think about.
The improvements in last year's game included the following: improved ball physics, better AI, the interesting inclusion of Interactive Leagues and a more organic feel to the gameplay all-round. FIFA 08 continues this more organic style with gameplay that feels freer than it ever has before. Both crosses and through balls have had all traces of automation removed from them. Players now have complete control of both power (via the pressure sensitive buttons) and direction. As a result, threading a perfectly weighted through ball to your striker releases a feeling of achievement more potent than completing a quadratic equation.
Other football titles have allowed gamers to opt for a manual pass, but it's never felt so natural and the fact that you're forced to pass manually means that it won't only be the fanboys who use it. Just imagine those P.E. teachers we all had at school who'd shout 'You passed the ball where he was, not where he was going!' The learning curve is a little bit like that and it's well worth the reward once you've had a couple of games to get used to it.
Goalkeepers can also be controlled manually. Clicking the R3 button allows you to control your keeper in open play and prior to set-pieces, while triangle initiates a save. This is particularly helpful for placing your keeper on a corner or free-kick, as they needn't stand uselessly in the middle of the goal any longer. Also, you can call up your goalkeeper for a corner in the last couple of minutes of a game if you're in dire need of an equaliser.
In recent years, the FIFA series has made a marked effort to rid itself of the over-complicated swerve, power and accuracy meters of yesteryear for free-kicks and corners. Noticing the continued success of Pro Evo in this area, it appears that the EA Canada team has made a deliberate move towards a more organic feel throughout the game, and particularly with set-pieces. Free-kicks and corners now feel a lot better, with the same easy to pick-up but hard to master Pro Evo feel, but with their own unique FIFA touches.
One particularly original idea for FIFA 08 is to have a freezable camera for free-kicks, which works in the following way: you can pan over to the right hand side of the wall (and your opponent may move their keeper accordingly). Then, you have the option to freeze the camera angle (making your opponent think you're shooting from that angle) and change where your going to shoot by panning back over to left (the DualShock rumbles if you pass across either post). I scored an absolute screamer with Wesley Sneijder by using this technique and the resulting "Get in!" that resonated throughout the EA press room was less than welcomed, and understandably so.
As usual, there are elements to the game that seem a little bit "Mickey Mouse". One example of this is the 'Be a Pro Co-op Season'. This basically allows you to take control of a single player, which can either be selected or created, and play only as them for a club. This mode is also available in multiplayer, so a few of you can be glued to one player each on a team. Your player then improves throughout the season, although they don't drop stats if you perform badly. Additionally, you can earn more points to improve your player by completing certain tasks, and here is where it becomes a bit Yankee-doodle-dandy.
The tasks you're asked to complete don't seem to have much of a bearing on playing good football or helping the team win. So, one challenge called 'ball-hog' might require you to hold onto the ball for a certain amount of time throughout a game. Another will ask you to avoid going offside (note: that's not being caught offside, it's simply advancing beyond the last defender) a certain amount of times in a game, which is a bit weird as straying on and offside is something strikers do on purpose to trick defenders.
Having said this, the player-locking system in the 'Be a Pro Co-op Season' (if I have to say that again, I think It might induce a cerebral embolism), is simply inspired. Being able to lock to a player for a whole game has obviously been done before, but in the past it was always quite a dull experience. The key feature which makes the gameplay so original in FIFA 08, is that you can actually call for a pass, long ball, through ball or cross. In addition to the sheer brilliance of this, the AI behind it is so good that it really is an entirely new way of playing a football game.
Basically, you won't get passed to when you call for it unless you're making a good run or you're in space. If you find acres of space out on the touchline and call for a long ball, you'll receive a beautifully arched pass to your feet. But, if you keep calling for passes with a defender shadowing your every move, then you'll see as much of the ball as a Brazilian goalkeeper playing against San Marino. Given that the feature is new this year, it really is a stunning achievement that EA Canada have managed to develop such convincing AI for it.
Introducing the [grimace] 'Be a Pro Co-op Season' is a tactical move by the FIFA team. Their policy regarding Interactive Leagues leading up to the next World Cup in 2010 is to have 11 players on 11 playing online at once. This can then be extended to the central idea behind Interactive Leagues, which is getting thousands of gamers playing matches online which correspond directly to those being played in real life. By introducing the [sound of teeth grinding] 'Be a Pro Co-op Season' this year, EA are acclimatising FIFA players to the concept of playing a single role on a team of 11 other players in preparation for 2010. I've got to say, that's some pretty impressive forward thinking from EA and nice work all round - let's hope it pans out.
Building on the general improvements in AI from lasts year's game, EA Canada have done further work to improve the "Defensive Intelligence" in FIFA 08. They have focused on the defensive AI in-game by getting players to track-back convincingly and be aware of attacking players making darting forward runs etc. For the most part, this feature does seem to be an improvement on the successes of last year, although I did experience some defensive bunching and a distinct lack of a flat back four at times. Let's hope EA Canada can iron-out these slight kinks prior to distribution but, even as it plays at the moment, FIFA 08 is a convincing recreation of the beautiful game.
Further to this "Defensive Intelligence", another improvement is that goals are harder to come by. From the limited hands-on play I experienced, this hasn't simply been done by improving goalkeepers or making it harder to get shots on target. Instead, EA Canada have made it harder to create goal scoring opportunities, which is much more engrossing and requires a more realistic footie game to make it possible - FIFA 08 is ticking all the right boxes, then.
Also, in another defence related change, EA Canada has widened the options when it comes to changing players. With the new controls, a swift flick of the right analogue stick in the direction of the player you want will swiftly highlight them. This opens up more tactical options and allows you to get hold of that distant player who's not fulfilling their marking responsibilities properly.
Finally, FIFA 08 also adds greater depth and realism to the series with the new player traits. In recent years, FIFA players have featured less stats than their Pro Evo counterparts. The argument for FIFA is that the limited stats determine multiple characteristics of a player's overall ability (less is more, basically). This year, the addition of player traits will hopefully bring FIFA closer to the sort of accurate player rendition that it's been crying out for. These traits, which will be hidden abilities, will add tendencies to specific player's performances. So, for example, Stevey G has a trait to take long shots and so he will shoot from range more frequently and successfully. Only more play time will determine how much of a difference this makes, but we'll have our fingers crossed in the meantime.
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