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With over 250 improvements FIFA is odds-on to win the big match this season...
- Gameplay has improved immeasurably.
- Jostling system sets a new standard.
- Highly believable AI.
- Chaotic 10v10 action.
- No crossover between Be A Pro single-player and online.
- Players still not quite individual enough.
Newcastle United are in turmoil, multi-billionaires from the Middle East have ensured the red side of Manchester isn't the only one that will be celebrating, Arsene Wenger's boys are looking pretty special... yes, the footie season has begun and that can only mean one thing - the grudge match between FIFA and PES is ready to kick off.
For a number of years it's fair to say FIFA has gradually been improving whilst PES has let its guard down a little, criticised for laggy online play and failing to really push the boundaries on its admittedly stunning portrayal of the beautiful game. This year EA has shouted from the rooftops about the numerous improvements made with FIFA 09. PES genuinely could have found its match they say, and we're inclined to believe them this time.
Once you've passed the typically lavish FIFA presentation and strolled onto the pitch for the first time the improvements are immediately noticeable; FIFA 09 is genuinely a contender. There's been a vast improvement to the movement of players, which is particularly noticeable from the defending AI. No longer do defenders all bunch around the ball like schoolboys in the playground; there's actually some strategy to their positioning as they hold onto a marked opponent and stop opening up gaps that would have Alan Hansen spitting in fury. It's a marked improvement over previous FIFA titles and, in defence particularly, there's an argument to be said that it could be better than PES this year. From a defending point of view we'd say EA have managed to set a new milestone in the footie genre.
Movement and tactics also benefits from the addition of a huge array of sliders, governing everything from how much you press the opponent to the tempo of your play in the all-new Custom Team Tactics. You're now in complete control of the positioning and support play, and decide exactly how the team plays. Having a scale that ranges from between 1-100 may be a tad too excessive to recognise the subtle differences that unfold on the pitch, but it does provide the level of depth that FIFA has traditionally lacked and will help to appeal to PES enthusiasts whose argument is always the authenticity that Konami's effort has to offer.
As a result of all of these changes FIFA feels dramatically different. It's much closer to the ebb and flow of a real game of football, instead of the end-to-end, pinball goal fests that have always characterised FIFA. It's now possible to control a game in the midfield, retaining possession in stalemate draws that are nevertheless still entertaining because of the increase in authenticity. FIFA 09 also boasts three different speed settings tied into the difficulty, with the final option bringing the overall pace and tempo in-line with PES.
On the pitch the improvements continue (there are over 250 of them). General control over players has been markedly improved with a significant enhancement to the overall fluidity of the game; there's no longer the automatic feeling that previous FIFA titles suffered from; now you're in complete control. This is particularly noticeable when players are jumping for high balls. You can make the choice as to whether you jump for it, lean into the opponent, or pull away slightly to gain possession after the ball drops. EA puts this down to everything being driven by physics and individual player data, so the distance of a slide tackle and the outcome of player collisions to the power of a header and the height of a player's jump are all calculated instead of relying upon canned animations. Although there's still some way to go in bringing complete individuality to each player, we're willing to believe this is more than a bullet point to add to the back of the box, as there is a dramatic impact on the way the game plays and feels. The all new jostling system that allows defenders and attackers to fight for the ball ties in with the vastly improved animations, resulting in the most visually authentic footie game... period. Although we're big fans of PES at TVG, we've got to admit that Seabass and his team have got their work cut out to make sure a resurgent EA Sports doesn't stride past them next season.
It's not just about the actual gameplay either. FIFA 09 also boasts a variety of new game modes that take the series and football games in general to a new height. Beyond the customary Friendlies and various Tournaments, the excellent Be A Pro, which restricts your control to just one player and shifts the camera accordingly, makes an expanded return. This time around you'll have four seasons to guide the career of a player (creating your own), with the ultimate goal of breaking into the national team and winning the International Cup. Various objectives are set across the course of the season and for each individual match, and by completing these you can use the experience points in an RPG manner to further develop your player's skills. EA Sports stumbled across something quite amazing last season and the development into a fully-fledged mode ensures that this truly is an alternative to the way we've been playing football games for the last decade.
Complimenting the Be A Pro and setting a new milestone for football games is the inclusion of 10v10 online play and FIFA 09 Clubs. The idea of full online teams has been mooted for a number of years, but ahead of schedule FIFA has now made this a reality. FIFA 09 Clubs takes the concept further by allowing you and your friends to compete against others in a proper league setting, with one person assuming management duties and scouting out potential new signings as you attempt to win promotion and avoid relegation. It sounds like a dream come true for football fans provided it works without the typical EA server issues... but unfortunately we can't make a call on that at this stage as the online modes aren't available in the early build that we've been playing. However, we'll be bringing updated impressions on these once the servers are up and running.
If that wasn't enough, FIFA 09 also adds adidas Live Season which keeps player data updated with form information that mirrors their real-world performances. Again, due to the lack of online support in this build we can't really comment on its effectiveness at this stage, and given my beloved United's stuttering start to the real season I'm not entirely sure I want to see that replicated in FIFA 09, but at least it's there and indicative of the huge strides EA are making with the FIFA series.
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