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TVG takes the earliest look at a FIFA title in the series' long and illustrious history...
Every year, EA and Konami will send out a press release announcing their new FIFA or PES title, which describes all the improvements and additions for the latest iteration in each respective series. Almost invariably, these will include promises of 'Improved AI', 'A myriad of new player animations', and 'Refined tactical awareness' etc. When review time eventually comes around, however, it's usually a case of disappointment and anti-climax as we realise that the new game plays pretty similarly to the last one really, bar a few minor tweaks to the gameplay's style.
Imagine our cynicism, then, when we turned up for the earliest first look at a new FIFA game in the series' history (the event took place in April and previews were embargoed until today), only to find the usual empty promises in the accompanying press blurb. Apparently, EA had been "Refining [its] context sensitive shooting system", was introducing "more advanced defensive positioning concepts", and had been "Adding over 50 new movement cycles".
"Here we go again," we thought, and then considered lying back in our chair, using the accompanying press material as an eye cover, and taking a nap while EA made its presentations.
Stevenage: Football's Mecca
Thankfully, we're not that rude and instead of snoring at the back of the press conference, we feigned enthusiasm at the front as FIFA 10's Producer, Greg Rutter, took the floor. Although a native of Stevenage, England, Rutter has been working on EA's FIFA series in Canada since 2007 and is responsible for the outstanding improvements of FIFA 09, a game that turned a corner in the series' history by converting the ordinary FIFA 08 into a world leading football game the next year. In football lore, it's a feat rivalled only by Brain Clough's 1977-78 season at Nottingham Forest.
FIFA 10's development team is apparently spending 70% of its dev time refining and improving, and 30% innovating. In our opinion, this is a wise strategy that will compound the successes of FIFA 09, a game that took John Carew-length strides towards realising the series' enormous potential, but still fell short in a number of key areas. David Rutter certainly seems to be shoring up his back four before he spends the big money on forwards, which is arguably the sort of considered approach that the series lacked earlier in the decade.
Rutter took us through many of the improvements listed in EA's press material, not only describing them in full, but also showing us comparative video footage of FIFA 09 and FIFA 10 that clearly displayed the improved features. The sensation of having these fairly complex refinements so simply illustrated was a bit like watching an Alan Hansen breakdown of "sloppy defending" on Match of the Day. We're going to relay these key improvements to you now in full, describing where FIFA 09 fell short and how David Rutter is aiming to fill in the gaps for FIFA 10:
The long ball in FIFA 09 plays a bit like those of the early PES games (i.e. it's only really useful for cross-field balls between unpressured fullbacks and is a bit limp-wristed in attack). To counter this, EA Canada is reducing the time it takes a long ball to travel across the field from three seconds to just over one.
We were shown a video short of Michael Essien staying back on the halfway line to cover John Terry while he was in the opposition's box for a corner. Not only is this intelligent design (not in the Creationism sense) from EA Canada but it's also specific to Chelsea tactics and we'd like to see more of these kinds of team specific strategies in the final game.
One area of last year's game that lacks vitality is its ball physics, which more or less retain the same floaty light, swerve happy physics of FIFA 08. David Rutter is promising that the application of bend in FIFA 10 will depend much more on the power behind a player's shot, rather than merely the distance travelled by the ball and which side of a player's boot it originally came off.
An annoying feature of FIFA 09 is the goalkeepers' tendency to parry a shot that is clearly going wide and isn't even approaching at much speed. New animations and AI will now mean that goalkeepers will follow shots like this as they trickle over the touchline, and perhaps even initially make a diving effort before leaving the ball to go out for a goal kick.
Additionally, if the ball is approaching at a snail's pace and the goalkeeper is unpressured, then he will approach it much more casually and pick it up as if it were a penny he'd just found on the floor. Conversely, when more urgency is required by the keeper, EA Canada is ensuring that he'll be quick to smother the threat.
If you've ever fooled around with the replay function in FIFA 09, then you'll have noticed how your back four behave a bit strangely when the ball is at the opposition's end of the pitch. While retaining a static, flat back four formation as if they were in a game of table football, each player then shuffles from left to right in a sideways motion that's reminiscent of a crab.
Not so in FIFA 10. EA Canada has made each player's movement much more casual and respondent to what's going on down the pitch. As long as there's no threat from the opposition, players will still retain formation but, at the same time, stroll around in a much more laid back manner like men perusing Currys for a new stereo system.
In space and time, players will now back away and trap an approaching ball to control it rather than chesting it awkwardly on the full. This means no more embarrassing defensive slip-ups where your fullback knocks the ball straight into the path of a striker who can't believe their luck. Additionally, it'll also make you look a lot cooler when you've threaded a perfectly placed ball to a winger in acres of space. Rather than haphazardly chesting the ball out of play, they'll merely track back so that they can hold the ball proudly underfoot - job well done.
Play FIFA 09 for long enough and you'll soon come across an example of one of these 'impossible touches'. They are basically when a player controls the ball with a first touch that would snap the ankle of a mere mortal or, at the very least, send them flying into a pitch-side advertising billboard.
We're talking about the sort of first touch where a player will run at full speed towards a ball that should go out of play if the laws of physics are anything to go by. Instead, the player manages to stop the ball on the touchline by contorting their body in ways that are considered torture by the Geneva Convention. EA Canada is working to resolve all the examples of impossible touches in FIFA 09, so that FIFA 10 is that bit more realistic.
360 Degree Dribbling:
David Rutter claims that FIFA 10 will be the first football game to exhibit true 360 degree dribbling. We've seen claims like this from Konami's PES series in the past, where limited dribbling channels have been deemed a thing of the past, although in reality this has never really come to fruition. Despite tweaks to the respective systems, both PES and FIFA still present a number of dribbling channels that are significantly fewer than 360 - 16 would be much more accurate.
In FIFA 10, according to Rutter, the full potential of the analogue stick will be realised, which will open up much more slight controls for dribbling, such as the ability to change feet quickly during one-on-ones or run through holes between defenders that would've previously been a closed door under the old system. In tandem with this, FIFA 10 will also put more focus on close control (referred to by EA as "skilled dribbling"), allowing players to make subtler movements when they are in full control of the pig's bladder.
It's All Very Well, In Theory
The improvements listed above are merely those that we saw demonstrated with comparative video footage during the demonstration, but there will be many more in the final game. I'm currently sitting at my desk with a list of the new improvements that EA Canada is implementing into FIFA 10, separated into three over-arching sections and a further 16 sub-sections that each note the completion percentage of every refinement. We could list them all for you here, although we're fairly certain that you'd get bored very quickly (the phrase "Face Angle Logic" is actually used at one point).
Nonetheless, there are highlights to pick from the bunch, such as the tweaks to tactical attacking play that will make strikers opt for curved, forward runs to avoid the offside trap. EA Canada is also promising a bigger library of the collision sharing animations that added so much to last year's game. For those of you who play far too much FIFA 09 to the extent that you've mastered the goal from kick-off bug and can use the lofted through ball to devastating effect, you might be interested to hear that EA Canada is currently working to both stamp out the bug and balance the lofted through balls.
Improvements to slide tackling will now favour defensive players with better stats who can make more precise tackles with a better reach than lesser defenders. Additionally, press marking and defensive AI that makes a more concerted effort to clear balls in dangerous positions (e.g. sliding to block a cross) are also being integrated into FIFA 10. There's even going to be continuous play from quick free-kicks added to this year's effort. It's worth remembering, though, that the overall completion percentage of the build we played back in April was 45%, which apparently marks the "Pre M2 Milestone" (whatever that means). There's clearly still a long way to go but if EA Canada delivers on even half of these refinements, it'll still be a significant improvement over FIFA 09.
We did go hands on with FIFA 10 very briefly at the event and, to be honest, it felt a lot like playing FIFA 09. That's not necessarily a criticism though. Firstly, it's worth remembering that most of the refinements are around 40-50% complete, so they may not stand out at this point. More important than this, though, is the fact that these improvements are subtle and it will take literally hours of play time to realise how they've improved the game, rather than merely a couple of matches. Nonetheless, we did immediately notice the trapping and skilled dribbling additions that Rutter had been talking about and they certainly do improve close control by a considerable margin.
But all of these improvements are purely to gameplay - "What about new features and modes?" we hear you ask. EA isn't revealing much on these at the moment, although only 30% of development time is being spent on innovation this year, so you certainly shouldn't expect new modes to rival the likes of Be-a-Pro, FIFA Clubs, or Manager Mode in FIFA 10. What you can expect is the inclusion of a standalone Practice Mode in addition to the usual Arena Mode, which also sees improvements with the likes of one-on-one play as well as practice matches and set-pieces.
Speaking of the game's Manager Mode, David Rutter spoke about a number of problems (over 50 in fact) that he and the team had identified with the system and how they'll be improving them in FIFA 10. First and foremost, the issue of realism is being tackled by focusing on better simulations of league position and individual match scores. Player transfers are also getting revamped, with the transfer system now being built around club and manager prestige as well as the experience of players on a team, while better club AI will lead to more sensible signings and even bidding wars between AI controlled clubs. Finally, player growth curves will now be determined by factors such as their mentality, technical ability, age, and playing environment.
Given the meteoric success of FIFA 09 last year, a cynic might expect EA Canada to rest on its laurels and provide a mildly improved version for FIFA 10. This could not be further from the truth for David Rutter and his team. If anything, FIFA 09's success has only encouraged a renewed focus on the franchise to ensure that FIFA 09 won't merely be an anomalous blip on the series' lifecycle.
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