FIFA 09 Impressions

   01/10/2008 at 21:51       Richard Horne       16 COMMENTS.
With so many iterations of the FIFA series under Electronic Arts' belt, previews and reviews tend to almost write themselves. Blah blah FIFA vs Pro Evolution Soccer blah blah cliché cliché FIFA stole the football crown last year, blah blah advanced AI tactics, blah Andy Gray blah blah pass and shoot they do go in. Blah blah updated squads and kits blah blah. Rinse repeat.

And so it's becoming increasing difficult to write a subjective and honest, yet also original piece on the games without continually retreading old ground. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone else has even used my bloody intro before.

As the year 2008 draws to a close, FIFA 09 is upon us already. And with the updates coming as quickly as [insert auto generated Theo Walcott speed demon metaphor here], it barely feels like two minutes since we were looking ahead to last year's title.

This is a first impressions piece and not a review as I've barely had two hours with the game, and as ever, it will take some time to figure out all of the game's nuances as well as the hidden flaws that eventually reveal themselves.

But as far as my own personal first impressions of the game go, my god it's good. It's really fucking good. But where to start? The new heading mechanic? The fantastic selectable goal celebrations? The impressive new procedural animations? The last two hours have been a blur.

OK, and in no particular order.

FIFA 09's features a superb new heading system. Instead of, as in previous years, simply holding down the pass or shoot button and letting go loosely around the time the ball flashes past your head, you now have total control over when your player will attempt to head the ball - often with hilarious consequences. Release the button way too early and your player will lurch forward in an attempt to head the ball even though it's no where near him, but time the release to perfection and depending on the type of cross or pass, your player will either bullet a header into the far corner of the goal or delicately glance one into the top corner. It feels like a genuine revolution and satisfyingly rewards proper skill and timing much like real life football.

'Procedural animation' tends to be a bullshit marketing buzzword wheeled out every year and stamped on the back of the box as: (another piece of marketing bollocks) a USP or unique selling point, without actually proving all that evident or effective. Yet this year I think that EA might actually have only gone and nailed it. In my few games so far the animation of the players felt so much more natural. Players' moves and actions seemed contextual and realistic instead of canned and scripted. And you no longer get that feeling of having to wait for your player to finish his current animation routine before he can move onto the next one. Players will lean in to shoulder charge when jostling for the ball, your striker will hang in the air before cushioning a header goalwards and your winger will stretch out a leg in a last ditch attempt to swing in a cross before the ball goes over the goal line. Players will also make intelligent runs and actually point to where they want you to pass the ball, and even better will actually collect it if you play the pass into the right area.

FIFA 09 also now features, and this has to be one of my favourite new additions, selectable goal celebrations that are activated by certain button combinations. And I'd even go so far as to suggest they've almost made a mini-game of it as the more flamboyant celebrations require more complicated inputs like half or full circles and one of the bumpers. Those of you of a more restrained and humble nature can simply hold down the B button to raise a simple Shearer-esque fist to the skies as your player runs to the corner flag. It's such a simple addition but it's brilliantly implemented and rubs further salt into the wounds of your opponent when playing locally or over Xbox Live.

The controls are also now completely redefinable. There's the typical classic and alternate presets but being able to manually configure your own control scheme is another example of how EA has slowly refined and evolved the series and it's these little things that make such difference.

As a fan of the fallen giants that are Leeds United, I was also delighted to see that my team has, in the main, had the same lavish detail and attention applied to it as the more glamourous Premier League teams. Specific and recognisable crowd chants as well as the excellent commentary provided by Andy Gray and Martin Tyler actually referring to individual players massively helps add to the atmosphere, and while this isn't necessarily something new to the series, it just demonstrates the lengths that EA has gone to, paying close attention to all of the teams and not just the big boys.

Custom tactics have also been added and it's now possible to adjust all manner of sliders that control how often your team will counter attack, cross or shoot and you can tweak your defence's position, aggression and width to the minutest of detail.

Penalty shoot outs have also been deliciously tweaked slightly with the deciding penalty kick or save now initiating a heavy vibration in your joypad in time with your player's increasing heart beat. Again, yet another simple addition that adds so much to the experience.

At this point in time I sense I'm positively gushing and on the verge of becoming the quintessential fanboy, but it's important to stress that Pro Evolution Soccer WAS my football game of choice and it's only in the last two or three years that I've really taken FIFA seriously. And if it happens to be FIFA that grabs my attention this year, it will be because it's the better game and not because of an unfounded allegiance towards either EA or Konami. I support Leeds United and not FIFA or Pro Evo.

The only criticisms I can recall from my time with the game so far are the occasional moments of slowdown on replays and the fact that the Amateur setting is way too easy. The game actually determines which difficulty level it thinks you should play on based on your FIFA 08 achievements and saved game (if you have one). I beat the mighty Hereford 10-1 in my very first game in the Johnstone's paint trophy after which I soon increased the difficulty level.

In conclusion, Seabass, you're really going to have to pull something out of the bag this year if you're to arrest Pro Evo's fast declining slide to the bottom of the league. And that's before I've even touched FIFA's online leagues, Be a Pro or manager modes.

Consider me very impressed.

(More FIFA 09 reviews at TestFreaks)
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