With FIFA 09 being released officially across Europe today, and with our preview copies having been safely within our grasp for a few days now (and our consoles nearly burnt out from overuse), reviews will now flow onto the site until all the FSB staff have had their say. Today it’s my turn, but before I begin my in-depth post-match analysis, let me relive the best goal I ever scored in my days as a Sunday League footballer.
I wasn’t very confident in my abilities, but I was working under a manager who saw potential in my crossing ability. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t jump, but I could land a ball onto someone’s head from miles away, and that bought me a first-team place quickly. Our third game of the season was against a team that nobody wanted to play – the kind of game you’d rather stay in bed for, to save yourself the humiliation of getting absolutely pasted. Within minutes we’d conceded a goal; everybody’s nerves were jangling and the defence opened up to allow them a blast at the goal. The goalkeeper never moved; 1-0. And as the game wore on, the nerves just wouldn’t settle. In the second half it was almost as if we’d forgotten there was a second half to play; we were just waiting for them to score the second goal. Suddenly, as they hit yet another good shot that went just wide, something snapped in all of us. Our mentality totally changed. We decided we weren’t going to lie down and let them run all over us, and we became a lot more aggressive. We were reaching for every ball, bullying players out of possession, and our counter-attacks got further and further up the pitch with each attempt.
A through-ball was played ahead of me inch-perfectly, and after a couple of steps (and a great contact on the ball), a nicely weighted cross hung in the air and was smashed towards the goal by the head of our target man. The goalkeeper got a hand to it, and a desperate clearance hurtled towards me. I was still stood in my original crossing position – very far wide, a long way outside of the box, but as the ball approached it was one of those moments where you can see the spin of the ball and you know that a good contact will result in a stinging shot. I took a few steps forward, contemplated closing my eyes in-case it was a God-awful effort, and hit it as hard as I could. My own players practically dived out of the way, and the opposition defenders were considering it as well with the ball travelling so fast, but they couldn’t think twice about it. Like a missile locked-on to a fighter jet, it fizzed off, curved slightly to hit the target, and exploded into the net. When the final whistle blew and a 1-1 draw was secured, you’d have been forgiven for thinking we’d won the league. As much as I’ve tried, I’ve never scored a goal like that since.
Now before you fall asleep (if you already have then shame on you, I’m nowhere near done yet), there’s a point to all this. In-fact, there’s two. At this point in my life I was an avid PES player, but I was playing the game less and less with each release; there was so little change. I wanted to see lower-league teams, a manager mode where you could manage more than one club for your entire career, and online leagues – all of which still doesn’t exist even in this year’s PES. Every year all I saw was one step forward, two steps back (for example, easier passing, but goalkeepers who couldn’t keep hold of a velcro ball and strikers who hit shots like they were trying to play rugby, every shot going 20ft over the bar). I’d played demos of FIFA but I’d never been convinced; however, while I was playing that week, I had left my Xbox 360 downloading the FIFA 08 demo that had just been released. When I got home, I was in for a shock.
I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I really can’t describe, brought on by the game feeling so scarily realistic. I was sprinting down the side of the FIFA arena pitch with Ronaldinho, and when I was holding down the cross button, trying to judge the power of the cross and get the aiming just right, my stomach turned over. It felt as close to the real thing as I’d ever experienced in a game. Watching that ball float into the box and practicing getting it to land in the right area was, for a total football nut like me, nirvana. Every time I hammered the ball it was like hammering a nail into the coffin of PES. Judging the weight of every pass for yourself – bang. Judging the weight of every cross for yourself – bang. Hitting the ball into places you couldn’t pick out in a million years on Pro Evo because it has to travel through preset paths – bang bang bang.
As far as I was concerned, the king was dead; long live the king. That wasn’t to say that the king was a God – no man is God, and no game is as good as the real thing. There were a lot of little issues that, when you added them together, mounted up to one big problem. That problem being, that you’d see these issues every game. The response times were poor, and online they were a lot worse. The CPU AI was good, but not great, and every single team seemed to play like every other team (playing a Premier League team followed by a lower-league team in the cup, for example, you would find yourself recording the same result against both teams). Eventually, the game reached a point where enjoyment was strangled out of each match by your player ignoring your button presses for too long and the goalkeepers rebounding almost every shot straight to an opposition striker for a tap-in goal.
The first point I wanted to make was how realistic the game was, and how much it felt like my real life trials and tribulations in Sunday League football. But the second point I have to make isn’t such a positive one, and it counteracts the first; that goal that I scored, the wonderful long-range stinger from out on the wing, was impossible to score in FIFA 08. Every single shot from a certain angle or a certain position, on either side of the goal, was comfortably gathered by the goalkeeper. Whether you hit them hard enough or not, the goalkeeper had the goal covered and would save every effort that you put there. Goalkeepers were untroubled in certain situations, and this meant that you very, very rarely saw a goal that was out of the ordinary. You’d see finesse shots dinked over the goalie’s head, one-on-ones slammed past the keeper, headed goals from a corner or the dreaded goalkeeper rebound mentioned above. That was about it.
So what did I want to see in FIFA 09? Players who respond to your commands quicker, a noticeable difference between teams, and goalkeepers who don’t parry shots to strikers all the time and who were also human enough to be beaten by some long-range stunners. With those issues fixed I would have been happy enough; but not for one moment did I imagine that the game would improve as much as it has in the space of a year. Unlike its major competitor (and how ironic it is considering its name), FIFA has evolved.
As you load up the game, you’re asked to configure your controls and input your Adidas Live Season code (included on the back of the manual). This allows you to receive weekly updates for one of the six featured Adidas Live Season leagues, free (remember that the “big” roster updates, such as the transfer window updates, are still free; it’s only the weekly form analysis updates that are a premium service). I selected the Premier League and when I started my first exhibition match the difference was obvious; players who had played well (Torres for example) played like he had the ball stuck to his foot, whereas players who had done poorly (most of the Everton players after an awful start to the season) were finding it difficult to string passes together.
As I played my first exhibition game, the next new feature I saw was Custom Tactics. I have spent years of my life on games like Football Manager, tinkering with tactics until the early hours of the morning, desperately trying to undo the likes of Sir Alex and win the league against all odds. So I was delighted to see just how deep the tactical options are now, and immediately took ten minutes to input settings I thought would suit Liverpool. You can assign different tactics to D-PAD presses now, so I set up four strategies (two focusing on short/long passing and two focusing on attacking/defending).
I couldn’t wait any longer, so after choosing my most attacking formation and choosing the best players for the job, Anfield was presented to me in all its glory (with fans dressed in red and white holding up scarves and singing). As always, the atmosphere in FIFA is electric. But it’s on the pitch where the game really comes to life.
Reaction times are what you would expect them to be now, and the animations have been reworked. This results in the most beautiful flowing football you can imagine, and it really has to be experienced to be believed. Play as an exciting Premier League team and some of the stuff you can play is simply sublime. There’s still a slight delay in reactions depending on the situation but this is to be expected; when your footballing brain tells you it’s time to kick the ball in real-life, you have to pull your leg backwards before you can swing it forwards, and it’s the same here. But if you can keep your finger off the sprint button until you really need it, you can keep the ball away from the opposition with quick, slick, intelligent play, and dance around them thanks to the much-improved response times.
You can now choose what speed you want the game to run at; slow, normal or fast. Normal is obviously the default, and in online ranked matches the speed is set to normal, so this is what I play the game on (so that I don’t have to get used to a different speed every time I play online). When playing with two world-class sides, such as Premier League teams or national teams, the game moves at a very hectic pace (but it’s a lot slower when playing as poorer teams). At first I wasn’t a fan of how fast the game was moving, but after playing a few more games I have realised that it’s perfect for a game that is simulating 90 minutes in the space of just 10; if it was as slow as a real match then every game would be 0-0. So although it takes some getting used to (especially after playing FIFA 08), I do think the default speed is a good thing.
After toying with Everton for twenty minutes, Kuyt received the ball on the left wing (stretching to keep it from going out), cut inside, floated a ball across and Gerrard flew forwards like a spring with a diving header. As the ball struck the bottom of the post and inched over the line it was clear to me just how far the game had come; in FIFA 08 the ball would have gone out of play because Kuyt wouldn’t have kept it in, a defender would have pushed Kuyt over by the time he was just shaping up for the cross, and Gerrard would have chested the ball straight into the goalkeeper’s grasp rather than headed it.
You could also see just what a difference the tactics were making; with positioning set to wide, players like Kuyt and Babel were constantly running to the sidelines and calling (waving and pointing) for the ball. Once I’d scored the goal I switched to a narrow style of play, and players were a lot closer together (making it easier to keep possession) with the attacking players making runs through the middle. And that’s just the “width” bar; there are a lot more. With the “crossing” bar at 0-30%, wingers play more centrally and make runs into the box to try and become additional strikers, but with the bar at above 60% wingers will stop short, waiting for you to pass the ball to them so that they can keep pounding the ball into the area to try and force an opportunity. They all make a huge difference to your team’s style of play, and they completely change each third of the pitch; the defence (defensive line, pressure and aggression), the midfield (build-up speed, crossing and width), and the attack (positioning and shooting).
After beating Everton 1-0 I was worried that I’d have to put the difficulty up a notch, but before I did I thought it would be wise to play a team like Arsenal. As I said before, in FIFA 08, if you could beat one team then you could beat them all, regardless of their reputation, and I was expecting the same here. So imagine my jaw dropping as I went from beating Everton 1-0 reasonably comfortably, to getting absolutely stuffed (not the word I used for it at the time) by Arsenal, 4-0. Their passing was out of this world, and this time they were the team doing the dancing around. I couldn’t get near them, and every time they got the ball through to Adebayor, Fabregas or Walcott, you knew you were in trouble. I managed to get a consolation goal – a scrappy corner that was headed into the far corner by Torres – but I was never going to get anything from the match.
To make sure it wasn’t just a huge coincidence, I started a Manager Mode game. Before I continue, I should point out there are a few disappointing aspects here; the game has clearly been all about the gameplay and AI this year, which is no bad thing, but in Manager Mode there are a few bugs and missing features (more so than in other areas of the game). Weather is now included in the game, with rain causing the ball to slow up as you hit it over a sludgy surface, but in Manager Mode every game is played at the same time of day in the same weather conditions – there are no night games and no rain/snow games. You can “force” the game to do it by quitting Manager Mode, starting an exhibition match, setting the conditions to day, overcast or night, then exiting the menu and going back into Manager Mode to load your saved game – but obviously, you shouldn’t have to do that. The Be A Pro mode (which I’ll come back to later) has variable conditions, so why doesn’t Manager Mode?
Also, you can no longer assign shirt numbers in Manager Mode, meaning that if you buy a striker and the number 2 is available, he will become number 2 and there is nothing you can do about it. Silly little bugs like this don’t hurt the game, but they do grate every time you see your best striker playing with a defender’s number, on the 128th bright sunny day in a row. I’m hoping that EA will release a patch to fix issues like these but you would imagine they require more than a quick bug-fixing session on the programmers’ part, so it may be a long shot.
Back to the good news though; I noticed, when playing in Manager Mode, that the Estadio De Las Artes stadium has been assigned to far fewer teams now (that stadium that you would see every other game when playing a career game last year), and a lot more generic stadia have been added. So although you will occasionally play in the same stadium two games in a row, it is a lot rarer than it was last year. My first Manager Mode game as Liverpool was away to Stoke, who play in one of the generic stadia, and it was as close to the Britannia Stadium as you could expect for a generic stadium. It was far more enjoyable playing them in a typically English stadium than the Estadio De Las Artes, which I saw so many times last year that I had nightmares about it. In-fact the only thing that spoiled the authenticity was Andy Gray screaming about a well-taken goal when it was 0-0 and a goalkeeper had just completed a pass to one of my midfielders – the commentary seems to have gone slightly strange in places!
So, on World Class difficulty (the hardest difficulty in the game bar Legendary), would my Liverpool side beat Stoke? Yes, they did, 2-1. We scored two goals in the first half, and in the second half Stoke changed tactics completely. This is something else that didn’t happen in FIFA 08, and something I thought I was imagining at first; but the team got narrower, they played a lot tighter, they pressured every single player on the pitch and they were restricting our movement. They were trying to get back into it, and it paid off, with a low volley flying under Reina’s body in stoppage time. But thankfully, that was the only goal they got.
The next game was against Aston Villa, a team who are currently third in the Premier League. I was expecting a tougher game, and that’s exactly what I got. It was without doubt the most exciting game I’ve ever had on FIFA so far, be it FIFA 08, FIFA 09 or FIFA 99. They came to Anfield to win, they didn’t want to settle for a point, and my open attacking formation was vulnerable. They had three fantastic shots in quick succession pushed away by Reina, and I should have took this as a warning and played more defensively. I should have played more narrowly and got some good build-up play going, rather than going all-out to get the first goal and hang back. But I didn’t, I kept the same strategy going, and after a hard low cross that missed everybody in the middle landed to Agbonlahor on the far side of the area, it was never going to miss. All he needed to do was direct the ball – it was such a hard, spinning ball in – and Reina could do nothing but watch it try to burst the net. The AI and the physics are just stunning; you can’t play haphazard football and expect to win. You have to choose the right strategy for the right game. Exactly as you would in real life.
I switched to a more sensible strategy after the goal and towards the end of the first half, Robbie Keane picked up the ball outside the box. I went for it – holding down the “finesse” button to try and place the ball into the corner – and it curved from right to left, the most beautiful curving shot you could hope to see on Match of the Day on a Saturday, settling just into the corner out of the goalkeeper’s reach. It was such a sweet goal, and something else that just wasn’t possible last year.
After the goal, a cut-scene was shown and an Aston Villa player recieved a red-card for something that had happened during the build-up – it was great to see the referee playing the advantage, and even better to see the referee giving a card afterwards (something that wasn’t programmed into the game in FIFA 08; play would continue and the offender would get away with it). But a red card for a mistimed tackle was very harsh. Referees were much too soft last year, and online people would hack you down all day long knowing that they would never get a straight red, so stricter referees is something I am very happy to see. I would much prefer that they were too strict than too kind. But there’s no doubt that they are slightly, just slightly, too quick to reach for a red in some circumstances.
In the second half though, Villa made some very clever substitutions, and once again we were being pegged back. A misplaced pass found Agbonlahor in a dangerous position, and he ran one way, then the other (fooling the centre-back completely), and hammered a thumping shot straight down the middle past a stunned goalkeeper (who must have been wondering when the manager was going to get the tactics right and give him some breathing space).
For the rest of the game I tried one of the default tactics, “Counter Attack”, to try and get an equaliser on the break. I realised when I saw Gareth Barry bossing the midfield and sweeping up the loose balls that perhaps a midfield with some strong players in would firm things up; so I placed Gerrard further back and put Mascherano next to him, both playing as central midfielders but deep enough to be classed as defensive midfielders. Again, the difference was massive – straight away we were sweeping up a lot more loose balls, and players were just rebounding off them, pushed and shoved off the ball. The physical side to the game is of big importance this year; small and nimble players can dance around slow defenders, but if they’ve got muscles, they can really send you flying.
With the midfield operating further back, it was harder to get into a good attacking position, but I didn’t want to concede another goal. Eventually it finished 2-1 to Villa and as I watched the highlights my mind was a tactics board, scribbling ideas and running arrows in my head. At this point I saved the game, to try the other modes and experiment with more strategic planning – but at that moment it was clear that everything I wanted to see fixed had been fixed. And then some.
Be A Pro Seasons, where you can create yourself and play as a single player, is a fleshed-out version of Be A Pro from last year. Now you can play for a club for four seasons (a shame it couldn’t have been longer though), with the possibility of an England call-up if you play well enough. I started out at Tranmere, the team that I support (unfortunately) in the real world. The difference between playing as a Premier League player and a lower-league player was immediately apparent, with response times being cut just slightly, and shots ballooning over the bar a lot more easily. It’s a lot harder to get the fast-moving power bar in the right position, and aim it just into the corner – so you have to cut out a better chance for yourself than you would normally. As with the rest of the game, the AI is fantastic, on both sides. Your team-mates move around and try to get themselves into good positions, and as you shout for the ball or tell a player to get tight to a man, you actually hear a voice shout the instruction, which is a nice little touch!
So far I’ve found it very difficult at a lower-league level, with much scrappier build-up play, but it’s exactly like a real lower-league match would be. Playing as a Premier League footballer (you can choose to start as an existing player), it is a lot easier to get the ball into a good position, because your team-mates are so much better. The mode is really well done, and there’s so many neat touches to it. For example, you can request a substitution if you’re getting tired and you know you’re not going to help the team’s performance, and you can get injured if someone does a particularly bad challenge on you. You can even be sent packing to the reserve squad, which is where I’ll be spending most of my career based on my Tranmere performances so far…
When playing online (as a whole team or as a single player), all of the above comes into play in perfect harmony. You can save your tactics and use them online, to devastating effect. The response times make the game infinitely more playable than FIFA 08, and it’s a fantastic feeling when everything comes together; the tactics working like they should, the passing movement and flow of the game favouring you, and a fantastic finish or two putting the game beyond doubt. Online Leagues and Interactive Leagues (where you play the matches that are being played for that week in real life, trying to win for your chosen side and getting them a victory that will move them up the virtual league) are available, as they were last year. As is 5 v 5 play, but it’s been expanded to a maximum of 10 v 10 play, along with FIFA Clubs, where you can start your own football club and recruit people from around the world to control each single player. If you play against inexperienced clubs then every player tends to run for the ball at once, but if you play the teams who know what they’re doing, you can have immense fun. This is the “killer mode” for most players, and something never before attempted on a console football game, but personally, I still prefer giving the CPU a run for its money in Manager Mode – purely because being a single player is very, very hard. It will take a long time before I’ve mastered it, and before I “settle in” to the club I play for (getting used to how they all play). EA have done a great job of catering for the offline gamers and the online gamers, with the fantastic AI offline and the expansive modes online.
So as I finish writing this review, staring at the FIFA 09 box in desperation to play it again, I have to think of one line that sums the whole experience up. Something that encompasses most of the game and conveys just how scarily realistic the game is, from the physics of kicking the ball to the intelligence of the world’s most intelligent footballers. From the amount of things to do in the game, offline and online, to the depth of it. But there really are no words to describe it all. So instead, I’m going to go and play the game now. If you love football, and you want to push your footballing intelligence, and take on the best online, I’ll see you there.
UPDATE (04/10/08): There are FIVE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT versions of FIFA 09: PS3/360, WII, PC, PS2/PSP, and NDS. I’ve played them all now, apart from the Wii version.
Some people realise that they all use different engines and some don’t, but it is an extremely important point. They are all totally different games by totally seperate teams, and as such they all play totally differently.
The PS3/360 version is the best of the bunch by far, as it’s been programmed to use the full power of the consoles and it’s got twice the amount of calculations packed into it as the PC game. The PC game is a good game in its own right, and the game has improved from last year with different control methods making it a different game, such as keyboard and mouse allowing you to “point out” passes and player runs.
The PSP version is much the same as last year, which can also be said about the DS version; there is now a Be A Pro mode in both games, and obviously the teams are all up-to-date, but gameplay-wise there doesn’t seem to be any major changes. There are also no sponsors on any of the shirts in FIFA 09 on the DS, but I’ve not played FIFA on the DS before and I don’t know if that’s something new. I should also say that I’ve only played two or three games on each so far – mainly because I can’t stop playing the PS3/360 version for long enough to…
If anyone would like to ask anything about the game, please leave a comment and we’ll do our best to answer you!