Soccer Done Right
True to EA SPORTS fashion, FIFA 09 is little more than a marginally upgraded version from last year’s outing. That being said, FIFA 09 is an excellent footballing experience. Moreover, the few upgrades that were made seem to be concentrated in the gameplay area, a place where the game has historically suffered compared to its competition.
All in all, the entire FIFA 09 package is extremely tight. The crisp HD visuals are great, animations are indeed more fluid, and crucial details of gameplay like ball control, off the ball runs, and players defending their space have all greatly improved. Truly, FIFA 09 plays much more like real soccer than ever before. Plus, there is a new Be A Pro Season mode and the ability to customize team tactics that offer a touch of something new. If you’re a rabid soccer fan or haven’t picked up a copy FIFA in the last few years, this year’s edition is a great buy. For everyone else, there’s always next year.
The best reason to pick up FIFA 09 (outside of updated rosters) are the multitude of subtle tweaks to gameplay. Players familiar with the series will immediately feel as though they have greater control over their players. Balls seem to stay nicely glued to their feet, traps (assuming the player is skilled) drop nicely to the ground, pushing pipsqueaks off the ball with big marking backs is now a possibility, and, conversely, slight taps of the left analog stick produces appropriate mini-touches that shield the ball nicely from aggressive defenders. Also, the all-important through ball and off the ball runs are more effective. The defense will still cut out the majority of them, but when timed correctly, the tactic proves to be lethal.
I’ve also found teams to play a much more tactically sound game. This is due to the new Custom Team Tactics feature. FIFA games have long employed team-specific formations, the ability to adjust strategy mid-game, and even, to some extent, define the overall team strategy before games (focus on wing play, a possession game, the long ball, etc.). Now, however, each and every team’s specific characteristics are nicely captured by a series of sliders. These sliders fall below the overarching categories of Build Up, Chance Creation, and Defense. Under each entry, players can adjust options such as the team’s tendency to use short or long passing, their positional play, frequency of crossing, what kind of defensive pressure they utilize, overall team width, etc.
These sliders, eleven in all, really do make each team, including your own, play differently. For example, a team like Arsenal methodically builds up from the back, utilizes a lot of short passing, and often attempts to make a final cutting pass in the box to bamboozle the defense. As such, these characteristics are accurately captured by a “Slow” build up, “Free Form” positioning, and “Risky” passing during chance creation. Essentially, what this allows players to do is adjust their team’s performances exactly how they want them to play (team management has never been better) and it makes the competition feel just like they should.
Additionally, A.I. seems truer than ever. My A.I. teammates consistently helped my midfielders with diagonal runs and square support. Also, goalkeepers are more aggressive than in the past. I’ve actually been saved a number of times by the goalkeeper charging off his line to stop breakaways, and even recovering well to make a second glorious save off the rebound he let go (again, thanks to the Custom Team Tactics feature). All your opponents play in a style and manner that is commensurate with their abilities and club characteristics.
Outside of these many subtle gameplay tweaks, not a lot has changed. Players will still have access to all the classic modes, including quick play, career, tournament, and online play. However, this year, Be A Pro: Seasons mode has been added. Much like what is found in EA’s baseball and hockey titles, Be A Pro: Seasons allows you to develop and play as a player over the course of several seasons. Unfortunately, FIFA’s Be A Pro is more similar to EA’s NHL experience rather than to that of the MLB. Whereas baseball is a game that completely fits controlling just one player (gamers only have to participate in the moments that involved their pro), soccer is constantly evolving. That means touching the ball only 25 times may get boring to those that are not part of the soccer hardcore. However, for true aficionados, you do have the power to call for the ball and even tell your teammates when to shoot. So, I still felt this mode was rewarding. Moreover, improving your player from season to season and watching them elevate in the virtual footballing world and garner renown is gratifying.
The new online features in 09 include the Adidas Live Season and BAP: Online Team Play. The Adidas Live Season feature, similar to NBA Live 09’s Dynamic DNA, allows you to update real-world player form. However, unlike Dynamic DNA, the service updates weekly rather than daily and is available only for an additional fee. Having to pay for current player form is discouraging. Nevertheless, gamers can update player form from any or all of the following leagues: English Premier League, French Ligue 1, German Bundes Liga, Mexican Primera, Spanish La Liga, and Italian Serie A.
BAP: Online Team play is a neat mode of play, though it suffers greatly from selfish ball hogs. Players can hop online and join a match with 19 other people. These ten Vs. ten matches are cool because you get to see a lot of great tactics being employed off the ball; human players are constantly making great runs. Regrettably, there are always a few players who decide they’re better than everyone else and hold on to the ball too much and waste these brilliant moves. As a result, BAP plays a lot like Be A Pro except you have absolutely no control over how the ball should be moved or when it should be shot. Also, because the game has to match 20 people together, lobby waits are long and you may experience some lag if enough people have poor connections. Nevertheless, there are always people participating, so it’s easy to find a game. And, getting friendly with locals and demonstrating your ability may allow you to join a virtual club (much like clans in shooters) to vie for the top spot among the FIFA faithful.
The visuals are amazingly crisp. The stadiums, players, animations, the pitch, signage, etc. all look fantastic. It is extremely easy to get lost in this beautiful title. The only jarring aspects are the pixelated crowds and the often inaccurate look of key players that have yet to get the fully realized facial tuning. Case in point: Marcos Senna of Villarreal. Heck, the entire squad at Villarreal is woefully depicted.
The sights and sounds of the game are of very high quality. Andy Gray does an excellent job of color commentating, Martin Tyler complements Gray’s insight well, and the crowd noise is spot on. Unfortunately, the selection of global pop, usually such a standout feature of FIFA titles, seems to be less dynamic. Don’t get me wrong, the list of titles is varied, but it seems that the selection is far too difficult on Yankee ears. In fact, localization seems to be a problem throughout the title. The folks at EA Canada have simply made one UK-centric English edition of the game and haven’t bothered to tweak the song lists or spelling for the unshackled and unkempt colonials.
As is usually the case, FIFA 09 is yet another sterling entry in their line of footie titles. Tweaks to gameplay and the silky smooth HD visuals do make for the most convincing offering yet. Nevertheless, the old mantra still applies: There aren’t enough new features to make this game substantially different from last year’s effort. If one were to apply transitive logic, it would mean this year’s title is essentially the same as that from two years ago. Thankfully, transitive logic doesn’t exactly hold, as the cumulative effect of the minor gameplay tweaks does result in a more refined experience. If you haven’t played FIFA in a while, now’s the time to jump back in; this is a great game of soccer. But, if you’re an old hat to the series, the most compelling reason to purchase FIFA 09 may only be the roster update.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.6 Graphics
The “Beautiful Game” lives up to its moniker in EA’s title. Only the pixelated crowds and frequent unrealized player likenesses hold it back from perfection. 4.3 Control
The many gameplay tweaks have resulted in very user-friendly controls. 4.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The sounds of the game, crowd, and commentary are spot on, but the music selection is a little too global for a Yank’s liking. 4.5 Play Value
If you’re looking for a quality game of virtual soccer on consoles, FIFA’s your best bet. The varied online modes and tremendous licensed support is tough to beat. 4.4 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.