FIFA 09 Hands-on @ Eurogamer

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Master Sage
Feb 4, 2008
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Have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Jamaican-Canadian? EA's lead FIFA team comprises staff of over 18 nationalities, which, were it a real squad, would no doubt have shifty FIFA president Sepp Blatter railing against the vile destruction of home-grown talent.
The three amigos in question are, respectively, producer Dave Rutter, senior gameplay designer Gary Paterson, and gameplay producer Aaron McHardy. They're currently huddled together in a meeting room at EA Sports HQ in Vancouver, preparing to give us our first taste of this year's kickabout.
With the debut of FIFA 07, they and their team-mates struck upon the best FIFA formula in years. We thought last year's was rather good, scoring it 8/10; and the recent UEFA Euro 2008 was even better, with Kristan insisting it was just "a Russian linesman away from being given 9/10".
We see a hell of a lot of sports game presentations over three days at EA's Season Opener event, and one of the more short-sighted talking-up techniques employed by the teams is to rubbish the previous year's version, then wax lyrical on how life-changingly amazing it is for this time around.
Of course we expect areas of games to improve over time, but this is a nonsense strategy, since the logical extension of this argument is that today's giant leap forward is next year's embarrassed shuffle back.
So when new producer Rutter raves about "250 key improvements" for FIFA 09, scepticism is already off the bench and warming up nicely. Yet in its current successful groove, the team is quickly building a reputation for impressive delivery.
"EA has actually improved on almost every part of it, with game elements and modes that aren't the usual vacuous twaddle slapped on the box to tempt unwary fanboys," added Kristan in his UEFA review, the title that serves as a bridge between FIFAs 08 and 09.
We prefer the one on the left, frankly.

As Rutter has it: "We're at a point now where we've established such good gameplay that all we need to do is polish it as much as possible and it will get better and better. In many respects this year's version is the evolution of that rather than the revolution."
If you can pick out 250 key improvements with the naked eye then, well, you deserve some sort of special prize, but the main areas of 09 earmarked for improvement are: physicality, or the realism with which players physically react to one another; responsiveness, right down to the difference between tackling a player's front foot, or trailing leg; and strategy, namely the facility to create your own.
Let's start with physical play. Size matters, so if a big player clashes with a lesser being they should both react accordingly. And familiarity with the physical aspects of your players should be able to deliver convincing gameplay moments a little more nuanced than the "give it to Ronaldo as he can dribble a bit" school of realism.
We watch an in-game clip of Man Utd midfielder Paul Scholes clashing with Chelsea's swan-diving striker Didier Drogba. Since Drogba is "such a hulk of a beast in the game", he is able to hold off players as you pick out the perfect pass. But the yin to this yang is that the necessarily more sluggish bigger player can in turn be outrun by the nimbler, lighter rival. "You'll feel the difference between Ronaldinho and Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and John Terry and Drogba."

In 09 players also have an awareness of the direction of an incoming tackle. Rather than a uniform reaction wherever a lunge comes in from, the positioning of each leg now counts. As you'd expect in the real thing, a player is more likely to keep going if he's tackled on his non-standing leg. And this, in theory at least, should allow for more dramatic implementation of the 'play on' rule for last ditch challenges.
The same principle applies to responsiveness. EA shows us a series of side-by-side comparisons of FIFA 08 and its sequel. One looks at dribbling in slow-motion - in 08 the player is "skipping through his animations to allows him to turn", causing him to take more touches than necessary before dispatching a pass.
In 09, the dribbling is "faster and more responsive" as the player "manoeuvres their body to get to the ball quickly as a real footballer would". First-time actions, such as the sliding pass, are also new to the mix.
As is always the case with major sports simulations, such details usually sound great on paper and can often look great in a demo situation; but proving any palpable improvement to the game is a much more onerous proposition.
Picking up the pad for a quick game (a Man Utd vs. Chelsea grudge match is the only tie available), it looks and feels remarkably FIFA-ish, of course. But the more intensely physical nature of the game is one of the changes that is most obviously apparent - and watching your player, arms up and frantically jostling for possession while sprinting down the wing becomes a mini-drama in itself.
Beyond that, and with a very short playing time, it's tough to discern any other significant changes at this stage. And several of the promised improvements, including a new trapping system, improved goalkeeper intelligence and retuned ball physics, have not yet been implemented in the build EA is showing off.
Nevertheless, the personalisation of the most notable players also has a more straightforward aesthetic benefit: Ronaldo's pre-free kick stance has been replicated; meanwhile, the game's updated ball physics leads Rutter to garble excitedly that Scholes' stunning 25-yard drive against Barcelona in the Champions League, with its wicked, unstoppable curve, is now possible in the game.
One of FIFA 08's greatest additions was Be A Pro mode - which let you assume the role of a single player on the team, with the camera fixed to his position. Many, including us, welcomed the excitingly fresh perspective, but bemoaned the limits of its implementation. As it turns out, we were lucky to get it at all.
Did you know that Villa have given their sponsorship deal to a local charity next year? Barcelona of the Midlands.

"We have stuff that the team do that never actually figures in that year's title," reveals Rutter. "That could have been Be A Pro last year. We might have been at the point where we said, this is a great thing, but we should expand it out. It was felt to be so strong and the feedback so good, we couldn't sit on it - it had to go in."
With an extra year's fiddling, Be A Pro is back with bells on, offering the richer, career-orientated experience fans have been clamouring for. You can choose either an existing player or create your own and embark on a four-season career during which your goal is to emerge as an international legend. "It's being able to expand that really innovative way of playing football out into something a lot more meaningful for people," says Rutter.
But for the true football anorak, the most exciting new feature for this season is customisable tactics. Rutter isn't mucking about: "Customisable tactics, in my opinion, will really revolutionise the way people play football games." We knew that whole "just evolution" line wouldn't last.
He continues: "You're going to be able to dynamically change the way your team plays football at a very low level to allow the drama of real sport to unfold before your eyes. If you want a way of playing that involved [People's Hero] Peter Crouch, you can have that; if you want a way of playing that involves Tevez, you can have that. You can change them during a match, you can put them online and use them with friends."

It all stems from the essential truth that "everyone who loves football has had an argument about who's best". And, of course, everyone always thinks they know best. So this is your chance to prove it. "If you think Man Utd plays one way, you can create a Man Utd that plays that way," says Rutter.
It works as follows: there are 11 tactical sliders in the game, which simulate the way your team currently plays, how they should play, or a fantasy way of playing (although we fear even the mighty Cell processor would implode if pushed to make Chelsea's graceless brats play with humility).
Up to four of these settings can then be assigned to the d-pad or stick, depending on which you're using to play with. To demonstrate, we're shown an example of what's possible by adjusting just a single slider, the one for defensive mentality, at its maximum and minimum settings.
In example one it's Man Utd vs Liverpool using a high defensive mentality. United are completely overrun and struggling to get the ball out of their own half. But the flipside is that with so many Liverpool players committed forward, they're left vulnerable at the back. Lo and behold, Giggs releases Rooney with a sublime ball over the top giving jug-ears 30 yards of space to run into.
On a low defensive mentality setting, Liverpool are now pushed right back into their half. They're sucking up pressure well and making it hard for Man Utd to break down their defence. But sit back for too long and you're asking for trouble and, spying a gap at long last, Rooney releases Scholes, and pegs it into the box while screaming for the return pass.
To reiterate, that's just one tactical slider set at its extremes. You can be far more subtle, also adjusting aggression, width, positioning, passing speed and more. It's a far subtler approach than typical footy game tactics. As Rutter notes: "A long-passing game isn't just about hitting the ball long - it's about changing the support play, so your midfield needs to be further up for the ball to be knocked down to run on to".
"Why is this exciting?" Rutter anticipates. "Every game you play will be slightly different. Online, too. You won't know what's around the corner. It's more like real football - you can have a frantic opening, then it gets more relaxed, then a goal is scored and the other team needs to react. This doesn't really exist in games at the moment. I will feel the game change."
Flamenco: you're doing it wrong.

And we've avoided it until now, but this seems like the appropriate juncture to bring in PES. Many have noted how, in the past couple of years, the franchises have almost reversed roles, with FIFA the more considered experience, while PES has become more frantic, even arcadey.
"As an independent observer, I'd make the same conclusions," says Rutter, not very independently at all. "Years ago people played FIFA and saw it more as the arcade game and people played PES and thought, you know, that's a really hardcore sim of football. And it's flipped, and it's almost been imperceptible the change that's happened."
This is, we are told, the year Seabass and his team finally pull their fingers out and give us the PS3 and 360 from-the-ground-up PES we've been waiting for since the start of the current generation. For FIFA, complacency would now be the killer.
Thankfully, regardless of whether you can spot 250 tiny changes, or just 2.5 bigger ones, we're not seeing much evidence of that so far.
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Hopefully this game will deliver.