[Editor’s Note: I understand soccer should be respectfully labeled as football, but because the majority of our reader base is from North America, we’re going to utilize the word soccer instead. Don’t be so offended and please don’t litter the comment section with Soccer> American football — we get it.]
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EA Sports appears to be experiencing something of a turning point this season. While the company may have struggled during the initial development process the latest generation of consoles, it’s starting to become evident that any kinks are now few and far between.
Last year’s FIFA 08 took the appropriate steps forward by improving on physics, visual detail and most importantly, the way the sport played. As a result, this afforded EA the chance to capitalize and ultimately expand upon these improvements with FIFA 09, resulting in one of the best overall soccer titles in recent years.
Quite simply, is there any sport that exemplifies the dreams of millions more than the game of soccer? Often regarded as the world’s premier sport, soccer is played in almost every country around the globe. FIFA 09 offers gamers the opportunity to fulfill those virtual dreams, become a hero on the pitch, and ultimately earn legendary status — that is, at least until the next installment arrives. FIFA 09 provides this through the in-depth Be A Pro mode, a feature that has quickly become a staple among EA’s titles for this season.
Those of you who played FIFA 08 should recall that EA included the Be A Pro option in the feature set. Unfortunately, this mode was only playable on a per game basis, resulting in a lot of wasted potential. Things have been tweaked this season, however, allowing gamers to expand their Be A Pro experience across four full seasons of play. During this run, you’ll work your way through the reserve squad in hopes of landing a full-time gig with the starting team. Those of you with enough talent can take the process one step further and potentially find yourself with a spot on the national team. Keep in mind though that not every nation has a team within the game. Thankfully, EA gives a heads up on which countries will offer this experience when it comes time to create your pro.
Creating your pro is quite an intricate process. Much like the standard create-a-player function, you’re able to change any aspect of your appearance. This provides you with full freedom in determining the look of your jaw, cheeks, mouth, lips, eyes and ears. EA has done a great job in providing the user with true customization for their pro player. After the long sculpting process, expect to take some time fine-tuning your player’s attributes to better reflect what position you’ve chosen to play. Gamers start off with 10,000 points to dispense, which is sufficient enough to build you up to a 65-67 overall rating.
Sadly, unlike the NHL series, some gamers may find FIFA’s Be A Pro Mode a tad monotonous. NHL offers a fast-paced atmosphere where your player will touch the puck numerous times per shift. However, with soccer being a more patient sport, chances are you may only see the ball 2-3 times a game, if not a tad more. This will appeal to hardcore fans that enjoy the speed of play and the teamwork involved, but it may put off more casual gamers who want to have a larger impact on the outcome of the game. Of course, this does make every touch that much more important, which in turn adds a lot of excitement once you have the ball at your feet.
Fortunately, for gamers who have no interest in Be A Pro, EA has delivered on their promise of significantly improving over 250 aspects of their title, the most noticeable of which happens to be the physical style of play. Whereas past soccer games have always allowed for the smaller individual to have the ability to overpower a player twice his size, EA has now switched things up ensuring that a player’s physical attributes play a much more prominent role in a match. As such, not only does this take effect while trying to execute standing tackles, which may result in the smaller player being thrown down onto the pitch, but it is also evident during jump ball sequences. To put it simply, the attributes of strength, height and weight seem to matter more now than ever before.
Another issue that needed to be addressed in previous instalments was the talent level of some finishers. While most expect a stud player like Kaka to put the ball into the back of the net with ease, they don’t expect to see a reserve player come off the bench and play like Ronaldo. Fortunately, this issue has now been rectified in FIFA 09. I’ve noticed that players with weaker finishing and long shot attributes end up struggling when it comes to trying to score from the top of the box. Often kicks will curve off target or just result in easy saves, adding an even further sense of realism to the title. This combined with the enhanced goalkeeper Artificial Intelligence and you have an unprecedented soccer experience unrivalled by anything else currently on the market.
The AI isn’t without its shortcomings, though, with a couple of niggles to take note of, the biggest issue of which being the AI detection of the pitch’s sidelines. It appears that the majority of players don’t understand that going out of bounds with the ball will result in a turnover. Oddly enough, this doesn’t stop AI players from sometimes dribbling the ball out of bounds or allowing a ball to just roll on by. Hopefully, however, EA will see fit to release a post-launch patch to eradicate the problem in due time.
Once you’re done having a kickabout in the single player mode, it might be a good idea to hop online as EA has introduced their signature club option as well as 10-on-10 online play. Much like NBA Live and NHL, FIFA features online clubs within 15 divisions all vying for that coveted top spot. You and your friends can reach that plateau through 10-on-10 action that pits you against other clubs in order to advance. Even if the club scene isn’t for you, the game still lets you take part in quick team play matches that utilize the 10-on-10 game formula.
One of the most significant changes to online play, however, comes in the form of Live Season. This is feature is comparable to NBA Live, Live 365 feature which allows players to download daily updates that contribute to a more authentic gameplay experience. Unfortunately, this only comes as a trial period and you must purchase the full Live Season feature if it’s something you feel compelled to pursue. While this may sound ridiculous at first, EA does give you the option to purchase individual leagues if you wish, as opposed to forcing you to buy the entire package. Still, this component is definitely a must-buy for only the most hardcore of fans.
Visually, FIFA 09 boasts some discernible, albeit minor improvements over its predecessor. Player models have been noticeably refined and the details have been given some subtle upgrades. On the flip side, the presentation isn’t really the strongest. A lot of the animations seem recycled and give pre-game and goal celebration a sort of dry aftertaste, and is a prime example of an area that EA has always needed to improve within the majority of their sports franchises. As for audio commentary, Andy Gray and Martin Tyler deliver as they’re expected to, and in my opinion deserve to be the voice of FIFA for many years to come.
Like NHL 09, FIFA 09 may be the most accomplished title in its respective sports category to date. With improved animations, solid AI (for the most part), decent Be A Pro mode and a great online experience, it’s going to be very hard for Pro Evolution Soccer to regain its footing as king of the hill.