The FIFA series is known and loved for many reasons, but free-flowing gameplay was never one of them. The franchise has had the marketing clout of EA behind it, the authenticity of the English Premier League and every other major league to push it, the gloss, feel and atmosphere of the real thing, and the stamp of approval from football’s world governing body. Despite all this, EA found itself losing more and more of its market share in the past few years to Pro Evolution Soccer (PES), which had none of the aforementioned traits, but gave the player something FIFA had failed to do – provide gameplay that was so engaging that it took the attention away from every other aspect of the game, however negative.
So it became evident that EA had to step up their game to once again strengthen their position as market leader. FIFA had got every other major aspect spot on; it was just a matter of getting the gameplay right. In the last console generation, PES was often referred to as a football simulator; a game that transformed football into its most realistic virtual form. It’s only after playing FIFA 09 that you realise how ridiculous that notion was. EA have put every resource into making FIFA 09 the most accurate recreation of the beautiful game, from player and ball physics to animations. What we get as a result, is the most realistic football game ever. Using a myriad of new animations, players react to different situations differently and with awe-inspiring realism. For example, heading animations vary based on the player’s position and the presence of players around him. Given space and time, a defender will deliver a strong, reassuring header, getting his body behind it. But defending a corner, he will throw himself at the ball desperately to get to it before an opposing player, and only manage a weak, misdirected clearing header in the process.
These variations, made to look impressive with the wonderful and varying animations, seem all the more realistic due to the game’s improved physics. The strength and direction of passes and shots on goal are more dependent than ever on player momentum, position, and pressure from the opposition. The diminutive Messi will never stand a chance going shoulder-to-shoulder with the overbearing figure of Rio Ferdinand. That’s not to say that Messi will constantly be overpowered by defenders. He’s nimble and quick as opposed to the more sluggish defenders, allowing him to get past them more easily than most given a little space. It’s like a game of chess; you can use your strengths against the opposition’s weaknesses. You just need to learn what they are. The one downside to the ultra-realistic approach, however, is that the individualism of some of the star players doesn’t quite translate into the game. In real life, every now and then, players like Christiano Ronaldo and Messi will run rings around the opposition, breezing past three or four of them at a time. You can never do that in this game. If you’re lucky enough to get past one, you best look around for a teammate to pass to, because the odds of you making it past a second one aren’t too good. While this encourages build-up play, it may dissuade those looking to play a more stylish and attractive game. Whether or not this is a bad thing is a matter of personal preference; do you prefer Brazilian flair or Italian doggedness?
A major complaint in the earlier FIFA games in this console generation has been the lack or responsiveness in the game’s controls. This issue has been addressed to a large extent, resulting in a drastically improved and free-flowing game. It’s still not as responsive as it should be though, and often the player takes a couple of strides too many before delivering the pass, and that can often be the difference between an off-side and a neat goal after slicing the defence apart. Those extra strides that the player takes before passing the ball could be put down to the realistic player animations and heavy emphasis on player momentum and physics, but when it comes down to it, it breaks the flow of the game and keeps you from playing attractive football. Despite these occasional follies, the responsiveness is much improved and kudos to EA for addressing this key issue.
But while they’ve fixed one aspect of the gameplay, they’ve got another horribly wrong. If you ever decide to ping forward a through ball, a high pass, or a lobbed through ball, you might as well put the controller down and pray that the receiver latches on to it. Players receiving through balls and lobbed passes just don’t seem to be able to make contact with the ball. They will run all the way behind the ball and just when they’re inches away from it, it’s as if the ball disappears off the pitch and the receiver is seen faffing about not knowing what to do. Throughout these instances, which are disconcertingly frequent whether against AI or human opposition, you have absolutely no control over the receiving player. Now this doesn’t occur every time you try a high pass or through ball, just way too often to be passed off as a random bug. On the whole, however, this year’s gameplay improvements far outweigh the negatives, resulting in immersive gameplay that I haven’t experienced in any FIFA game in the last decade.
In an attempt to lure more PES fans to FIFA, EA have also given players the option of completely changing the controller layout and you can now map the game’s controls to your preference. Since PES’s controls differ from FIFA’s (SQUARE to shoot rather CIRCLE), this is indeed a useful option. But what EA probably didn’t realise, is that many PES players use the D-Pad for movement rather than the analog stick, and although you do have the option to use the D-Pad for movement in FIFA 09, the implementation is way off and nowhere as accurate as the analog stick, resulting in frequent misdirected passes and player runs. So you’re better off sticking to the analog stick even if it takes a while getting used to.
Graphics and Sound
Visually, FIFA 09 is one of the most impressive sports games on the market. Stadiums are brilliantly recreated, with rich pitches and a wonderful lighting engine that puts the competition to shame. But despite having played offline and online extensively, I didn’t once play in the rain or snow weather conditions. If these weather effects are in the game, they need to show it off more frequently. Player models, which were laughable in previous games with their barrel-like physiques and faces made of melting wax, have been improved to an extent, but the team probably only had enough time to work on the more high-profile players, because many of the players from the Serie A and Bundesliga still look like their putty avatars from FIFA 08. For all the emphasis on realism, it’s shocking to see that player names on jerseys sport the same style across all teams. The font is jarring and unevenly sized depending on the length of the player’s name. It’s bemusing to think that such an aberration has been allowed to pass year after year. It’s a very small, superficial issue, but one that will jump out at you.
FIFA has always trumped the opposition in the sound department as well, and after this year, it looks like the trend is set to continue. Commentary from Martin Tyler and Andy Gray is spot-on and comments are seldom out of place. Crowd chants also vary as events unfold on the pitch. Signature crowd chants from various clubs can be heard throughout the game and they change in intensity and volume based on their team’s position. It flows very well with on-field events and combined with the great commentary, creates a charged atmosphere for an added level of immersion. The soundtrack too is a good mix, although you will find a couple of shockers in there, which you are free to switch off from the options menu so you never have to suffer through them again.
Offline Game Modes
You will never run out of things to do in FIFA 09. There are various game modes both online and offline for the player to explore. A new addition to this year’s game is the Be A Pro: Seasons mode, which is entirely offline and builds upon the Captain Your Country mode from the Euro 2008 game. You control a single player, either an existing pro or one created from scratch, whose aim is to move up the ranks of club football and make it to the national team and finally help his country win a major international tournament. This mode is four seasons long, and throughout this period, your player will pick up skill points that help build up his attributes. You are given specific objectives for each of the four seasons and additional objectives for each match, and if you achieve them, you are rewarded with additional skill points. You will also have the opportunity to transfer to other clubs, and these transfers also affect your national team prospects. The Be A Pro mechanic at the core of BAP: Seasons is solid, but progressing through the first season can be very frustrating and difficult, particularly if you’ve created a player from scratch.
The upside to the difficult nature of Be A Pro: Seasons is that after playing a season or two, you will be able to decimate the AI opposition in every other game mode, including the Manager Mode, which makes a return in FIFA 09, although without much change from last year’s game. I was able to soundly beat even the likes of Milan by a margin of 5 to 6 goals on World Class difficulty, which is never a good sign. Even more disappointing is that the AI is tweaked to almost cheat and make the game harder in cup finals. After losing the Italian Super Cup final to Inter 1-0 in the Serie A season opener, I was able to destroy them 6-0 only a couple of matches later in a league encounter. Cheating AI notwithstanding, both Manager Mode and Be A Pro: Seasons offer enough to keep you occupied until you’re ready to take on human opposition.
Online Game Modes
Once you’ve had enough practice offline, you can test your skills online, where, again, there are several game modes for you to explore. The newer ones, the ones that have been talked about the most, are the Be A Pro Online and Clubs modes. Be A Pro Online has been a major talking point ever since it was announced, allowing 20 people to each take control of one player on the pitch, with only both goalkeepers controlled by the AI. In theory, this concept reeks of brilliance, a true virtual recreation of the beautiful game. But incessant lag robs the Be A Pro Online concept from living up to its true potential. Whether you’re playing with just three players or a full quota of ten on either side, lag is always a factor, affecting everything from player movement to registering button presses. Changes in the player’s direction, passes and shots take about a second or two to register, and in the middle of a frantic match, it seems like an eternity. What you get as a result is a sloppy game with misdirected passes, frequent off-sides and scrappy goals.
Similar issues also plague the ambitious Clubs mode that had many excited. A novel idea, Clubs places a lot of emphasis on team work, requiring players to group together to form teams of three players or more. Based on performances, teams move up the ranks across 15 divisions. Like Be A Pro Online, it’s a remarkable concept, but this again falls flat due to constant lag, whether your team has three players or ten. An enthusiastic group that makes up IndianVideoGamer FC, a club that I am proud to be part of, grows more and more frustrated with each passing day as we lose and draw matches that we should have won if not for the confusion that is brought on by the constant lag. But even with these issues, you can’t help but notice how brilliant both these new online modes are in concept, and how much fun they would be if not for the lag. Hopefully these issues can be fixed with a patch. If not, this is something EA will certainly want to work on for FIFA 2010, because they have something special on their hands here.
I am happy to report, however, that lag is almost non-existant in the one-on-one online matches, whether against Indian opposition or American. Besides the 1v1 ranked and unranked matches, you can create an online league, where you can get together and compete with friends and aim to climb to the top of the table. While, on the whole, the online aspect of FIFA 09 is hit-and-miss, things are certainly looking very promising for the future if EA can manage to iron out the lag issues.
A few niggles aside, the gameplay is tighter and more fun than it’s been in a long time, while other aspects, where FIFA has always led, keep improving. There is a plethora of game modes, both online and offline, offering something for everyone. For fans of football games, the mantra has always been – FIFA for presentation and licenses, PES for gameplay. Now, with FIFA upping the ante with more fluid gameplay, it is getting uncomfortably close to matching Konami’s cult hit in that department, and with all other aspects stacked in its favour, it comes out ahead as an overall package. For the first time in a long, long time, I’m in a position where I can, without hesitation, recommend a FIFA game to anyone that asks. Its is the complete football game, and while it’s far from perfect, for anyone who’s ever considered trying out a football game, FIFA 09 is a great place to begin.
IndianVideoGamer Verdict: 9/10 (Buy)
FIFA 09 is in stores now on PlayStation 3 (Rs 2,499), Xbox 360 (Rs 1,999), PSP (Rs 1,599), PlayStation 2 (Rs 999) and PC (Rs 999)