As a sports fan living in North America, the latter days of October may seem akin to sports heaven. The World Series is in full swing, we’re in the thick of the NFL and college football season, the NBA and NHL have begun anew, the chase for the Sprint Cup is in its final stretches, and college basketball is right around the corner. Why then is my sporting attention increasingly focused abroad nowadays?
Well blame it on soccer (or football for you purists) because with the EPL in full swing, my Red Devils starting to play to form (yes, I’m a plastic glory hunter), the beautiful game has stolen my sporting attention. Consequently, I badly needed a soccer game fix. But contrary to past years, I could not wait the extra time for WE/PES to arrive on U.S. shores. So, potentially faced with weeks or even months without a new game, I broke down and bought FIFA 09. And for this self-admitted WE/PES fanboy, this act became an extraordinary, exploratory, and revelatory experience that tested my gaming loyalties.
It Takes Two
There’s no question that people need choices, even if it is just two. Politics, religion, food, sports, movies, or even video games encounter this phenomenon. Just consider that for every Coca-Cola there’s a Pepsi, for every McDonald’s there’s a Burger King, for every conservative there’s a liberal, for every Mac there’s a PC, and for every giant douche there’s a turd sandwich. Our world is filled with limitless examples of these rivalries; however, not all feuds are fought on an equal playing field.
You see, some sides just have such an overwhelming advantage that they simply dominate the opposition. For many years the Winning Eleven/Pro Evolution Soccer series has dominated FIFA when it comes to winning over the hearts and minds of critics and die-hard fans alike. Better gameplay, better animations, better everything was the annual mantra. FIFA may have had the real sponsors, kits, stadiums, and rosters, and it may have sold more copies as result. However, to many fans FIFA was an unwieldy arcade game.
But, the world is never static, and things can and do change. So imagine my surprise when the reviews and player impressions for FIFA 09 were overwhelmingly positive. Even among WE/PES fans, this was a common outcome. I guess one can only ignore reality for so long, but I still needed to play FIFA to believe that all this praise was accurate. Besides, I still needed to satisfy that soccer fix. So I bit the bullet and bought a copy of that "unwieldy arcade" game.
In the interest of full disclosure, you all should know that I have been playing soccer games ever since I was a little kid; starting with Goal! on the NES and the FIFA series on the 16-bit consoles. But when it came to my gaming habits, soccer stood behind the four major U.S. sports -- until 2003 when Winning Eleven 6 International was released in North America.
Buoyed by solid reviews and great word of mouth impressions (largely on OS) I bought the game. Needless to say, I was instantly hooked. The realistic physics, amazing free-flowing animations, and addicting gameplay, I loved it all. WE 6 also made me love the actual sport (along with the Football Manager series), instead of merely treating it as a secondary interest. And since that point in history, I have bought the WE/PES games every year.
In fact, one of my greatest gaming joys has been the progression of my WE/PES skill throughout the years. Starting out with WE 6, I played on three stars and continually struggled to win. But over the course of hundreds of games and years of practice, my overall knowledge of the sport improved, and I eventually became a much better player. So when WE 8 rolled around, I made the move up to five stars and eventually up to six.
As you can see, I’ve grown up with this game, even becoming sentimentally attached to it, and I have no doubt that many WE/PES fans in North America have experienced this as well. That’s why it seemed like an act of betrayal when I popped FIFA 09 into my Xbox 360 and finally started up the game.
Stranger in a Foreign Land
Since the last FIFA game I played was FIFA 2001, I had no idea what to expect. Was this really going to be the same nonsense from the past or a fresh new beginning?
Well, my first impressions of FIFA 09 were actually pretty good. I thought the Arena mode at the beginning of the game was a great way to introduce the game mechanics. By allowing players to fool around on the pitch, it was easy to become familiarized with the controls. I swear, I must have played within this mode for a solid 15 minutes, just trying out tricks and testing the manual shooting.
After I knew the controls well enough, I created a player and tried out the newly expanded Be A Pro mode, where you can take control of a single player (either a real player or one that you a create) and work your way up the ranks to club and international success. I promptly re-created myself as a small but quick striker looking to make it big with my hometown (and goal deprived) Toronto F.C. Starting out on the reserve squad was rough and the game was even rougher.
To put it bluntly, I sucked. I lost the ball almost immediately, made a ton of poor passes, and not once did I manage to get a shot on target. But despite all those difficulties, this mode proved to be rather fun, and I enjoyed having to play within a team concept while also looking to make runs and create chances. Months from now, I definitely picture myself still playing this mode.
Although I appreciated and enjoyed the interesting gameplay of Be A Pro, I didn’t buy the game for it. I wanted to see how the real meat of the game played, and boy was I in for a rude awakening...
Ouch, My Ego
After my dalliances with Be A Pro, I jumped into Manager mode. Now coming from the WE/PES series I was familiar with the Master League mode and every year in each WE/PES game I would do the same exact thing: I would create my own team from scratch with the default rosters (shouts to Castolo) and build them up into world-beaters. But without the ability to create my own team, I just chose to play as Manchester United. Yeah, I know, real adventurous.
With Be A Pro I opted to stick with the default settings, so I switched things up with Manager mode. I believed that I was obviously a soccer game vet, so I chose to play on World Class difficulty, 10-minute halves, and gave myself full manual control over my passing, crossing and shooting. Well, that turned out to be a big mistake.
In my first game I faced Portsmouth in the Community Shield, and I promptly got my butt handed to me. Passes went everywhere but to the intended player and I struggled to get out of my half. It was even worse on defense. Simply put, I found it almost impossible to stop anyone. The opposition would simply dribble around my players with godly speed and accuracy, launch accurate long balls and crosses all game, and left Rio and Vida looking like League 2 chumps. My defense made Peter Crouch look like a multiple time Ballon d’Or winner. In the end, Pompey won 3-0, with two goals courtesy of Crouch, and one via Gaz’s noggin -- yes a dreaded own goal.
Obviously, I thought I was pretty awful, but maybe it was just one game; it just had to be, because there’s no way I was this terrible. Unfortunately, the same things repeated themselves against lowly Stoke City and I lost for a second straight game. At this point I was worried that maybe, just maybe, I had made an erroneous purchase. And when my ego allowed it, I even wondered whether I should concede defeat and drop down to Pro, or even worse, Semi-Pro. But after more struggles and more terrible defeats, I finally realized that it wasn’t the game that needed to change; I needed to change.
Change, Change, Change
Seven years of playing WE/PES, does take a toll. I confess that I learned to play the game of soccer according to WE/PES standards -- however unrealistic they may be. So after applying those strategies in FIFA 09, I quickly found out that those tactics did not really work, and the game will punish you for trying them.
You see, for years in WE/PES my main strategy involved bombing down the touchline with a speedy winger and crossing it into the box for a solid header or strike. Of course, this strategy wasn’t full proof by any means, but it was certainly reliable. This all changed in FIFA. The defenders quickly shut down (perhaps a little too effectively) any of my dribble attempts and dispossessed my strikers before they could even get beyond a first touch.
Frustrated by this, I realized that the manual control options really weren’t cutting it. So I switched everything to the assisted settings. The changes immediately made an impact and it made everything infinitely more enjoyable. Passes went where they should, I was able to actually craft some offensive attacks, and eventually I was able to score some goals.
But things didn’t really change on the defensive end of things, and I still currently struggle with this aspect of the game. I guess I just prefer the general responsiveness and reliability of the defense in WE/PES. Also interestingly enough, I found that the computer opposition in FIFA would attack me like I attack the computer in WE/PES. They would repeatedly bomb down the wings and launch in cross after cross hoping for a header. It became such a familiar tactic that I was frustrated by my inability to effectively counter it.
Despite all the difficulties I encountered, I was happy that I eventually learned how to play the game correctly. By employing a patient buildup during attack, everything sort of clicked, just like it had on WE/PES all those years ago. Now if I could only improve on my defense.
You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby
I knew I had it really bad a couple days ago. I sat down intending to only play a few games. Then, after a couple of hours went down the tubes, I realized that I had played about eight games. Quite simply, it’s addicting as hell. I mean, sure there are a few gameplay quirks that annoy me, but for the first time, the authentic stadiums, kits, rosters, and leagues actually make a difference. They matter because the underlying game beneath it all is spectacularly solid and the overall package in FIFA 09 is just so complete.
I am totally surprised by the progress and overall improvements that have been made to this series. With the tough A.I., realistic pace, and gorgeous graphics, I was actually having fun. Clearly, this wasn’t the FIFA I expected, and for the first time ever, I began to wonder if FIFA had really surpassed WE/PES.
On the other hand, I can’t ignore history and familiarity. I realize that the series has been widely criticized as more of the same year after year, but part of the reason why I love WE/PES (yes, even '08) is because it is so familiar. In fact, it’s the sameness that I love. I simply know what to expect; namely, excellent controls, great physics, and fantastic gameplay. It’s not like one of those series that produce an excellent game one year then pure crap the next. It’s like a secure blanket that I know I can turn to when other over-hyped games turn out to be a disappointment.
There has always been something inexplainably magical about playing WE/PES. It’s just plain fun, and I will never forget what it feels like to score a game in the game. It is simply a euphoric occasion that is unmatched in any other sports game.
Don’t get me wrong though, FIFA is definitely improved this year, and I seriously implore all sports fans and soccer fans (yes, even you PES fans) to try it out. But although I really, really like FIFA, I’m not sure that I love it. It’s just missing that WE/PES magic. So despite enjoying the new FIFA, I’ll still be picking up PES 09 when it drops. I know that may seem sad, but damn, I guess some old habits never really die at all...