FIFA Soccer 09 Review (PS3)
For the first time in years, EA Sports’ soccer simulation has hit stores with lofty expectations. Coming off a very successful '08 campaign, the chance to succeed yet again has been set up nicely by EA Sports.
The depth and variety of game modes is where FIFA 09 really shines. Returning is the tournament mode, where you can either control up to four clubs in a premier league, or if you want a challenge, play in the lower divisions and try to work your way up the tables. Creating your own tournament as well is still an option; unfortunately, you still can’t hand pick the teams you want in the tournament and that hurts the non-PES soccer gamers looking to create their own UEFA Champions League.
Nevertheless, the heart and soul of FIFA 09 for offline players is Manager mode. Putting on the managerial hat for your club, your duties range from on-field team tactics to financial expenses like arranging sponsorship deals, negotiating players’ contracts, and dealing with the transfer market. You don’t necessarily have to pull a Chelsea and spend the cash on the big names to have fun though; you could choose to go the Arsenal route and nurture your young talent or even send scouts out to different regions of the world in search of future stars à la Manchester United.
Also, fans who have been frustrated by how long negotiations take in the old FIFA games will be happy to read that the contracts, scouting and transfers work at a faster pace this year, allowing you to make some quick changes to your squad before the summer transfer window closes and throughout your career as a manager.
FIFA Soccer is here once more. Did it meet expectations?
Be A Pro: Seasons
Combining what EA Sports started in FIFA 08 and continued in the form of Captain Your Country mode in UEFA Euro 2008, FIFA 09 boasts the latest version of controlling one virtual footballer on a team in the Be A Pro: Seasons mode.
You can either create your pro or just choose a real player on any of the gazillion clubs in the game. Being the Manchester United fan that I am, I chose Nani as my pro, with hopes of improving the young Portuguese winger who in real life hasn’t quite lived up to expectations quite yet. Unfortunately, the same can be said for BAP Seasons as well. Despite having to work your way up on two teams (club and international) the experience on the pitch still feels half-baked. For starters, before you become the captain of your squad, you have no access to the team management menu; this means you could play some games being played in a position not suited for your pro. You also have to play not only against, but also with the sometimes erratic A.I. The rating system is yet again inadequate and assists aren’t recorded, a setback for Nani since his role on the team is to primarily set up goals. However, this mode enables you to see and play the game from a different point of view and is especially fun if playing as a forward.
Adidas Live Season
As for new features, we can’t talk about FIFA 09 without mentioning the Adidas Live Season. This feature, somewhat like NBA Live DNA, updates the ratings and form of players on a weekly basis in the game. This feature allows you to set up your team’s lineup with the players who are at their best -- so you would know not to select Ronaldo after he has gained a few extra pounds. While this might be worth it for the stat geeks or die-hard fans who want up-to-date player ratings, the feature is in some ways limited.
First off, it can only be utilized in online matches and exhibition quick games, and it is only available for six leagues; five European and one Mexican division. Adidas Live Season also comes at a price; you can choose to either buy leagues separately or purchase all six in a packaged deal. The fact that the service only lasts until May of next year isn’t all that thrilling either, but at least there is a trial code in every manual, so you can decide if it’s worth your hard-earned money.
FIFA is an improved game as far as the sound and graphics are concerned.
In the audio-visual department, FIFA 09 definitely has made strides in the last year. The top-notch soundtrack contains 40-plus songs from 21 different countries, while the commentary is, as Martin Tyler and Andy Gray would say, "spot on." Tyler and Gray have great chemistry once again as their exchange of words always seem to directly relate with what's happening on the pitch. There are a few odd moments though, like when they can tell the prognosis of an injury as soon as it happens, or when they react to a goal after the ensuing kickoff. Some may be tired of the duo, but I still believe they work great together in the game.
As for the player models, they are much better this year. The jerseys have more realistic wrinkles and the body frames are less stocky. From the wide-far angle that soccer game cameras utilize, the visuals in FIFA 09 are second to none, but a close up during cut-scenes or slowed down replays show facial animations that are somewhat lacking. Let's just say despite not being directly affiliated with either of the two soccer games this season, pretty boy Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t be too pleased with EA’s graphics crew. The graphics also drop off quite a bit when playing online, but that's one of the few negatives when it comes to online play.
Online leagues makes a debut in this year's FIFA, but the highlight for online gamers this year is BAP: Online Team Play. With up to 20 consoles around the globe being able to partake in one match of the beautiful game, it’s an idea great in concept. However, it’s not so practical once the game begins. Everyone tends to go out of position and do a little too much on their own. While decent with randoms some of the time, the mode is at its best when playing with friends or in an organized setting such as the new FIFA Clubs mode.
Being able to join a club or create one of your own depicts what "being a pro" is all about, and it therefore really takes soccer online gaming to new heights. As the captain of a club you can scout players via their stats and invite those that you think may be able to help you in your quest to be the best FIFA club online. Although it can’t yet be said how well this mode will be carried out in the long run, it definitely adds another aspect to this game and offers something more than the PES version of be a pro.
On the pitch, FIFA performs very well, although there are still some drawbacks.
On the Pitch
In comparison to the competition, FIFA’s clear-cut prowess in the game modes and features department isn’t new to most, but is this the year the same can finally be said on the turf?
The folks at EA Sports promised a gameplay experience with more than 250 improvements for FIFA 09. While I can’t quite testify how true that is, I can tell you that there are a few very noticeable additions on the playing field this year. Once dubbed a gentleman’s game played by the rough, FIFA 09 finally brings to life the physicality and ruggedness of soccer. Player collisions on and off the ball are very believable and realistic looking; gone are the days when a minute stature like Robinho would be able to jostle a Patrick Viera for position. With this enhancement, you can reap the benefits of having a physical specimen such as Wayne Rooney or Chelsea midfield maestro Michael Essien on your side to go up against those bullying defenders.
The heading animations are also very evident and perhaps the best ever to grace a footie game. Finally the players actually reach back when trying to put a head on a ball during those swerving crosses from the wing, showing off so much more than just neck action. This addition does a lot for toning down cheap header goals, something that has plagued the FIFA series for years -- mistime your header this year and your player will not be making any contact with the ball, let alone putting the ball in the back of the net.
New animations and other player interactions also look crisp and happen naturally during the game. When trying to get back defensively, you can visibly see your last man back signaling to his teammates what positions they should go to while he himself is trying to cover up some ground. Players’ emotions also add an authentic feel to the game -- many times you can spot Paul Scholes' or any other United player's frustration after Nani’s poor decision-making in the final third, or Adebayor clapping his hands above his head as a sign of appreciation for a Cesc Fabregas through ball that almost got him a goal.
The controls are almost identical to last year's, but as a PES gamer as well, one new addition that stands out to me is the insertion of the dummy. Now upon receiving a pass in a congested area on the pitch, you can hold R1 and watch as your player deceivingly runs off without the ball, taking his marker with him and leaving the ball for his teammate behind -- beautiful.
Custom tactics take team managerial aspects of the game to a whole new level.
Another addition this year is the new custom tactics that takes team management to a level never before seen in a FIFA game. Custom tactics allow you to not only edit formation and player roles, but also change the positioning of players, set what areas of the field a player should cover, and design how your team plays as a collective unit. More tactical squads like Chelsea and Bayern Munich have more organized buildup play, while Barcelona and Arsenal are much more free-flowing in how they approach their opponent’s goal line. All these settings can be modified to your liking and uploaded to your FIFA Locker for online play and sharing with others.
Despite these new additions however, FIFA 09’s gameplay is held back by some not so intelligent A.I. and a lack of attacking variety.
The A.I. on professional difficulty (the default setting) has zero to no offensive ambition. The A.I. plays you tight in its own half, making tackles and covering up open space, but once it crosses midfield, it noticeably stops running and making passes to the open man. On the two higher difficulty levels, the A.I., thankfully, doesn't only play on one side of the pitch, but those levels are plagued by goal-keeping errors and players at times running the ball out of bounds.
When it comes to the goalies, there are times when no amount of holding the charge button will get your keepers to the loose balls; they just stay on their goal line while you the player are left helpless, conceding a cheap goal. There’s also the "where’s the ball?" glitch in the game. Regardless of difficulty, game mode, or offline/online play there are weird times during the action when players running onto a loose ball stop and look around like the ball has disappeared. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens often enough to assume that EA Sports has a patch in the works for this gameplay issue. Other than that, the A.I. does shine in some areas. The CPU when in attacking position does take shots from long range, and on the harder difficulties all the big name clubs play just like their real-life counterparts.
My main beef with FIFA games in the past has been the defending. Although greatly improved, FIFA 09 sadly hasn’t quite squashed this beef. The closing down speed of defenders is a tad unrealistic and the tackles when made are still too effective. There’s hardly any wiggle room after a defender gets stuck in, and this doesn’t depict the freedom and flow of a real soccer game accurately enough.
Excellent ball physics can be seen almost everywhere on the field in FIFA 09, except in the final third of the pitch. It seems no matter how hard you hit a shot, there’s still some sort of ball-floating issue just before a shot gets to the goalie. It’s very frustrating to see Steven Gerrard strike the ball with a high amount of velocity and power only to have the keeper calmly place his hands under the ball and secure it. I don’t care if I shoot it straight at the keeper, not even Petr Cech can hold onto a hot potato like that. Because of this imparity, creating chances outside the box still aren't as rewarding or as exciting as they should be.
Yes, the ratio of goals outside the box when compared to tap-ins still aren’t favorable, but during my time playing the game, I hit the bar way more times than I scored from outside the box. The placement shots, done by holding down R1 when shooting, are well implemented but way too effective once you learn them. It reminds me of the old FIFA games in the late '90s when all shots had a wicked curl on them; thankfully though, it isn’t nearly as bad in FIFA 09.
Skills are one area where EA Sports can take a page out of the PES book. The moves are increased in number and are still visually appealing, but they are still not as essential to the gameplay as a fan of the beautiful game would like. Skills should be more player-specific and position-based to give the gamer a genuine feel when playing with his or her favorite players -- rather than just doing moves with controls that feel like they are from the beat 'em up genre.
Ending on a good note, passing the ball in FIFA 09 is more intuitive than in any of its predecessors. Not only are through balls more fine-tuned, but there are also lovely little flick-ons and backheels that occur every now and then that mesh beautifully during the flow of the game.
Despite its nagging drawbacks, FIFA 09 is the best overall soccer package on video game shelves, and it is clearly EA Sports’ most simulation-based soccer title ever. It’s a must have for the FIFA faithful and would surely make PES fanboys take a long hard look. The better of the two games is your choice to make, so at the end of the day the true winners here are soccer gamers.
On The Pitch: FIFA 09 still plays a great game of football at every position on the field, although it can seem a bit repetitive at times and has some A.I. issues.
Graphics: Facial models could be better, but everything else is world class. The stadiums are perfectly designed, and player frames look more human that last year.
Sound: Soundtrack plays at a lower volume than most sports games, but it’s still a joy to listen to. In my opinion, the great commentary is unrivaled by any other sports title.
Entertainment Value: The Arena can even keep non-gamers busy for a little while as they try out skill moves. Online Be A Pro and FIFA Clubs are sure to keep soccer fans busy over the next nine months, while creating and sharing custom tactics provide some off-the-pitch fun.
Learning Curve: As steep as last year for new FIFA gamers (one week), but FIFA 08 players shouldn’t miss a beat. PES players looking to switch would need some time while getting accustomed to the more methodical FIFA engine.
Online: BAP Online is bigger than what any other sports game has to offer in terms of team play, although you need to be wary of whom you take the pitch with. FIFA Clubs is to BAP what online leagues are to ranked matches. Some games might lag a bit, but servers are for the most part very stable.
Overall Score: 8.0 (Excellent)