It’s difficult to put into words just how excited I was for FIFA 09; the stream of ‘Advance Skills’ videos and the painfully teasing 4 minute PSN and XBLA demos had me frothing at the mouth in anticipation. So after hours upon hours of play how does the game stack up against its ailing rival Winning Eleven/Pro Evolution Soccer? Read on to find out.
Since both FIFA 08 and Euro 2008 sported very impressive visuals FIFA 09 doesn’t re-invent the wheel but rather adds a great deal of refinement and polish to the existing graphical engine. The moment you start up the game and are sent to the arena you’ll notice the improved lighting effects and as a match loads the arena morphs into the match-day pitch. Another neat touch is the fact that over time you’ll see that there are actually several different ‘arenas’ ranging from a pitch in a tropical paradise, to a field behind some suburban houses, to a Tokyo rooftop! They’re not massive changes but they do show, right from the off, that EA Sports aren’t resting on their laurels when it comes to FIFA’s visual presentation.
If you`ve seen any of the Youtube `FIFA 09 Advanced Skills` videos you`ll have seen a dazzling array of new dribbling animations that range from the sublime to the absolutely ridiculous. While the effectiveness of all these moves is questionable, the animations are incredibly life-like and the transitions between them are silky smooth.
Besides the special/trick moves there are also a whole host of new animations for player interactions, shooting, and also some great tackling animations. The latter are my favourite with a variety of different slide tackles, fouls and barges off the ball all captured brilliantly. It’s also nice to see the referees and linesmen (who finally make an appearance on the field) animated appropriately.
As you’d expect from this series the kits are superb and complete with appropriate sponsors. I also really appreciate the fact that 3rd kits are available right from the off and don’t have to be ‘purchased’ from the in-game store like they were last year. There are also a whole host of different licensed footballs and football boots available to kit players out with.
Player models appear a little less stocky than previous games and player likenesses have been further improved. That said I still think there are too many zombie-like faces and, as to be expected for a game with so many teams, it’s really only the players in the top tier leagues that have accurate likenesses.
By my count FIFA 09 features a whopping forty-eight different stadiums and while not all of those are licensed they’re brilliantly depicted with lots of detail in the stands and some top-notch pitch textures. Also impressive are the lighting and weather effects that simply blow away anything the Pro Evo/Winning Eleven series has to offer.
The TV-style presentation in FIFA 09 is very good and I like the fact that EA Sports has copied Pro Evo/Winning Eleven and started to use different score overlays for different leagues. Unfortunately, the same lame substitution sequences from previous games are used and I’m not sure I’m a fan of the naff custom celebrations – at least not in single or 1vs1 play. I feel that celebrations are part of an individual real-life player’s personality/play and it’s a bit silly to play online against Man U and see Berbatov doing cartwheels and backflips! There also aren’t any celebrations that involve the bench like you see in PES 2008. That said, one nice touch in online team play is that when someone on your team scores everyone continues to independently control their own player during celebrations which can lead to some hilarious moments.
FIFA 09 continues the series’ tradition of brilliant soundtracks and also retains the option to stream sports/football-related podcasts as well as EA Sports’ own show. Crowd sounds are very good with a few different chants for the big teams but this is one area I’d like to see expanded further in future games with more involvement of home vs. away fans.
Martin Tyler and Andy Gray return in the broadcast booth and they’re mediocre to be honest. Sure they have the fancy accents and it’s the same guys you hear when you watch the EPL on TV, but when you actually stop to listen to what they’re saying you’ll find that half the time it doesn’t match what’s going on during the game. All sense of authenticity goes out the window when you beat 4 players, fire off a 30 yard rocket that just skims off the post and then have to hear Andy Gray talk about how you should be ‘doing better’. Likewise, I find it incredibly amusing that Gray, who in reality has nothing but scorn for referees and questions their decisions as a routine, supports pretty much every in-game decision the virtual referee makes!
The major off-line modes of play in FIFA 09 are Exhibition, Tournament (pre-existing or create custom ones), Lounge (single-console multiplayer with stats tracking and handicaps), Manager Mode and Be A Pro: Seasons. There are also a plethora of Online modes that I will discuss later.
The excellent Manager Mode makes a return though not with nearly as many tweaks/additions as I’d like it to have. You’re still forced to spend a good chunk of your budget on upgrading your team’s Fitness Coach (otherwise your players are all gassed by half-time) and while this isn`t much of a hassle if you`re managing Man City or Chelsea, when you`re a team with more limited funds it can be a bit of a pain. Gripes aside this still remains an excellent mode and it`s worth noting that play-offs have been implemented for the lower leagues and CPU managers no-longer have the silly habit of making 3 subs in the 89th minute!
The Scenario or Challenge mode present in previous games is absent but in its place is the `Be A Pro Seasons` mode which expands upon the Captain-Your-Country mode in EURO 2008 and has you controlling a single player for a 4-year time period wherein you try to become a top-ranked player for both your club and your country. You create your player, assign some base stats and sign for a team where you work your way up from the reserve squad to the first team.
While this isn`t a novel idea at all (it`s something that`s been done many times before in Player Manager, Libero Grande, New Star Soccer and also in the recent J-League Winning Eleven games) it`s nice to see the idea implemented in FIFA. Unfortunately, I have some serious reservations with its format in FIFA 09.
Firstly, the artificial 4 year limit on your player’s career means that player development and progression is far too rapid. For example, I started off for Wycombe in Coca Cola Division 2 and by the end of my first season I not only did I have several attributes in the 90s I was also a full England international! So on Saturday I was playing alongside Scott McGleish for Wycombe against Acrington Stanley and on Wednesday I was playing upfront with Wayne Rooney for England against Colombia! There also don’t seem to be any club cup competitions either so you’re only ever playing league games! Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be a mid-season transfer window so even though I had 56 goals for Wycombe and was an England international no one bothered to come in for me in January! Even at the end of the season the offers I had were just bizarre – Fiorentina offered me a contract and a guaranteed spot in the starting line-up while lowly Rennes offered me a part as a squad player. Huh?
The CPU manager never subs you off even if you’re playing absolutely awful and you never have to start a match on the bench. I also hate the fact that you can’t even see tactical options like formations until you’re captain of the team. Sure I get the idea that you shouldn’t have input in those things until you’re a big deal but at least let me know where the hell I’m supposed to be playing and what role!
Another problem with this mode is that the actual player rating system still has many of the flaws that were present in EURO 2008. As such, you can get 3 goals and 2 assists in a single game and yet if you stray out of position routinely, lose a few headers and make some errant passes you can end that same match with a rating of 7 out of 10 while the left back who had zero impact on the match (but did complete 3 out of 3 passes and stayed in position) gets an 8.5 out of 10!!! I usually wouldn’t care about the overall match rating except it’s that rating which determines international call-ups and transfer offers (as illogical as they may seem)!
Fortunately, online modes are rock solid with Versus, Online Leagues, Online Interactive Leagues, Be A Pro Team Play and the newest addition, FIFA 09 Clubs. Like the excellent ‘EA Sports Hockey League’ in NHL 09, FIFA 09 Clubs allows you to join up with your mates and create a virtual team that plays together online against other similar teams with stats being tracked. Furthermore, the game now supports up to 10 vs. 10 play with every player on your team controlling a single virtual player which is an incredible experience.
The only downside is that, unlike NHL 09, your FIFA 09 Club doesn’t consist of custom created players but instead uses real-life teams but with every player normalized to a rating of 85. This takes away the MMO-like growth of your virtual player that was present in NHL 09.
Gameplay in the online modes is generally silky smooth with relatively fewer connection problems in the Club matches than I expected and when you do connect there’s very little lag even when there are 10+ players in the room. Compare this to PES 2008 that couldn’t even get 1vs1 right!
Outside of the actual game modes, FIFA 09 features licensed teams from the following nations;
- Czech Republic
- England (4 divisions)
- France (2 divisions)
- Germany (2 divisions)
- Italy (2 divisions)
- Korea (K-League)
- Spain (2 divisions)
- USA (MLS)
There are also a bunch of ‘Rest of World’ licensed teams (Boca, River, a few Greek teams and so on) as well as 42 International teams. All of the rosters are up-to date and with the Adidas Live-Season feature you can get routine updates of player ratings that reflect how players are doing in real-life – so if a player’s on a hot streak in the real world his stats will be raised in the game. Unfortunately, you only get this feature for free with one league of your choosing. For further leagues you need to pay out of pocket but you’ll still get the routine January transfer deadline updates regardless.
As in FIFA 08, you can save your favourite replays and upload them to EA Sports` SportsWorld website but you`re limited to only a few replays online and the game doesn’t actually save replays to your console`s hard drive for access later which is a bummer.
In-game options have been beefed up with Custom Tactics receiving the biggest overhaul. Tactics are divided into three primary areas – Build Up, Chance Creation and Defence. Each of these three areas has individual components and each of these components has sliders and toggles to further modify them!!! The end result is that you can create some very individualized tactics for specific teams, line-ups and situations. For example, in the ‘Build Up` area alone you can specify your team`s Speed (the pace at which attacks are put together), Passing (from short passing, mixed, or long with a 0-100 slider), and Positioning (organized or free form – the latter with much more overlapping and players drawn out of position). To be fair over the three primary areas there is quite a degree of overlap and a number of these sliders don`t have that much of an effect if you`re controlling the entire team but this flexibility does allow for some variation in how CPU teams play.
On-the-fly offensive and defensive bias is again handled with the D-Pad and you can select from 4 in-game tactics by first pushing down on the D-pad and then using one of the 4 cardinal D-Pad directions. Outside of tactics you can adjust short passing, long passing, through-balls and shooting to various levels of CPU assistance and you can also customize your controls.
Finally, the FIFA 09 retains FIFA 08’s marvellous stats tracking system for both the online and offline components and you can see not only how many games you’ve played but also goals scored, breakdowns of when you’ve scored them and many other facts. It’s a stattos dream!
While the Pro Evo/Winning Eleven series has stayed largely stagnant in its last few iterations, the FIFA games have become progressively better, each one building upon the gains in the previous. In many ways, the most recent FIFA games have been far more worthy of the Evolution moniker than Konami’s efforts. FIFA 09 continues the trend and builds upon the many positive improvements found in EURO 2008. The result is a game that’s not only the best FIFA game ever, but the first FIFA game that’s a true contender to Pro Evo/Winning Eleven’s claim on the best soccer gameplay. FIFA 09’s gameplay changes can be divided into the following areas; responsiveness, physics/mechanics, and AI.
Ever since EA Sports started move away from rigidly scripted ball physics (roughly around FIFA 07) the series has had problems with response times in gameplay. One of FIFA 08’s biggest annoyances was this lag between inputting movements and seeing the result on-screen. Combine this with the overdone momentum and there were occasions where it seemed as if you could hit left on the analog stick, put the controller down, go out for a cigarette, come back, have a snack, and sit down just in time to see your player move left (by which time the ball was long gone). This was greatly improved in EURO 2008 and in FIFA 09 it’s arguably perfect. I say arguably because it’s still not as instantly responsive as the controls in PES 2008, however, the more I play FIFA 09 the more I seem to feel that the response in PES 2008 is almost too good with players able to stop on a dime. FIFA 09 seems to balance good response times but also maintain a realistic (and not overdone) sense of momentum.
The primary result of this improvement is the ability to play, if you so desire, beautiful one touch football with the ball being stroked around the field majestically from intricate short passes to spraying the ball 40 yards across the field. You no longer have to take into account the buffering time for your commands and those hairy moments where you were afraid to make passes in your own end for fear of non-responsiveness (and coughing the ball up) are few and far between.
Likewise, player movement is much better and you can turn inside defenders without feeling like you’re gliding or that you have to commit to the move 20 minutes before you actually make it. The whole game just has a much more fluid, organic feel to it and you really notice the difference when you go back to FIFA 08. Most importantly, however, I’ve yet to see a striker chest-control a cross while you’re hammering away at the shoot button! This was a common occurrence/annoyance in FIFA 08 but it’s been banished here.
Ball physics are another area that’s received some fine tuning with crosses being far less floaty than before and even more subtle deflections off players. The way the ball bounces around the field and in the midst of goal-mouth melees is very impressive. I’m also glad EA Sports decided to ditch the overdone mud/wet ball physics present in EURO 2008 that had the ball almost literally getting stuck in the mud! Shots from distance have also been tweaked and while not as common as they were in FIFA 08 they’re still very much possible. It’s also impressive that you can drill the ball low and hard from outside the 18 yard box.
The third major area of improvement in FIFA 09 comes in the AI department. One of the off-line game killers in FIFA 08 for me was the fact that every single CPU midfielder was a Claude Makalele clone and could cut out passes far too easily – this was regardless of whether or not they played for AC Milan or Barnet! This has definitely been rectified in FIFA 09 with more realistic AI for different players and also a notable difference in the way different teams approach games - continental teams actively employ shorter passing and more intricate moves while lower league teams from the UK tend to just hoof it up the field. As you can imagine, this adds a great deal of replay value to the single player game. Likewise, the individual player AI has also been improved with better off-the ball runs and overlapping movement.
Of course, it’s not all roses with FIFA 09 and the game speed is something that has been a contentious issue amongst soccer gaming fans. FIFA 09 plays at a notably faster pace than both EURO 2008 and FIFA 08. It’s still not at the level of pinball insanity that PES 2008 runs at but it’s faster than a true ‘sim’. Personally, I thought the pace of FIFA 08 was spot on and for that reason I think FIFA 09 is a tad bit fast. That said, unless you’re frequently switching back and forth between games you’ll stop noticing after a dozen or so matches and nowhere near fast enough to ruin the gameplay experience.
Set pieces, while improved from even EURO 2008 (you can bring a second player into the mix), are still a bit of a shambles and the level of curve you can put on the ball borders on ridiculous. Actually, to be more specific the amount of topspin you can put on the ball from free kicks is crazy – even mediocre players can make the ball drop like a stone! Throw-ins are insanely annoying and in a 1vs1 multiplayer game I would rather concede a corner than win a throw-in in my own end – your players never move to get open and you end up throwing the ball to your opponent whether you like it or not.
Finally, the gameplay in the offline Be A Pro: Seasons mode, while a lot of fun, just isn’t nearly as good as the equivalent Fantasista mode in the J-League Winning Eleven games. In the J-League games you can notice more of a difference in the AI of individual players – for example, on particular striking partner might take up noticeably better positions while another may be more likely to shoot than pass. In FIFA 09 you can play upfront with Wayne Rooney or Scott McGleish and both will act the same way – the main difference is that Rooney will run faster and shoot harder. Likewise, since the CPU passes to you on command almost 99% of the time you`re always at the centre of the action and you never get a sense of who`s a selfish or selfless teammate. In the J-League games you can have matches where you spend more than half of match on the periphery of play, hardly touching the ball...and then getting subbed off for being so ineffective. Sure it may not sound very glamorous but it’s far more engaging and realistic and you actually feel like part of a team, rather than the obvious superstar in a group of rejects.
Of course, this whole point is moot if you play the game online and take advantage of FIFA 09’s biggest strength – online team play! Even if you don’t have a team full of 9 other individuals, playing with just a few human teammates against group of human opponents is an experience far superior to any AI system.
Overall, as I mentioned before, this is the first FIFA game that evolves the series’ gameplay to a level of both depth and fun-factor practically on-par with the best of the Winning Eleven series. If forced to choose I still prefer the most recent J-League Winning Eleven game in single player due to its slower pacing and more readily apparent differences in individual player abilities. That said, the differences are minor and no hardcore football fan would go wrong with just sticking to FIFA 09.
Replay Value 95/100
The samey nature of CPU-controlled teams killed much of the single-player replay value in FIFA 08, with this rectified FIFA 09 provides tons of replay value in single player through the excellent Manager Mode. However, once you throw in the online modes the replay value goes through the roof, not only with 1vs1 matches but also with the phenomenal online team player. You’ll be playing this game for a long while.
Best FIFA game ever? Undoubtedly.
Better than Pro Evo/Winning Eleven? For the first time ever can’t answer that question with a simple ‘no’ – it’s a little more complicated. As mentioned before, I still prefer the single player in the most recent J-League games but if imports aren`t an option for you then FIFA 09 is indeed better than much PES 2008! Even if you do have access to import titles I`d still suggest picking up FIFA 09 because the gameplay has evolved to the point at which you can really appreciate the depth of the game`s immense feature-set. In the multiplayer arena there`s no contest and FIFA 09 absolutely wipes the floor with the competition. This is a must buy for soccer fans both casual and hardcore.