The next update to the FIFA series arrives mere months after the World Cup edition, but the 2007 edition of EA's game looks to be shaping up nicely. It plays quite a different game to last year's iteration, with a more free-flowing and unpredictable style than we've previously seen. We've had a number of opportunities to try it out in the run-up to release, and you can read about the advancements made to the engine in our previous coverage. With the final PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable editions now in our hands, we thought we'd run through some of the other aspects of the game ahead of our full definitive review.
One of the more difficult elements to assess during our previous play tests was the management mode. This aspect of FIFA 07 offers a choice of 21 different preset avatars (including four women), who can represent you at any club in the game. It's typical from the exquisitely presented series that you'll first see in the game an officially licensed newspaper report on your signing, but the way that FIFA 07 reacts to the likelihood of your signing is nice. Go for an average club such as Blackburn Rovers as a new manager and the papers will shrug their shoulders, but head to a quality club and British newspaper The Sun will exclaim, 'Where did Arsenal find this guy?'
Dig beneath the surface, and FIFA 07 is no match for a dedicated simulation, but the management mode allows you more depth than simply playing through a normal tournament. All the basics such as training, transfers, and signings are covered, and you can choose to play any of your fixtures or watch them summarised in text form. The main considerations for FIFA 07 managers are quite simple--play your team's star player often to appease the fans and work on finding young stars to be nurtured into the first team. You only have one scout with which to search one country at a time, and while you're trying to find the next Wayne Rooney, you also need to focus on upgrading your backroom staff. There are other minor considerations, such as the ticket price for your grounds and the sponsorship of your kit, but aspects such as training are lightweight. You seem to have a better chance of winning games with a poor team if you play the matches yourself, so if you're going for the management experience, it's best to watch the text-based match reports. Also, you can transfer your 15-year career to a PlayStation Portable and play your game on the move.
Speaking of which, the PlayStation Portable conversion of the game stands up very well against the home console version. However, a few problems with this version are that the new trick system is fairly dependant on the right analog stick (more on that in a moment), a feature which is lacking on the PSP, and the online functionality has gone missing, as well. That said, on the PS2 the online options are comprehensive. The online interactive league lets you take your favourite team through real-life fixtures on a week-by-week basis against players from all over the world. Normal two-player friendly matches can also be set up online, and EA's 'Online Everywhere' technology has been integrated with ESPN to provide streaming fixtures, live scores, results, and even podcasts direct to the console. We'll be testing the online features in depth for the review, so keep an eye out for a full update soon.
Those with a network adaptor will also thankfully be able to update the team rosters with all the major transfers automatically. With the game released on Sony's console so close to the final transfer deadlines, there are a few discrepancies in this version of the game and the current real-life teams (the Xbox 360 version should be up-to-date when it launches in October). Ashley Cole made a high-profile move from Arsenal to Chelsea at the beginning of the season but still plays with his former North London teammates in FIFA 07. Likewise, Carrick is missing from the Manchester United squad, as are Kuyt and Pennant from Liverpool. In the meantime, a simple transfer system lets you send any player from one team in the game to another at the press of a button. You can also create up to 16 custom players and drop them in the game, so you can add any 17-year-old unknowns that happen to sign to your club during the season and even set up a virtual version of yourself to sit on the bench at your favourite club.
Our play on the full version of FIFA 07 also allowed us a much better look at the new trick system, which has been mapped onto the PlayStation 2's right analog stick. Those ambidextrous enough to use two sticks effectively will find these new tricks to be devastating, not to mention a boost to their ego. To EA's credit, most of the moves can be picked up with intuitive movements of the stick itself. If your player remains still with the ball and you tap down on the pad, the player will gently flick the ball away from the opposition. If you then move the stick in a circular leftward motion, you kick the ball around the other player and run after it. This adds an element of showmanship to the game, and the crowd will react to these taunts you inflict on your opponent.
The right stick isn't just used for lane changes and fancy 360 turns, either. Opponents seem much more eager to jostle for the ball, and while overly aggressive play will usually result in a foul, there are ways to get around them. If you press the analog stick right when making a run, that player will fling the ball farther in front of him in an effort to outrun the opposition. It only really works down the wing when there's no chance of someone intercepting the ball, but it can be devastating when combined with a crafty through ball.
Casual players may be worried by this emphasis on advanced play but rest assured FIFA is as easy to pick up as ever, especially at the lower difficulty levels. While it's too frantic to reflect a real-life playing style, it does promote football basics. Passes now have to be more accurate than before, with the passing player needing to face his receiver to make the most direct passes. If he isn't doing so, the ball will often go wayward or short of the receiver, meaning he has to run to collect it. Again though, advanced players will learn how to direct the ball by holding down the button for different periods of time. Hold the pass button for a couple of seconds and he'll pass to the man farthest away from him, while a quick tap will make a short pass.
Finally, the right analog stick can also be used as a new taunt mechanism for penalty shoot-outs. When you're controlling the goalkeeper, pressing up on the stick will make him put his arms out in that direction, mimicking the psych-out routine that keepers do in real life. You can also now place shots more effectively by holding L2 while shooting, and you can chip the keeper by holding L1. Free kicks have also been adjusted slightly so that you can now bring in a layoff man with R2 and then make him take the shot or pull off a fake.
Like 2006 FIFA World Cup, FIFA 2007 asks you to choose between digital and analog player control, with the other method used for in-game tactical switches. The game lets you initiate counterattacks, wing play, box overloads, or third-man releases quickly and effectively, and if you hold the L1 button down, these options change to pressing formation, an offside trap, zonal play, and a flat back formation.
On the pitch, FIFA 2007 is comprehensive, and it offers plenty of different ways to play a game of football. The tournament mode lets you create a new tournament from scratch or play through a preexisting league such as the English FA Cup. In the create-a-league mode, there are a number of different options to choose from, including a simple league or a knockout. You can choose to include 8, 16, 32, or 64 teams, and you can extend a knockout league even further by choosing to play through the group stages.
The player lounge mode is, as the name suggests, a more relaxed area in which you and your friends can chill out. Up to eight players can get involved, all choosing their favourite team, and then specific conditions for games can be set. The computer will rank your chances against other teams, and if you find yourself outclassing your opponents, you can give them a two-goal head start. From here, you can keep the games flowing with a number of different game types, such as winner stays on or best versus worse. You can also save these lounge sessions and come back to them at a later date.
This version of FIFA is quite heavily tied into a points reward system, as it lets you not only buy new moves to use on the pitch, but also unlock classic teams and even equipment such as branded footballs. Winning points is tied into accomplishing 102 challenges across nine categories, which you can see detailed and ticked off in a separate menu. The points are usually awarded for winning each of the game's major cups, but there are also endurance challenges such as 5-, 10-, and 20-game winning streaks and scoring 10, 50, or 100 goals. There are also master challenges to get through, which are incredibly difficult tests such as not conceding an offside against opponents of professional and world-class difficulty levels.
FIFA 07 is shaping up nicely, and if we haven't said it enough times already, it really feels like a new game to play. The online features add to an already weighty package, and there are plenty of unlockables and features that we've only just touched on here. Based on our preliminary play test, it looks like the Christmas football battle is far from decided. We won't be sleeping until FIFA has been played to death, so keep an eye out for our full review to find out whether it's worth buying.