FIFA Soccer 08 Hands-On

EA Sports' latest entry into the best-selling football series is almost here. We were lucky enough to have a kick-about with the PS2 version.

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As anyone with even a passing interest in the UK games charts will tell you, the game-buying public's permanent favourite is the FIFA series. Released annually alongside Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer, the two football games are the behemoths of the British gaming world. With EA Sports snapping at the heels of its Japanese rivals, will 2008 be the year that the company matches its sales record with a critical acclamation? We attended a hands-on demonstration to find out.

Each year, EA Sports devises a target--a mission statement if you will--that is designed to drive it toward making the best game that it can. Under the slogan of "total football--played together," the development team has made quite a few key changes to the design of the game for FIFA 08. The biggest new addition in terms of features is the co-operative season mode, where up to four people can play alongside each other as part of their favourite team. Each player can choose to take over existing players or create one from scratch. If players choose the latter, they can customise them with the level of detail that we've come to expect in the sport genre. As in a role-playing game, they can also upgrade attributes, such as passing and crossing as they play through the season, with additional points available for meeting individual criteria in each game. For example, there may be bonus points available for attackers if they score the first goal, while midfielders may have to make 10 successful passes to win a bonus.

Aside from the co-operative mode, there have been subtle changes made to the gameplay. Firstly, the developers claim to have worked on the defensive intelligence of the entire team so that all 10 outfield players will constantly evaluate their positions on the field. The result is that teams feel smarter than ever before. It's also more difficult to both score and concede goals. FIFA 08 looks to be a game that's focussed on attracting the hardcore football fan back to the series. EA Sports also claims that from its focus testing, real football fans are the ones who have enjoyed it the most. The PlayStation 2 version of FIFA 08 is being developed by a different team than the next-generation version, which it says allows it to try new ideas and take some risks. If the team alienates the casual players too much, then this could be a risk that sees the game's popularity diminish somewhat, but it's encouraging to hear that the team still has plenty of ideas for the FIFA series.

But if you are a hardcore football fan, you're certain to lap up some of the advanced moves that EA Sports has put into the game. You can switch between players with the L1 button as before, but in a defensive position, you can also now flick the right analogue stick toward other players to jump between them. Likewise, the keeper control has been changed to offer a risk/reward system that should benefit more experienced players. If you press the R3 button, you can choose to take control of your keeper as before, but now pressing the triangle allows you to dictate when he dives.

As you'd expect from the series, FIFA 08 features enough officially licensed material to keep a team of graphic artists, coders, and statisticians occupied for months. All 570-plus clubs will feature the correct squad, kit, and sponsor details. Now each team will even have a personalised formation that reflects its real-world playing style. Key players will also have their own characteristics, with Steven Gerrard's ability to take shots more accurately from distance and Ronaldinho's technical dribbling skills both immediately noticeable in the game. Adding to this level of depth is a new passing system that offers supposedly deeper control. The direction and power of passes, crosses, through balls, or shots are now all dictated by the direction of the joypad, as well as the duration of button presses. This means that you can guide and place balls with a higher degree of finesse. It's not as assisted as it has been in previous games, so novices might struggle, but it certainly offers more freedom.

However, the multiplayer game has not been neglected with this revamp of the single-player. There are many changes to the control system that have been designed to bring some of the mystery back into the local two-player game. For example, when you take a free kick on goal in FIFA 07, your opponent can always deduce the direction of the shot from the camera angle, which means that your opponent can adapt accordingly. In FIFA 08, you can actually lock the camera angle and use the joypad to move the direction of the shot blindly, with rumbles through the pad indicating when your shot is moving outside of the goal post. The same is true for headers because you can lock the target on one of the players (with your pad vibrating to indicate he's selected) then continue to select other players to swindle your opponent. It can be slightly clumsy at first, but we soon got the hang of it.

All of these subtle additions mean that you have a lot to think about as you play this year's FIFA. Sure, the trademark polish remains intact and it's as easy as ever to dribble the ball around, but the designers are set to offer the edge to those players who are willing to learn the extra moves. This isn't the last FIFA game that will be made for the PlayStation 2--expect the games to continue for another couple of years at least--but the team looks like it's on track to produce the definitive version for the platform so far.

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