Almost a year to the day since the release of FIFA 06, EA Sports has released that game's inevitable sequel, FIFA 07 for the PC, the PlayStation 2, and the Xbox. Last year's game could only be described as the best FIFA game to date; so the question, of course, is whether or not EA Canada has improved upon that game in any meaningful way. Not all of the changes that have been implemented since last year's game have been for the better, but there are more than enough improvements here to make FIFA 07 worth a look.
On the pitch, for example, you'll find that FIFA 07 plays a quite different game of soccer to its predecessor, though initially it can be difficult to figure out exactly what has changed. One of the few obvious changes to this year's game is that players accelerate and decelerate more realistically, which means that they can't turn nearly as quickly when they're moving at speed. This results in your needing to pass the ball more, and depending on your play style, you might find that your trick (right analog) stick gets a lot more use than it did last year when you're attempting to beat opposing players in one-on-one situations. Both passing and using trick moves are a little more challenging in FIFA 07 than they were in 06, and because that's true for both teams (and because tackling when you're on defense is still relatively easy), the result is often that ball possession changes more frequently.
Trick moves have become more challenging not because they have a lower success rate, but simply because the controls for them are a little less forgiving. The section on trick moves in the FIFA 07 instruction manual bears more than a passing resemblance to a special-moves list for a fighting game, and the tricks available to you vary according to whether your player is running or standing still at the time. Passing the ball hasn't become more difficult per se; you just can't take it for granted as much because the accuracy of your passes is now dependant on the positioning of your player in relation to both the ball and his intended target. A pass to a player directly in front of you when you have the ball at your feet, for example, is more likely to succeed than a pass to a teammate who is barely in your players' field of vision, particularly if you're trying to make that pass on your first touch after receiving the ball at waist height. Lengthy strings of one-touch passes, then, are more difficult in FIFA 07 than in previous games, which adds a nice risk-versus-reward mechanic any time you attempt one rather than take a moment to get the ball under control.
Shots at goal are also greatly affected by the positioning and balance of your player, as well as by how well he has the ball under control. If you try to play the game just like FIFA 06, you'll watch a lot of your shots fly wide of the goal and into the crowd. This can be frustrating at times, but the flipside is that spectacular, almost unbelievable goals in the game are now the exception rather than the norm, which is certainly a good thing. That's not to say that scoring goals in FIFA 07 is difficult, though, because it isn't. Defenders generally back off attacking players a little too much, and the goalkeepers, although good at stopping shots for the most part, are a little too prone to spilling the ball when they do. Worthy of note is the new "finesse shot" feature that, using a modifier button that needs to be held down when taking a shot, lets you unleash shots that are more accurate but less powerful. It's not a feature that we've felt inclined to use a great deal, but if you've already beaten the defense and rounded the keeper it's a great way to avoid embarrassing open-goal misses.
Another way that you can avoid potentially embarrassing mistakes, though in a much more subtle way, is to keep your team's momentum up. Your momentum, as indicated by a performance meter in the top-left corner of the screen, is an indication of how well your players think the game is going, as determined not only by the current score but also by recent events on the pitch. It's entirely possible, then, for your team to be a couple of goals down but your players will still be playing their very best football or, by the same token, to be winning a game but struggling to contain their opponents. It's difficult to quantify just how much of an effect momentum has on your players' behavior, but it's definitely noticeable, and we've enjoyed numerous matches in which the run of play has shifted between the two teams several times.
Matches like those, along with one-sided goalfests, are perhaps the ones that best show off one of FIFA 07's most improved features--in-game sound. The commentary from ITV's Clive Tyldesley and Sky Sports' Andy Gray isn't nearly as repetitive as it has been in previous years, and it's both accurate and well delivered to boot. Complementing the commentary team's efforts perfectly is the noise from the crowd, which changes dramatically according to what's happening on the field and which of the teams is playing at home. Many of the teams in FIFA 07 have specific crowd chants (it's generally just the name of the team being shouted over and over again, but it's still neat), and these will give way to thunderous applause and cheering or venomous boos and whistles as the action dictates. One especially nice touch is that if a home team is winning comfortably and passing the ball around without their opponents getting a touch, the home crowd will start to cheer every completed pass individually--mocking the away side in exactly the same way you'd expect them to in real life. Furthermore, when the crowd is quiet, you'll occasionally hear the players calling to each other, though it's far easier to make out what they're saying if you're on the practice ground with no crowd at all.
As was the case in FIFA 06, the players on your team other than the one that you're controlling are adept at making off-the-ball runs and such. You'll often need to trigger offensive runs manually, but this is achieved via only a single button press, and the subsequent pass or through ball invariably feels more satisfying as a result. CPU-controlled players are less proactive on defense than they are on offense, unfortunately, which is especially noticeable when they continue to back away from attackers well into the penalty area. You shouldn't be relying too much on any defender that you're not controlling yourself anyway, and the good news is that when you switch players on defense, you'll usually be given a defender with a chance of intervening rather than one who's chasing back from a forward position, even if the latter is closer.
If the defender in question happens to intervene with a sliding tackle, you'll probably notice that the ball physics in FIFA 07 are even better than those in FIFA 06. Perhaps for the first time in a FIFA game, the ball feels like it's an object reacting to external forces rather than one with physics that are fudged for certain player animations. The ball physics are best demonstrated by shots on goal that do something out of the ordinary when they strike one of the posts or the crossbar. One of our most memorable goals, in fact, was a free kick from Bolton Wanderers' Kevin Nolan that hit the underside of the crossbar really hard and bounced straight down at an angle that resulted in the ball barely crossing the line. This kind of goal doesn't happen in real life often, but it does happen, and it's great that it can now also be said of FIFA games.
The aforementioned goal was a particularly satisfying one because it was scored during an interactive league match, interactive leagues being a major new feature of this year's game. Interactive leagues are league tables that are generated using results from players who have pitted their teams against each other online according to the same match schedule used in real life. Four real-life leagues are supported, including England's F.A. Premier League, France's Ligue 1 Orange, Mexico's 1st Division, and the German Bundesliga. It's really little more than a new way to get matched up with opponents online and for results to be tracked, but because you're contributing to your favorite team's league position every time you play, it definitely adds to the experience. Predictably, fashionable teams like Chelsea and Manchester United have far more online players than many other clubs, so if you choose to commit to one of those, it might be more difficult for you to find opponents. If you're unable to find an opponent in a timely fashion, you have the option to participate in a fixture involving one of your rival teams instead--taking control of the opposition in the hope that you can indirectly benefit your team by beating its rivals in another match. You can also just choose to find a regular online game in a lobby.
We found that the Xbox version of FIFA 07 afforded us the best online experience, not only because it was the one with which we experienced the fewest disconnects and the least lag, but also because playing it didn't require us to sign up with EA Nation and go through the usual ritual of agreeing to let a soccer-related Web site send us spam (for the record, we've never knowingly received any) in return for waiving a small subscription fee. The PC game was also lag-free for the most part, but the EA Nation lobby system is somewhat unwieldy when compared to that used in the console games. The PS2 version of FIFA 07 uses the same online menus and lobby system as the Xbox game, but we experienced lag to some degree in every match that we played, and on more than one occasion we were abruptly disconnected and subsequently very disappointed to see a statistic next to our name to suggest that we were quitting out of games intentionally--which no doubt deterred some potential opponents from playing against us.
While we're on the subject of differences between the three versions of FIFA 07, there really aren't too many that are worthy of note. The PS2 game suffers from noticeable slowdown on occasion (especially when playing in widescreen), which the other two rarely do. A unique feature of the PS2 game's manager mode is that it boasts connectivity with the PlayStation Portable version. The handheld game's manager mode boasts all of the features found in the PS2 game, and transferring the data between the two consoles takes only a few seconds. The PS2 game does support progressive scan, but doesn’t look nearly as good as the Xbox version in 720p if you’re in a position to take advantage of it. The PC game's controls are the most customizable but don't let you re-create those of Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer (Winning Eleven outside of Europe) series perfectly, while the Xbox game uses its controller's badly positioned black and white buttons to perform some important functions, like chip shots. Where those of you playing FIFA 07 on a PC are really going to miss out is the lack of a FIFA Lounge mode, which remains one of the most enjoyable ways to play the game if you're in a room with up to seven of your friends, although some questionable changes have been made to the feature this year.
In case you're not familiar with the FIFA Lounge mode, the idea is that a group of you can play each other across multiple gaming sessions and have the game keep track of your results in a league table. Furthermore, you'll collect power-ups (or opponent power-downs) known as "cheap shots" as you play that can be used to level the playing field in your favor before a subsequent match. In FIFA 06, these cards were allocated in such a way that losing players generally had more cheap shots available to them. In FIFA 07, however, the opposite is true, since winning players are almost always rewarded with better cheap shots.
It's still possible to level the playing field to some extent before FIFA Lounge matches, but doing so is now achieved by awarding goals to a team before any cheap shots are activated. It's neat that when awarding goals to a team in this way, you can actually see a visual representation of how much it's likely to improve your chances of winning based on previous performances, but the system feels like a step in the wrong direction after last year's game. Winning a match against a superior player because you were able to bench his star forward or give all of his players a level of fatigue before kickoff is still rewarding, but beating that same player with a two-goal head start is a hollow victory at best.
When you're not playing online or against your friends in the FIFA Lounge, you'll likely be putting your management skills to the test in FIFA 07's manager mode. The manager mode lets you assume control of any team in the game (or even one of your own creation) and then tasks you with leading them to glory while making decisions that can affect your club both on and off the field. After accepting a job at a team, your first duty will be to select a sponsor for the season. These sponsors won't replace the real ones on your uniforms when you play, but they're an important source of income, and you'll find that the sponsors offering you the most money are invariably the ones that will be the most difficult to please.
Next up will be an e-mail from your club's board of directors detailing their expectations for the season. Predictably, clubs that are currently enjoying a lot of success in real life expect it to continue, so choosing to manage a top-flight team can be more challenging than opting for one that's accustomed to midtable obscurity or relegation battles. The expectations are a little more varied in FIFA 07 than they were in FIFA 06, so in addition to achieving certain league and cup positions, you might find yourself tasked with improving club finances, reducing player salary bills, or extending the contracts of certain players. The board will also let you know which players are the fans' favorites, hoping that you'll find room for them in your starting 11 as a result.
As in last year's game, your three main considerations in manager mode are keeping the fans happy, maintaining job security by keeping the board happy, and having good team chemistry. One of the new features for this year's manager mode is the player growth system, which lets you pluck upcoming players from your youth squad and then, by playing them alongside the first team, encouraging them to develop. Every player in your squad will gain experience points at the end of a match based on his performance, and you'll notice that the number of points awarded to young players is generally much higher than the number given to experienced pros. The flipside is that to nurture a star for the future, you have to spend multiple seasons fielding a player who isn't really good enough to be playing alongside the rest of your team.
The other significant new feature in manager mode is the "visual sim" option for matches. If for some reason you don't want to play a match yourself (we're not sure why that would ever be the case, frankly), the visual sim option lets you watch play-by-play commentary of the match and intervene with tactical decisions or by jumping in and assuming control at any time. The text-based commentary and match statistics that you have access to while in visual sim mode are adequate rather than impressive, and we can't help but wonder why there's no option to watch the game being played out using the regular, great-looking match engine. Fact is, the management portion of FIFA 07 works well in between matches, but it's not nearly deep enough to play purely as a management sim, which makes the option to "quick sim" games and get a result instantly even more redundant than the aforementioned one.
Regardless of the fact that the management in FIFA 07 isn't particularly deep (though it can be very engaging), to play the game without actually playing the matches yourself would be to miss out on some of the best soccer visuals that we've seen in a game to date. The players in FIFA 07 are instantly recognizable for the most part, but it's their animation that really stands out as a huge improvement over last year's game. In FIFA 06, the player animation was difficult to fault, but in FIFA 07, it's nigh on impossible--you'll see players controlling the ball with different parts of their bodies, you'll see them losing their balance and falling over occasionally, and you'll certainly notice them bumping into rather than clipping through each other when areas of the field get busy.
FIFA 07, then, is a game that undoubtedly improves upon FIFA 06 in a number of ways, though it also has a few quirks of its own. This is an easy game to recommend if you have any interest in soccer, especially since you can keep up to date with the latest soccer news and results via a ticker tape along the bottom of the screen anytime you're online, but it's not a giant leap forward for the FIFA series in the same way that other recent iterations have been. FIFA 07 is a must-have if you missed out on FIFA 06, and it's definitely worth a look if you own last year's game and are ready for a change.