If you're an Xbox-360-owning fan of the FIFA series, you've no doubt been hotly anticipating the arrival of FIFA 07. Not only because the Xbox 360 version shipped to stores almost a month after other versions, but also because FIFA 07 is purportedly the first soccer game that EA Sports has developed from the ground up for Microsoft's console. The good news is that FIFA 07 is undoubtedly the best Xbox 360 game in the series to date. The bad news is that, in some ways, it's still inferior to its PlayStation 2 and Xbox counterparts.
After loading FIFA 07 for the first time, you'll be prompted to select your favorite team from the 117 clubs and 37 international sides in the game. Then, if you wish, you can jump straight into a match against one of your chosen team's rivals or another player simply by clicking on the kick-off option. Other gameplay options--which we'll talk about in more detail shortly--include online play, manager mode, challenge mode, and the FIFA lounge. The lack of any customizable league or tournament options is a little disappointing, but the FIFA lounge mode is such a great way to play with friends that they'd likely be redundant anyway. Regardless of which mode you opt for, you'll find that FIFA 07 plays quite differently from recent games in the series, including those that bear the same title on other platforms. Unfortunately, not all of the new features and changes have been made for the better. There's certainly no question, however, that EA Canada's latest offering plays an enjoyable game of soccer.
As was the case in other versions of FIFA 07, one of the first things you'll notice when playing the Xbox 360 game is that the players move more convincingly than those in previous games. The excellent player animation can take some of the credit for that, but what really affects the gameplay is the fact that players now accelerate and decelerate realistically. When players are running with the ball at full speed, it's now much more difficult for them to turn sharply without losing possession. By the same token, defending players charging in for tackles will have a harder time tracking opponents who are doing anything other than simply running in a straight line. The upshot of the more realistic player movement is a greater emphasis on passing the ball. And combined with FIFA 07's very limited arsenal of skill moves, this certainly isn't a bad thing.
Retaining possession of the ball against skilled opposition can be quite challenging because making tackles in FIFA 07 isn't very difficult and the CPU-controlled players on your team don't always seem too concerned about making intelligent off-the-ball moves. It's very satisfying to manually trigger another player's surging forward run then pick him out with a perfectly-placed through pass. FIFA 07, however, walks a fine line between giving you plenty of opportunities to do that and just surrounding you with teammates who do very little unless you tell them what to do. However, the most frustrating thing about the guys on your team is the way that they refuse to move toward a ball that's been passed to them. Regardless of whether or not an opposing player is well placed for an interception, they prefer to stand there and wait for the ball to reach them. This problem isn't unique to FIFA 07 by any means. However, it's more noticeable here than in other versions of the game and certainly has the potential to cause frustration.
The shots that fly off into the crowd after you've worked really hard to create a chance on goal for your team is even more frustrating. In FIFA 07, you'll be seeing a lot of these horribly wayward shots. This is not because there's anything wrong with the game's shooting system but quite the opposite. When you take a shot, its accuracy and pace will be determined by the skills of the player you're using. This includes his balance, body-shape, and to what degree he has the ball under control at the time. Bicycle kicks on the end of crossed balls are the surprisingly frequent exception to this rule. For the most part, however, shots have a far greater success rate if your player has the ball under control and takes a moment to beat the goalkeeper with the position of his shot rather than the power of it. Chip shots that are performed by using the modifier button are an especially satisfying way to beat keepers who rush off their lines. The finesse shot modifier (which we've found to be far more useful in this game than in other versions of FIFA 07) also makes your attempts on goal more accurate but less powerful. Shots that are off target in FIFA 07, then, are frustrating in a good way because they're realistic. And no matter how much you curse about it when playing online, they're your fault. It's true that many of the most spectacular goals in FIFA 07 are scored without using either of the modifier buttons, but they're rarely the most satisfying ones.
One of the most enjoyable moments in any soccer game comes right after you score a goal. This is especially true when you're playing against a friend or a rival team. The commentators get excited, the crowd roars, and you get to relive the whole thing in slow motion while manually controlling the camera. However, this isn't always the case in FIFA 07. The commentary from ITV's Clive Tyldesley and Sky Sports' Andy Gray isn't always delivered in a timely fashion. Either the noise from the crowd cuts out or becomes occasionally muffled. And you only get one brief replay of each goal, which is often delivered from a somewhat awkward camera angle. The fact that these aspects of the game feel rushed or unfinished is made more disappointing by the fact that they were all handled so well in other versions of FIFA 07. The commentary on the Xbox 360 can become especially grating after a while. Although it's well delivered and contains some genuinely interesting tidbits of team-specific trivia, there are times when the play-by-play talk is accurate only slightly more often than a stopped clock.
Like most (if not all) sports games, FIFA 07 is best played against human opposition. The four difficulty levels that are available for matches against the CPU offer a decent challenge. The game's artificial intelligence, however, becomes quite predictable after you spend a lot of time with it and comes with a few odd quirks. We came across one of these quirks the first time we played a match against the CPU. With about five minutes of the match left, we were really impressed when our opponent decided to waste some time by making a late substitution. At the time, we were a goal down. The commentary team quite shrewdly pointed out what the other team was up to, presumably experiencing a moment of clarity. But we were less impressed when we realized that CPU-controlled teams always make substitutions within the last 10 minutes of a game, regardless of the score line or anything else. It's mildly irritating only because it's so predictable. It also doesn't help that the players coming onto the field have already managed to accumulate 80-minutes worth of mud on their uniforms while sitting on the bench.
Although you'll rarely need to use them, the same is true of your own substitutes. Players in FIFA 07 have indicators for both short-term and long-term fatigue. Although the former does a good job of letting you know how long a player can sprint for, you'll almost never have to concern yourself with the latter (which replenishes a bit at half time). All of the players that we've encountered in FIFA 07 have more than enough stamina to get them through even the most fiercely contested of matches. When playing in manager mode, none of our players' energy levels from one game to the next ever gave us any reason to alter our starting 11.
At first glance, FIFA 07's manager mode appears to be the same as that found in other versions of the game. Although your objectives to run a successful team and keep your job are the same, some of the mode's features are quite different. For example, you have more tools at your disposal for customizing formations and comparing player performances on the Xbox 360. A more interactive player growth system also lets you spend experience points on attributes and traits for your improving players. On the flip side, however, the management decisions that you're tasked with making via e-mail from your club's board of directors are less interesting and often have an obviously correct response. This game's manager mode also lacks the visual sim mode. In this mode, you could simulate matches that you didn't want to play, but you still retained the option to jump into the match at any time. Admittedly, the visual sim mode is no great loss. But the fact that you could assume control of an in-progress match if things were going badly is definitely preferable to the Xbox 360 game's sim option. The option on the Xbox 360 simply presents you with a final score screen and a bunch of match statistics about five seconds after you select the option. FIFA 07's manager mode is undoubtedly one of the most engaging features of the game, but it's not nearly deep enough to be enjoyable without playing matches yourself.
When you're playing solo and don't feel like being a manager, one of FIFA 07's most improved features this year is its challenge mode. There are no fewer than 85 different challenges that are waiting to be unlocked and completed. The objectives that you'll be tasked with are also far more interesting than simply winning a game by a certain number of goals or earning a victory in a scenario where defeat seems inevitable. Scoring with a late substitute, maintaining a certain possession percentage, scoring with a number of different players in a match, and making it through a victorious 90 minutes without a single offside decision going against you are all examples of the challenges you'll be facing. They also make for some interesting and varied gameplay. It's unfortunate that the game's achievement points aren't linked to the challenge mode in any way, but the 11 achievements up for grabs are much more challenging than those in previous games.
If you're skilled enough to beat even half of the challenges in FIFA 07, you should have no problem holding your own when you play online. If you're fussy about playing against certain players, different lobbies are arranged by player skill level. The quick match option also does a great job of pairing you up with a random opponent in a speedy fashion. New for this game is an online cooperative mode, in which you and a friend can compete against two other players while sitting in front of the same console. The online play in FIFA 07 is undoubtedly the best that the series has ever seen because it all but eradicates the frustrating lag issues, as well as the unwieldy menus and lobbies that have plagued previous games. Although only ranked matches will contribute to them, there are also plenty of leaderboards where you can compare your statistics against those of other online players.
If you've played recent FIFA offerings on the PlayStation 2 or the Xbox 360, you should be familiar with the FIFA lounge mode. This mode lets you and a group of up to 19 (yes, 19) of your friends play with each other across multiple gaming sessions and keep track of your results in a league table. Furthermore, you'll collect power-ups (or opponent power-downs) known as "cheap shots" that can be used to level the playing field before a subsequent match. After each match, you'll earn lounge points that are based on different aspects of your performance. If your team loses, you'll generally be awarded a better cheap shot for subsequent use than your opponent. Some cheap shots simply affect the number of lounge points you can earn with multipliers and such, while others can really influence a match by forcing your opponent to play with only nine men. The cheap shots are more varied and interesting than those in previous games. Although you can play up to three per match, you'll never earn more than one at a time.
FIFA 07's lounge mode is every bit as enjoyable as those that have appeared in previous versions. The fact that up to 20 players are now supported instead of just eight players is also great. The only strange thing is that rather than letting each of you enter your name, you have to choose an icon to represent yourself. The icons are an odd mixture to say the least. And FIFA 07 might well be the first soccer game to pit a blue squirrel against an orange elephant, while an orange snowflake and a blue anchor patiently wait their turn. Like everything else in FIFA 07, the lounge mode menus are easy on the eyes, especially if you're lucky enough to play on a high-definition screen. Those of you with regular television sets will find that some of the in-game text borders on illegible. The action on the field and the huge stadiums that you play in, however, will still look very impressive.
While it's not the giant leap forward for the FIFA series that you might have been hoping for, the Xbox 360 version of FIFA 07 certainly isn't a difficult game to recommend. It introduces a number of new features and improvements to what was already a great formula. Although it does away with some stuff that you might normally take for granted, the end product doesn't disappoint.