UK REVIEW--Last year's FIFA was supposedly built from the ground up for the Xbox 360, though the game still had yet to surpass the standards set by the franchise's entries on the previous generation of consoles. For FIFA 08, EA Sports promised to refine last year's effort while delivering a host of new gameplay modes and features. The result is that this year's FIFA plays a substantially different game of football, thanks mostly to an increased difficulty level and a sense of decreased pace. The raft of new skill moves means the game rewards practice and perseverance, but it could be argued that this makes it the least accessible FIFA to date. Thankfully, though, FIFA 08 wraps its new simulation feel in a superbly presented and very well-rounded package.
EA Sports has made a lot of claims about FIFA's new game modes and features, and they've been flagged up in the game's menu system so series regulars know where to start. At the top of the list is the new Be-a-Pro mode, which puts you in the studded boots of a single footballer rather than an entire team. The default side-on aerial camera perspective shifts to an over-the-shoulder view, and you're awarded or deducted points based on how well you serve the team. This means keeping the player in position, passing the ball around, and--depending on your position--making tackles or scoring goals. While controlling one player in a team of 11 might seem strange, it's an interesting, compelling new take on gameplay. Although it's tempting to run up the field and shoot at goal regardless of your position, the only way to succeed in this mode is to play your part in the team. There can be long periods where you see little of the ball, particularly if you're a defender in a good team or an attacker in a poor one, but on the whole it's a successful experiment on the part of EA Sports.
The over-the-shoulder perspective of this mode shows off another of the big new features in FIFA 08, the trick system. By pulling on the left trigger and using the analog sticks, you can perform a variety of moves that, with enough practice, have the power to cut swathes through the opposition. Simple step-overs and flicks can be executed by flicking the right stick in one direction, while more complicated moves can be orchestrated with a series of movements. A turn can be pulled off by rotating the stick in a circular motion, while an overhead flick is a complicated three-move combo that's more dependent on timing. Faster and more skilful players can pull this move off better than slower ones, and top-class players such as Ronaldinho can even launch an accurate volley shot off the flick.
In addition to the Be-a-Pro mode, FIFA has a variety of other ways to play a game of football. The kick-off mode is the place for a quick practice match with up to three friends gathered round your TV, though there are online equivalents with both ranked and unranked matches. The long-term challenge of FIFA 08 comes from the numerous tournaments that have been packed into the game's offline and online modes. Pretty much every major competition from the major domestic leagues has been included, plus you can create a custom tournament to make things such as continental or world cups that may happen in future. Predictably, EA's seperate World Cup franchise means that this tournament isn't included in the game, but there's nothing stopping you from setting one up yourself.
Online, the interactive leagues let you take control of your favourite team and play real-life fixtures as they happen, or you can jump into custom leagues that have been set up for up to 31 other players. The final mode is the manager mode. Even though EA Sports has a separate FIFA Manager game, it continues to shoehorn an even simpler management sim into the main FIFA title as well. The main difference in this mode is that you'll be coaching players and ensuring they're given enough time on the pitch for professional development, but it doesn't really add anything to the experience.
While the sheer number of game modes is an important consideration in terms of value for money, they're only worth something if the game itself is compelling to play. Thankfully, this year's FIFA plays better than any that have gone before, and given that it's changed substantially over last year's game this is no mean feat. Whereas previous FIFA games were some of the most accessible football games on the market, this version will surprise anyone who expects to pick up the controller and win games from the start. On the default difficulty level, the new opponent artificial intelligence makes scoring goals difficult, let alone winning games. Apparently the result of a revised AI system that controls players individually, the new level of opponent difficulty is a potentially risky turn-off for fans of the series expecting arcade simplicity. While we think the difficulty is actually too high, it encourages players to up their game and experiment with the advanced moves.
The difficulty level also affects the pace of the game, making for a much slower and considered game than last year's version. While defenders are more efficient at relieving you of possession, players are generally more adept at trapping the ball--if you're not moving, you're not really under threat. This means that you're heavily encouraged to shield the ball and maintain possession, and the old tactic of just knocking the ball up the pitch is now next to useless. As a result you can't help but play the game in a more realistic way, with a focus on maintaining possession in the midfield, looking for through-ball opportunities, and using the trick system to lose players. The most immediate indication of this new direction comes from the scorelines, which nearly always reflect real-world scenarios and therefore rarely get above a total of two or three goals.
While FIFA 08 undoubtedly plays better than ever before, there are still a few quirks in the gameplay. The game effortlessly combines lifelike movement with ease of control, but players still lack the responsiveness of those in the rival Pro Evolution Soccer (Winning Eleven in some territories) series. While EA Sports' players have the edge when it comes to flashy moves, the majority of the game still relies on basic movement and passing, and FIFA feels light and somewhat vague, while PES titles have always felt more precise and accurate. To its credit, though, EA's willingness to experiment is beginning to put Konami's stale refinements to shame, and FIFA is definitely a viable alternative for serious sim fans who are looking for an alternative to the Pro Evolution Soccer series.
It should be no surprise for EA Sports stalwarts to learn that the overall presentation of FIFA 08 is so good that it's actually one of the game's biggest selling points. The game seeps authenticity from every pore, with up-to-date stats on some 14,000 players, official kit and sponsorship details, and English commentary provided by Martin Tyler and Andy Gray. The amount of repetition in the commentary could get annoying if you play with only one team, the natural banter and interplay between these two results in some of the best and most context-relevant commentary in any football game. The soundtrack itself deserves praise, too--with the usual mix of recognisable anthems and upcoming indie/dance numbers, there's not a filler in the entire selection. The overall quality of music means that a visit to the menu screen is something to look forward to. There are some inconsistencies in presentation, though--a referee is introduced in the prematch presentation, but he mysteriously disappears in the game itself. Why we can have AI players that make thousands of decisions a second but no animated referees or assistants is a mystery.
Graphically, FIFA 08 is the best-looking football game on the market by a considerable margin. Not only are players immediately recognisable thanks to the way that they move as well as the way they look from afar, but close up they also feature individual facial details, personalised items of kit, and haircuts. The 30 licensed stadiums boast both scale and detail, with video boards up high displaying feeds from the camera cranes that sit above the goals. There are also some really nice smaller touches, such as the shirt deformation technology and dramatic, low-angle camera shots that would be impossible to achieve with even the best hi-def cameras. However, that's not to say there aren't a few graphical problems. While players boast natural appearances and extremely lifelike movement, it's spoiled by a plastic look that makes their expressions appear forced. We're sure that the intention was to make them look like they're sweating, but the reality is that they look like they've been shrink-wrapped.
The online component of FIFA 08 has been designed to provide football fans with everything they need for an authentic experience. All of your online activity feeds into a central database, which offers more detailed information than the standard Xbox Live achievements system (although that is still present). You can also keep track of your favourite team's real-world activity thanks to the ESPN Soccernet integration, with live updates from the major clubs from around the world along with ticker-tape updates throughout the main menu system itself. We especially liked being able to jump in and see scheduled matches for six of the world's major leagues, as well as the current table standings and top scorers of the day. Having said that, we found big clubs like Manchester United were much better represented than those such as Blackburn, and even then we had difficulty accessing the listed news feeds in full. The online play holds up well from a technical standpoint, with only the odd bit of barely-noticeable lag to speak of. It also has some thoughtful features, such as only letting the player with the ball pause the game, and limiting the frequency and length of time players can spend in the menus.
EA Sports has taken substantial risks with this year's FIFA, but the resulting game can certainly be considered a successful experiment. It plays a more difficult and more refined game of football than its predecessors, and while it should be emphasised that the game is perhaps too difficult at times, it will reward players who put in the practice. The sheer number of game modes make FIFA the most complete football game on the market, while the authenticity and quality of presentation continue to enhance the package overall. It may fall just short of greatness, but it's a FIFA that's well worth trying out for anyone who's been avoiding the series.