FIFA 09 Ultimate Team Impressions

The collectible card system, first seen in UEFA Champions League 2006-2007, is coming to EA Sports' soccer series. Check out our impressions!

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In case you missed it, 2007's UEFA Champions League 2006-2007 from EA Sports had one of the most addictive modes in recent sports game history: a collectible card mode that let you relive your childhood days of buying, collecting, and trading player cards, only with a soccer focus. It was undoubtedly the best feature in an otherwise decent soccer game, and it must have made an impression, because EA Sports is preparing to bring it back this year for FIFA 09. Dubbed "Ultimate Team," this download-only feature is essentially the same feature as that found in Champions League, only blown out to FIFA-like proportions. We first announced the feature in an interview with FIFA producer Matt Prior, and today we had a chance to check out the feature for ourselves.

As in Champions League, your goal in FIFA's Ultimate Team mode is to build a strong team of disparate players by collecting cards in your deck. You'll be able to own more player cards than you can field in a game, so you can sit some players on the bench. In addition to player cards, there are plenty of other card types, from training and injury cards, to taunts, to cards that will unlock team logos, among many other types. Cards will come in packs--bronze, silver, or gold, depending on the quality of the cards within--and you'll be able to purchase cards with in-game currency you earn after matches (or from selling and trading other cards) or with your actual hard-earned cash. Producers stressed that packs bought with real money will not be any better than packs bought with in-game currency; in other words, a gold pack will be a gold pack no matter how you acquired it.

One essential difference in Ultimate Team mode will be your created player--you'll be able to create a captain for your team, customize him as you see fit, and even earn cards that will let you add new customizable items to him: tattoos, bandanas, and the like. And while cards like those are merely set dressing, the real meat of the card system directly involves your team's players and staff.

For example, consider player contracts. Every player on your team has a contract length measured in number of games. Each game you play with that player will decrease that contract total by one. Once that player's contract is reduced to zero, you'll lose that card (and the player). To counteract that, you can bench your most valuable players for meaningless games (such as those against the CPU) and play them only during important games. Or you can use a contract card, if you've got it. Contract cards, when applied to a player, will increase his number of remaining games by a certain number, depending on the value of the card. In Champions League, contract cards were one of the most valuable commodities on the open market, highly valued by traders.

That trading interface has received some important upgrades as well. In Ultimate Team, you'll still be able to use powerful filters to search for exactly the kind of card or player you need, which is good, considering that there will be more than 4,000 player cards in Ultimate Team. You can also offer more sophisticated trades than you could in Champions League. For instance, when making an offer on a card you're looking to acquire, you can offer not just coins but also other cards in your collection. When putting the cards up for sale, you can set minimum bids and "buy now" prices, as well as the length of bids.

Not every card you get in a pack will be useful for your team, or necessarily attractive to the market, but you can always add it to your card collection pack. Completing collections will earn you a coin bonus, so if you're close to completing your Manchester City card collection, you might want to head out to the auction and search for that last card--since finishing off the collection might earn you more coins than you'll spend on the card in the first place. The goal, producers told us, is to make every card in your pack valuable in one way or another.

As in Champions League, team chemistry is the biggest factor to consider when building your ultimate team. Player chemistry will be judged by one of three criteria, in order of importance: position, preferred tactic, and origin. Position is the most important factor--playing a striker at defensive midfield doesn't make much sense. Secondly, preferred tactic will be important to consider. A team of players who prefer a 4-4-2 won't work as well if you're dead set on playing a 4-5-1. Best to choose a formation that you want to play and then build your team around the formation. And if you have a coach who prefers that formation as well, you'll get an even bigger chemistry boost.

Finally, country of origin will play a factor, because players who speak the same language will better communicate with one another on the field. You won't need to be a footie expert to bump up your chemistry rating; in fact, the best part of the chemistry system in Ultimate Team is its ease of use--icons on each player's card will clearly show you when a player is happy with his position, formation, and teammates, and an overall chemistry meter will reflect your team's overall disposition.

With thousands of cards to choose from and a number of new card types to deepen the experience, Ultimate Team looks like an addictive addition to the already quality gameplay found in FIFA 09. If you're still on the fence, the newly announced lower price point (reduced from $15 to $10) might help you make up your mind. Look for Ultimate Team mode on March 19.

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