You've got to hand it to EA Sports--whatever the platform, the developer knows how to take advantage of the hardware. FIFA 08 for the PlayStation Portable offers pretty much everything you could ask of a handheld football game, with local and online multiplayer, multiple game modes, and the ability to transfer data to and from the PlayStation 2. It also plays a solid game of football, and while it's not up to the standard of the home console versions, it's definitely fun to play.
EA Sports has crammed a lot into the game this year, and much of the content is exclusive to the PSP. While there are the usual quick match and tournament options, the supplementary modes really add a lot of longevity to the game. Take the football IQ mode, for example: It's a football quiz where you answer questions to score goals. If you correctly answer successive questions, your team dribbles the ball toward the goal, and if you answer incorrectly it comes back toward your own. Reach the goal and you have to answer two difficult questions in order to score, and if the other team is in a similar position you must give the right answer to save it. The game begins with easy questions about your favourite team and league, then moves on to other leagues and countries as you progress.
The football IQ mode won't last too long, but there are plenty of other games on offer. Like the other console versions, the PSP now offers interactive leagues, allowing you to head online and represent your favourite team against people from all around the world. Fixtures occur at around the same time as the real-world matches themselves, and the overall results are fed into a central database that tracks all the versions of the game. Every result has an effect on the virtual standing of your team, and for fans it's a nice accompaniment to the real football season. You'll find that there are a lot more people who want to play as popular teams such as Manchester United, but you can play as many matches as you like as long as you can find opponents.
In fact, the interactive league is just one part of a very accomplished online mode. If you have a Wi-Fi connection to the Internet, you can create an EA account and log in for various game modes and live ESPN score updates. The simplest is the "play now" option, which automatically pairs you up with someone else who's looking for a game, but there's also a lobby system if you want to type messages to people before you begin. It's a sophisticated system when compared to other PSP football offerings, and the only downside we saw was the limited number of people playing when we looked for a game. While the general online performance was good, with relatively little lag, we did encounter a high number of disconnections during the game. It was difficult to determine whether that was from users quitting or from a technical problem, but it did sour the experience.
Even if you don't have an Internet connection, there's plenty to keep you occupied in FIFA 08. Many features have been carried over from last year, including the challenge and manager modes, but both have been tweaked and expanded for this outing. The challenge mode now offers 61 matches with preset criteria, so you might be starting the match 10--or even 45--minutes in with the aim of winning the game by two goals. The manager mode gives you a much more hands-on role at your club, with player training and transfers as well as the board and the media to deal with. You get e-mails from the board of directors and scouts and receive actual newspapers such as The Sun with headlines from your league. It's not as deep as the dedicated management sims, which really let you get into the nitty-gritty of formations and tactics, but it offers probably the deepest challenge in the game. The new addition this year is the opportunity to arrange up to four preseason friendly matches. It's not a big change, but it lets you better adapt your training and final player lineup ahead of the main season.
As well as the above modes, FIFA 08 has a couple of neat minigames. The first is juggling, which is very similar to the one featured in the Wii version of the game. Playing as any of the 12,600 players in the game, you have to play the old training game of keepy-uppy by tapping out the commands shown onscreen. The longer you keep the ball in the air, the more your player levels up. Wall attack is another minigame where you have to volley balls at a large wall, knocking bricks down to score points. Bricks with symbols give you point multipliers and bonuses, and you can adjust the power of your shot to hit different heights by using pass, cross, or kick.
While FIFA 08 is a feature-rich package, the game itself isn't quite as solid as we'd like. The controls feel imprecise, partly because of the PSP's hardware design, but mostly because of some patchy player animations. It looks as though frames of animation are missing, most noticeably when players make a sliding tackle, and that all-important feeling of fluidity is missing as a result. Perhaps the animation was simplified to keep the game running smoothly, but player and stadium details are still quite low. It's actually difficult to pick out individual player likenesses or distinguish stadiums from the default camera angle.
Other versions of FIFA have offered a slower, more thoughtful game of football this year, whereas the PSP version feels closer to last year's game. There's certainly little evidence of improved artificial intelligence, as you'll find you can still cut through the defence with a single man. The result is that while FIFA 08 is relatively easy to get into, it has less long-term appeal in its core modes than we'd have hoped. It's also worth mentioning that the trick system is unchanged and still quite difficult to employ using the L button. This gives little for advanced players to take advantage of, and games can feel scrappier as a result.
FIFA 08 is an officially licensed game, and the overall presentation is exemplary. There are 50 licensed music tracks from artists as varied as Cansei de ser Sexy and Bodyrox, but they all fit the game's tone. In addition, any music on your memory stick is automatically imported to play alongside the default tracks. The EA Media Center lets you mix and match your favourite songs, as well as listen to them alongside a rather nice onscreen visualisation. The in-game audio also deserves a mention, as the crowds chant team-specific names and the commentary is provided by Martin Tyler and Andy Gray. The commentary sounds low-quality in terms of bit rate, but the pundits provide plenty of natural-sounding banter. There are also 110 extra kits, balls, stadiums, and teams that you can buy in the EA store with points earned by playing through the different modes in the game.
FIFA 08 does pretty much everything that you could ask of a PSP football game. It boasts mountains of varied features, takes advantage of the console's hardware features, and is a fun game to play, too. Sure, there are modes from the other versions of FIFA 08 that could be added--notably, be a pro--but that's compensated for by plenty of PSP-specific offerings. The gameplay and AI could definitely be tightened up, but otherwise, this is a good portable version of a solid football game.