FIFA 09 - first look

Fewer gimmicks, more solid, refined play. There's substance beneath the glamour

We%26rsquo;re mindful of overstating this - regular readers might be aware of previous false dawns for FIFA on PS2 - but maybe, just maybe, this is the year FIFA emerges as a legitimate alternative to Pro Evo, not only for casual fans, but hardcore gamers, too. Truth is, the process has already started. We%26rsquo;re at EA%26rsquo;s offices in Vancouver, Canada, ready for our FIFA 09 hands-on. Before play, however, we%26rsquo;re given a presentation and video highlighting the differences between FIFA 08 and FIFA 09, which can - says FIFA Lead Producer David Rutter - be broken down into a few key areas: improved physicality, better off-the-ball movement, new animations, a deep tactical engine that allows you to change your tactics on-the-fly, and a multi-season Be A Pro mode. More on all of this later.

Above: This image is from the PS2 version

So we sit down to play. The only match available for us is Manchester United vs Chelsea, in which we take on a journo from a rival games mag. First impressions are extremely favourable - it looks as good, if not better, than last year, with sharp, colourful player models, beautiful stadiums, lush grass and smart entrance sequences. And, although you%26rsquo;d need sharp eyes to spot it, the animation has indeed been improved, looking more realistic - although without the video demo of FIFA 09 next to FIFA 08, we%26rsquo;d never have noticed.

%26ldquo;Look at dribbling in 08,%26rdquo; says Rutter during said video. %26ldquo;He%26rsquo;s skipping animations - we%26rsquo;re breaking animations to allow him to turn. Now, if you look in slow motion, he%26rsquo;s maneuvering his body to get to the ball like a real footballer would.%26rdquo; And you can spot this in-game. Its affect on play is negligible, if that, but it%26rsquo;s nice to see.

But for the first few minutes of play, it doesn%26rsquo;t feel as if much has changed at all with the actual nuts and bolts of gameplay - we had to play quite a few games before we properly began to get a feel for the changes within the mechanics.

In the presentation, Rutter spoke of %26ldquo;momentum - the idea of weight and velocity having an effect on things. In 08,%26rdquo; he says, %26ldquo;players had no idea where they were being hit from or which leg was being hit. In 09, players have a sense of direction, they know where the tackle is coming from and react accordingly [read: fall over in a more realistic way]. The non-standing leg, now... in 08, if a tackle caught that, he%26rsquo;d go down. In 09, you%26rsquo;ll see players be able to skip out of those tackles and keep on running.%26rdquo; And that%26rsquo;s true - which keeps the game flowing, resulting in fewer frustrating breaks in play and extra goal-scoring opportunities.

Players are more physical when jostling each other off the ball, tangling together in a far more lifelike way than last year, when they would run on-rails next to each other before one of them came away successfully.

%26ldquo;Drogba is a hulk of a beast,%26rdquo; Rutter says. %26ldquo;He can hold off a lot of people.%26rdquo; When we were controlling Drogba, however, he tended to topple over as soon as a defender brushed against him, which means either physicality isn%26rsquo;t that good or that FIFA is exceptionally realistic. While we%26rsquo;re on the subject, FIFA 09 hasn%26rsquo;t taken a cue from PES 2008 and included diving. %26ldquo;We didn%26rsquo;t want to put cheating in our game,%26rdquo; says Gameplay Manager Aaron McHardy. This is fine by us - we almost never use PES%26rsquo;s dive buttons - but if players go down as often as Drogba does, it%26rsquo;s likely to get frustrating.

Above: This image is from the PC version

Off-the-ball AI has improved. %26ldquo;Last year players had no sense of urgency that they really wanted to get into space,%26rdquo; says Rutter. %26ldquo;Now you%26rsquo;ll get a more urgent response from the releasing of the pass.%26rdquo; We did see players sprinting more quickly into space, pointing where they wanted the ball to be played. There were still, however, times when we found ourselves screaming for a teammate to make an obvious run, but far less so than previously.

We recommend