To put it simply in three words: this is ace. FIFA 09 plays a blinder of a game and we are absolutely loving it (as our constant lunchtime and after-work games testify). This is the proper next-gen footy game we've been hankering for since... ooh, this time last year when the previous incarnation demonstrated so much Nani-like potential but then flopped like Ronaldo in the penalty area.
It's fair to say that FIFA 08 came up a little short, but thankfully things are a lot different here - a whopping 250 things different here according to EA's Dan Rutter (the line producer of the game), and to be fair this does play very differently from last year's version. As soon as you start playing you'll immediately notice new things, from the way the ball moves, to the way players fall over, kick the ball, shove, point and more...
Start playing and you'll soon realise that the passing system has moved on and that the quality of your passes really do depend on the abilities of the player you're using - more so than ever before. It makes each player seem much more like their real-world counterpart. If you're using a skillful midfielder such as Wesley Sneijder, the game will be so much easier for you than playing as some rubbishy league two player. (Apologies here to any Football League 2 players - we know you have skill, it's just that your passing isn't always up to the standard of international players.)
Meanwhile, the through ball system has been cranked up a notch. It didn't really work in FIFA 08 - launching an aerial through ball was as good as handing the ball on a silver plate to the opposition. UEFA Euro 2008 saw this rectified so that it began to work as it does in PES. FIFA 09 has again taken that on and improved it so that it doesn't always work, but does so in the right situations and when using the right players, ie, ones good at passing.
One of the other changes you'll notice when you're in possession of the ball is that the crossing has been revamped. FIFA 09's physics system is the best of any footy game yet. And the way the ball moves on crosses and goal kicks is now super realistic. Chipped up floating crosses, huge wellied hoofs down the pitch, skewed, spinning punts from off the shin - they're all here and you'll really notice how the ball moves in the air. Crosses, which have always been one of the best ways to score in FIFA, now arc across goal realistically, dipping in towards the net at the last minute or rocketing past only a few inches away from your stretching attackers.
It makes for some excellent back-post goals that will either have you screaming with exhilaration or cursing at your shambolic defenders who couldn't mark for toffee. Now crosses from the full back or wingers will look like they're flying out of play or into the keeper's hands only for them to swing back in at the last minute for an attacker to acrobatically volley or head home. The crossing is now crisp, believable and makes for some great goals.
Not only are the centres better but so is the shooting. Our games have been filled with goals, with our chosen teams proving to be a tad leaky. And that's largely down to the new shooting mechanic. The scourge of any footy game is discovering that certain shots always go in. The last FIFA had areas where it wasn't ever worth shooting from as you'd never score from there. Now you can ping shots into the goal from anywhere. We've seen far more long shots fly in as well as all manner of volleys and lobs. You'll really notice players sidefooting the ball home or curling it around the keeper with the outside of the foot.
And married up to that, like an England International and an orange-skinned WAG, is the way keepers react to shots and crosses. They now parry and punch crosses and shots a lot more, as happens in real matches. And more rebounds equals more goals.
The set-pieces have been reworked too. There's a lot more variety to corners and your keeper won't claim everything that arrives in the six-yard box, while you can also use two men on free kicks just like in PES. The way that players nudge each other out of the way is just like watching proper footballers jostle. When your striker manages to wriggle free and get in front of his marker to plant a header into the far corner, it feels extremely satisfying.
However, possibly the most improved aspect of the game is the player collisions. When you launch into a sliding tackle you'll send the other player flying, while shoulder-to-shoulder challenges will see you bumped off the ball. The way that the players are knocked around has a real impact on how cleanly they connect with the ball, meaning that finally you can play long ball football that would have Sam Allardyce weeping tears of joy. You might get annoyed as lightweight players often hit the deck, but hey, that's football and they'll make up for it with their close control and nippy-ness.
So are we talking title challenger or midtable obscurity for this FIFA? This is the next-gen footy game that we should have seen last year. Rather than a drab early season 1-1 draw, this is a 4-3 thriller with end-to-end footy and two goal-of-the-season contenders. The bad points? Well, the referees are still a little quick to whistle and the advantage rule isn't always implemented. (Where are the quick free-kicks, EA?) We also noticed a tiny bit of slowdown in multiplayer games - especially on long goal kicks where lots of players collided. But it certainly didn't spoil our games.
Despite these niggles, EA have delivered a beautiful take on the beautiful game. The players look and play better than ever - this is the finest footy videogame yet in terms of realism. Disappointed because your favourite team is already out of the cup and displaying worrying relegation form? Pick yourself up with a copy of FIFA 09 and rewrite the season. It's a guaranteed 3-points winner.