We’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’re at EA’s offices in Vancouver, Canada, ready for our FIFA 09 hands-on. Before play, however, we’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’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’d never have noticed.
“Look at dribbling in 08,” says Rutter during said video. “He’s skipping animations - we’re breaking animations to allow him to turn. Now, if you look in slow motion, he’s maneuvering his body to get to the ball like a real footballer would.” And you can spot this in-game. Its affect on play is negligible, if that, but it’s nice to see.
But for the first few minutes of play, it doesn’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 “momentum - the idea of weight and velocity having an effect on things. In 08,” he says, “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’d go down. In 09, you’ll see players be able to skip out of those tackles and keep on running.” And that’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.
“Drogba is a hulk of a beast,” Rutter says. “He can hold off a lot of people.” When we were controlling Drogba, however, he tended to topple over as soon as a defender brushed against him, which means either physicality isn’t that good or that FIFA is exceptionally realistic. While we’re on the subject, FIFA 09 hasn’t taken a cue from PES 2008 and included diving. “We didn’t want to put cheating in our game,” says Gameplay Manager Aaron McHardy. This is fine by us - we almost never use PES’s dive buttons - but if players go down as often as Drogba does, it’s likely to get frustrating.
Above: This image is from the PC version
Off-the-ball AI has improved. “Last year players had no sense of urgency that they really wanted to get into space,” says Rutter. “Now you’ll get a more urgent response from the releasing of the pass.” 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.