Review by ray_lightcaster

"Kick off a New Season Now!"

Introduction

It is interesting to note how EA has progressed in its FIFA series over these years. Back in the mid-nineties, FIFA was a revolutionary breakthrough on the PC. A good example is the terrific FIFA 96. There were other memorable titles such as Sensible Soccer but EA was starting to pull away from the pack. There were some problems with FIFA but looking at the title as a whole, there was more to cheer about than to complain.

Since then, each annual addition to the FIFA stable has shown some improvement to the graphics, may it be minor or major, making use of any possible hardware improvement. Player movement has also improved, although some would claim that Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) is the winner in this category. Besides the PC, EA has expanded its territorial claim over all conceivable platforms such as Sony's Playstation and Nintendo's DS. Like it or not, EA is the leader in terms of mass market as far as football games are concerned.

When I bought the newly-released FIFA 09 for my newly-acquired PSP, it has been a long while since I played any PC game or football game, for that matter. So, how does FIFA 09 fare for me after a long absence from football games? This review seeks to make the comparison between FIFA 09 and football titles of yesteryears.

Game Play

Pitch action for FIFA 09 is generally fun to play. Player graphics is impressive and facial art resembles real life players, coming a long way since the old days. It is amazing how we can hold such a small gaming device in our hands and yet, it is capable of out-performing the 3D graphics of a first-generation Pentium system. Movements of the players are fluid but realistic, emulating actions such as shoulder checks, change in body momentum and player collisions.

One problem of the old FIFA releases was that the players seem to be skating rather than running. For example, players in FIFA 96 appear more to be chasing a puck in an ice hockey game rather than sprinting after a ball on a grass pitch. Thankfully, this has now been fixed. Footwork is also more aligned to the real world compared to the old series. As an example, it is important point to shield your body against defenders while receiving passes, which is reflected in FIFA 09. It will even be more effective to make a backward run at the same time, pre-empting against defenders from cutting into the ball's path. Those who play real football games will attest to the realism in this area.

At the same time, the movements are not overly realistic. Being overly realistic will take the fun out of a football game. I am still able to bump into defenders and have the random chance of fumbling away with the ball at my feet. And I could simply hit the R button madly to ensure that my player sprint away fast, leaving the defender in his trail.

The L button which handles the trick moves, however, is a tough nut to crack for me. Either the developers have deliberately made these moves hard to execute to reflect the difficulty in execution or I have grown beyond the peak of my gaming days, I do not know. All I know is that I cannot seem to make any fanciful moves without bundling myself into some defenders. And I could not figure out how to perform the simple “left-right” body fakes when turning to wrong foot the marking man.

Game commentary is commendable but one tends to get tired hearing the same remarks after a while. Also, there are some games whereby my team is clearly the stronger side which dominates (and wins by a few goals) but the commentator goes on lamenting on the “poor performance” (probably because I scored much less than I created). Or perhaps, the game is simply reflecting real life where sometimes, commentators can get really wrong in their assessments.

The game also allows you to switch strategies on the go during the actual match. Different strategies, such as wing play and third-man release, are assigned to specific keys on the directional pad. Simply tapping one key will swop the team strategy. This is handy and does not affect the pace of the game.

One of the positive things which struck me was the numerous options available for camera angles during the matches. I am sure this is not new to FIFA 09, but it is to me, after a long absence from EA's football titles. There are views such as Player Camera (which focuses on the main player), Tele Camera (which looks like the angle from a Live TV broadcast) and End-to-End Camera (a more top-down view which aims to focus on the goal mouths) for gamers to alternate between.

Challenge Mode

Besides the usual fare such as Tournament Mode, FIFA 09 features an interesting Challenge Mode. While this may not be something new to the FIFA series, it offers some challenging tests for hard-core veterans and die-hard fans.

The Challenge Mode allows you to participate in individual matches based on memorial moments of the previous 2007/2008 season. It will throw you into a certain team with a specific time limit left, requiring you to overhaul the score line and turn it into a victory. An example is the challenge match between Inter Milan and Parma. At half time, Parma was two-nil up. You enter the game with 45 minutes left, playing as Inter Milan, with a task of scoring at least 3 goals in order to beat Parma.

This mode can be tough because in some cases, you play in the boots of “lesser teams”. Players here will have lower statistics, resulting in weaker ball control or poorer shooting accuracy. Given time limit on the clock and the goal deficits, I went obsessed on some nights, trying to beat the seemingly easy challenges.

“Be A Pro” Mode

This has to be my favourite mode. In Be A Pro, you will pick a specific player in a specific team. Here, you will play as this selected player throughout the season. During matches, you will solely be in control of this single player. This is great for me because I generally suck at defending. In fact, I contributed mostly to my team's conceded goals because of my poor timing of tackling. In Be A Pro, I can assume the role of a striker and leave the tough job of defending for my sweepers and stoppers.

During matches in the Be A Pro Mode, your manager will assign you specific tasks. For instance, you may be expected to make 30 successful passes to your teammates in a particular game. Sometimes, the task may be plain silly. For instance, the manager may ask you to deliver 5 successful crosses when you are in fact a central striker! Maybe the manager is trying to exploit on the opposing team's weakness in the air? Or leverage your team mate's strength in headers? From my observation, however, the manager's task assignment appears to be purely random and not related to any coherent tactics.

When you perform your tasks and make other achievements (such as scoring goals, making successful through balls, etc.), you will earn experience points in true blue RPG style. These points will enable you to unlock commands in match play (eg. you can call for passes from team-mates or scream at them to ask them to take a crack at goal) and also allow you to beef up your personal statistics (such as ball control, short passing, etc.).

The camera angle in Be A Pro works well for the mode. It is basically a player-centric camera which tracks your movements. As your player tears through the opposing defenders in a goal-scoring opportunity and bears towards the opposing goalkeeper, the camera will trail behind his back, immersing you fully in that glorious moment.

Manager Mode

I am surprised to see the manager mode in FIFA 09. Starved of football simulation, I plunged into this mode with little expectation. The result turned out to be a pleasant surprise. While this is no Championship Manager, this mode offers a stripped-down but engaging simulation where you decide on which players to purchase, what tactics to employ and who to field on the big match day.

Team chemistry is a nice feature in this manager mode. As you start your career, your team will not be able to blend together well. Along the way, you will win some games (hopefully), promote some reserves to the main squad and rotate some key players. The combination of these will cause the team chemistry (measured by a numeric bar, with the maximum value of 99) to grow. Do not under-estimate the power of team chemistry. In my earlier days as a manager, a low-chemistry team will crumble against feeble opponents despite me fielding the best players. By my fifth season, I can field my weaker fringe players in a high-chemistry team and they will have no problem winning most matches.

The mode could do a bit of improvement on the strategy area. There is not much tactics to choose from and you cannot issue complex player instruction. Most of the time, I deploy a team with a style I prefer, rather than devising one which I feel would counter the opponent's strength or exploit its weakness.

But there is an advantage which this title holds over traditional football manager simulations: during tough matches, I will be able to switch to play mode and take control of the 90-minute action. This has effected turned the game into a Player-Manager Mode. Very often, the result (of me engaging the play) is better than one if I am to leave it to the CPU to simulate the final results.

I do note a minor issue for this sim. When I make a managerial move in my sixth season to a new club, this club is full of old players. This is basically the same group of players, unchanged since the start of 2008/09 season. The program has failed to ensure that CPU-controlled clubs are able to renew new blood during the transfer seasons.

Load time may be a problem for some, but this is no surprise considering the vast amount of information going into a sim. There are numerous leagues to choose from, dozens of players to buy and different trophies to chase after. Above all, there is the ultimate Holy Grail called the European Champions League to conquer.

IQ Mode

This game features a very quirky IQ quiz mode, which ranks a full 10 on my Laughable Scale Chart. This is how the mode works. During a match, you will be shown a top-down 2D board of a football field and be asked on a football quiz question. Here, you are then offered a few multiple choice answers for selection. An example is: Which is the first English club which Eric Cantona plays for? If you choose the right answer, the ball will move closer towards the opponent's goal. If you get it wrong or choose to pass, it will move towards your own goalkeeper. The aim is to get the ball to the front (by giving correct answers consecutively) and score. Conversely, getting wrong answers will move the ball back and finally, leading to a goal being conceded. Why anyone will want to play this mode is really beyond my guess.

Technical Glitches

I do note three technical problems for FIFA 09. The first case is during a Challenge Mode when my player is racing down the flanks, attempting some wing play. As he sprints along the side-line, the camera starts to jerk uncontrollably. It only stops when the players reaches the end and sends in a cross. This situation had happened for more than one time during my forty-odd hours of game play (spreading over different game modes).

The second case is during the start of a certain match in my Be A Pro Mode. Instead of turning to the pitch, the camera zooms at the crowd but gets stuck there. With the play commencing after the referee blowing his whistle, the camera stays at the crowd. I was left wondering if I had accidentally changed the camera choice or if that camera's affiliated TV station had gone on strike. This problem could not be resolved until I rebooted the system. Thankfully, this had only occurred once.

The third is a careless programming mistake, rather than a real technical glitch. Towards the end of my first season in Be A Pro Mode, my team is getting close to 100 points on the league chart. In one post-match discussion, my manager went on to say that he was relief that the team had now avoided relegation. This is way out of context, because his team is clearly the league leader by miles and not caught in any relegation battle.

Final Words

FIFA 09 is a great value for money, with many different features packed into one single UMD. It is an entertaining package of good fun and adrenaline-pumping excitement. I am giving it an 8 out of 10. This will be a handy portable game to bring along journeys, such as boring train rides and long plane trips. But, please remember to bring along some finger plasters too. Your left thumb may need the plasters sorely (pun intended).


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 12/01/08, Updated 12/02/08

Game Release: FIFA 09 (EU, 10/03/08)


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