Time flies really, doesn’t it? This time last year we were looking at FIFA 07 and wondering what could have been. From the moment I saw the arena, personally, I knew that my time playing other football games was over and this was the one that was going places. With a completely rebuilt engine for next-gen, the freedom it gave you was immense, and even though the final game was simply too buggy to enjoy in the end, there was no doubt in my mind that this engine was going to be the basis of great things. And even though UEFA Champions League was a great improvement, I’m genuinely delighted to say that FIFA 08 is on another level.
Okay, enough drivel, you’ve played the demo, so you want to know something first; is the final game improved from the demo? Yes, it is. For a start, reaction times are a lot quicker – or at least, they are for the big teams. If you make a mistake with the ball it’s easy to counteract it as a Premiership player, but as my beloved Tranmere it’s a lot harder, and I think that reflects real life accurately. If you take a bad first-touch in the Premiership you’re usually skillful enough to poke it the other way quickly, but in League One it’s usually a first-touch too far that’s blasted out of the stadium by a lumbering centre-back.
Speaking of ball-control, one of my favourite things about the game is just how deep it is. When I first started playing the demo I was losing out on defensive headers, when somebody told me that there was now a “jockey” button – hold down LT/LB (depending on your button configuration) and you can get in-front of the target men. Not only that, but you can use it as a kind of pressure-button when defending; when pressed you start moving slowly and spreading yourself out a bit, covering a small area of space so that nobody can get through you. Very handy when you want to divert a player onto his weaker side.
But a day or two later, I find out that if you hold down the tricks button, you use close-control – making it a lot harder for opposition players to nip in and run off with the ball. Now every time I pass I hold down that button when receiving it, so that I don’t lose the ball immediately. And a few days after I found that little trick out, I was using the D-PAD’s tactics to catch my opposition offside. But even now that I have the full version of the game in my Xbox 360′s drive, I’m still learning.
I very rarely use the right-stick, which you can use for knock-aheads (as well as for tricks), but today I was being caught up-to by a defender, and so I decided to try knocking the ball ahead with the stick instead of just sprinting and hoping. Much to my surprise, the player seemed to boost his speed a tiny bit, and as he knocked the ball ahead it gave him just enough space to whip a cross in. The game has a controls menu that you can access any time in a match, consisting of around ten pages of all the button combinations for you to learn, and it’s astonishing to imagine how much there is that you can do. And that’s excluding the tricks. You really do feel one step closer to reality with this game, and pressing buttons like the “jockey” button become second-nature in a very short time. The gameplay is truly superb, with the odd stuck-on-a-rail moment aside (when a ball is going out of play and your player follows it despite what you press) – although even the “supercancel” control has been improved from the demo, so that you can usually break out of it. Bugs are few and far between.
Another complaint from the demo was that the defenders were impossible to get past, even if you were Barcelona and you were playing the worst team in the demo. This is probably the biggest difference between the demo and the retail version; now, on the Semi-Pro difficulty (which is what the demo difficulty was set at), it is much easier. But if you want your game to be challenging, there are three higher difficulties, which are Professional, World Class and Legendary. On Professional I find myself winning most games 1-0, on World Class I find myself losing most games 1-0 and on Legendary… Well, I’d rather not talk about that.
The way the AI works is, at times, breathtaking. You have a player-runs button to make wingers run into advanced positions, but most of the time you don’t need to press this because when a winger sees you ready to spray the ball in his direction, he will start running for you. Usually it’s opposition AI that makes you appreciate the game, but for your own teammates to be running into dangerous positions and giving you support with no prompting is a nice change. But the opposition AI has improved as well; when a team takes a 2-0 lead, they will start playing with you, passing it around and time-wasting like pros. Which reminds me, the referees have also been tweaked; bad tackles will earn you cards. After time-wasting myself, an Everton’s McFadden clattered into me and totally missed the ball, at which point the referee sent him for an early bath. No getting away with tackles from the Roy Keane Book Of Defending any more.
It all depends on your team’s quality though, and this is the other area of the game I like the most. If you put the game onto Legendary difficulty and play as Manchester United, you’ll find yourself drawing games versus the likes of Middlesbrough (or if you lower the difficulty a notch or two, you’ll win by a goal or two). But if you play as Middlesbrough and you play against Manchester United, it’s a nightmare (just like in real life, I imagine). Both teams still make mistakes, but to win you have to take advantage of them, but when you’ve got Vidic storming towards you and Van Der Sar between the sticks, it’s very difficult. The lower you make the difficulty the easier it gets, but it keeps a level of realism between teams of different levels regardless. If you get used to playing against teams like Tranmere, and then you have to play Arsenal in the F.A. Cup, it’s a different world. Lower-league players tend to play directly when playing big opposition (thumps up the field when they run out of ideas), and the defenders will just take you out. They’re not as experienced as the big players, and so rather than delicately pinging the ball away from your feet and out for a throw, they will shove you, pull you and do some really nasty tackles until you’re black and blue. Thank God for the F.A. Cup.
Which brings us neatly onto Manager Mode. The mode is lifted straight out of the mode on current-gen FIFA, meaning that you’ve got a lot of teams and a lot of competitions to win, along with a lot of financial stuff to sort out. But you don’t just stick to one team; that would be too easy. If your board expects the team to finish in the top three (like mine do), and you lose a few games (like I did), you get the chairman breathing down your neck, and as Jose Mourinho found out last week, that only leads to one thing. Once you’ve got the chop, you will receive job offers from elsewhere, so that you can continue on towards your destiny. And the same happens when your contract runs out; you can choose to leave the club and pursue silverware elsewhere.
Players have contracts too, and they need to be trained. With every game comes XP – the more nerdy among us will know this is short for “experience”, now you do too. The more of these that you get the better, obviously, because you can “spend” it on players in your team to boost their stats in certain areas. Defender who can’t head to save his life? Sorted. Midfielder who can’t keep up with your granny? No problem. Striker whose shots injure people in the crowd but don’t come close to scaring the goalkeeper? Not any more.
There’s a lot more to the manager mode as well, including scouting, staff upgrades and your sponsorship dealings, all of which costs (or generates) money. Financial values seem spot-on; Liverpool have around £40m, Tranmere have £300,000. Just a bit of a difference. But as in real life, what you spend the money on is up to you. You can spend it all on players or you can take the more sensible option of spending a bit on players, spending a bit on upgrading your facilities and saving a bit for a rainy day (or at least next season – and as the manager mode lasts for a maximum of fifteen seasons, you’re best off thinking long-term).
At this point I’d like to mention one of the first reviews published on the internet of FIFA 08 stated that English cup matches were held on incorrect dates through the year. I was shocked when I read this because it’s simply not true; for a Premiership team the league cup starts in September, the F.A. Cup starts in January and the F.A. Cup final is the last game in May, exactly as in real life (and it’s correct for all the teams from the lower-leagues as well). What has caused this mistake I have no idea, but thankfully I can assure you that it’s not true. In-fact the only thing we can see missing from Manager Mode is European competition – but we’re told by various sources that you have to qualify by finishing in a high enough league position before you can be entered into European competitions. We cannot confirm this as of yet – mainly because we would need to finish in a decent position first – but when we can confirm it one way or another, we will let you know.
Another small point is that, even as a lower-league fan, you find yourself preferring matches in the Premiership. The atmosphere is incredible, you can string a lot more passes together and the reaction times are faster, which results in more exciting games and less frustration. And also, if you play in the lower league, there’s only two stadiums that you get to see week in week out – which does get repetitive, as you can imagine.
Now there’s a massive amount to do in the game, from taking a small club to glory in Manager Mode, to Challenge Mode (where you’re set a task to complete within a match), Tournament Mode (where you can choose any competition in the game and play it as a one-off tournament – you can even make your own tournaments), and even Be A Pro: Offline Training (where you control one player for an entire friendly, from the player’s viewpoint, and with instructions being barked from the manager like a mad dog). But for a lot of people, online is where it’s at, so let’s have a quick look at the online part of the game.
Interactive Leagues is included in next-gen FIFA for the first time – where you play one game a week (i.e. whenever your team plays) and every win for your team is counted as a “vote”. At the end of the week the team with the most votes for that fixture is awarded 3pts in the table. There’s also ranked and unranked matches, as usual, but what we were most interested in this year was the Online Leagues feature. Here you can create your own league for you and the people you invite. You can specify how many people can join, how high their DNF (did not finish) and/or Xbox Live reputation has to be to join, and the rules of the league (injuries, offsides, bookings and half-lengths). You can even select one of the included logos to use as your league’s logo, and the trophy that is awarded at the end of it. The league automatically records all of the stats, the results and the table, but here we do actually have a complaint. For some reason (and I genuinely can’t think of any), you are restricted to selecting an odd number of matches only. What I mean is, where you select how many times you play each team (which is twice in most real leagues), you can only select once, or three times, or five times etc. up to eleven. A very strange limitation, of which I can see no benefit (if you ended up playing two away games and one home game, you would be right to consider that unfair) – and what makes it more baffling is that in a lot of areas EA have added more options than ever. You can even choose where to have the final of your Custom Tournament staged. But hopefully this is one of those issues that will be patched at some point.
And while we’re talking about the negatives of the game, offline multiplayer modes, while great, lack something. I used to work in an office of fifty people, and most of us played with mates the exact same way. Rather than start a three or four team league, we would start a Premiership, each picking one team each (so for example, I pick Arsenal, they pick Liverpool and Tottenham). The rest of the teams would be allocated as CPU teams, but then, when it was time for one team to play (in this example, Arsenal v Bolton – a CPU team), I would control my team and the other players would control the CPU team. One against two – and the best thing about it was, instead of playing the same teams over and over, you would get to play a variety of teams. Unfortunately, for Xbox Live Achievement reasons, you can’t do this in FIFA 08 on next-gen consoles (even though you can on current-gen consoles). I would love to see this fixed at some point (with an option to disregard achievements for the duration of the match), because it adds so much to the multiplayer experience.
But when you do play against another human, the experience is just as good (if not better) than playing in Manager Mode. The depth of the game means that you can have two totally contrasting styles – a trick-lover against a possession-master – and every game is different, especially when you use different teams. As previously mentioned, you’ll be more successful with lower-league teams if you’re direct, and more successful with Premiership teams if you pass it well, but even with teams from different countries the styles are different. The Italian teams are a lot more tactical and less physical than in England, and the Spanish have flair to burn. There is a real difference between teams, and you feel it as well as see it.
Presentation-wise, EA have the latest kits all around (with Tranmere’s week-old away kit being present – now that’s what you call doing your homework!), and now the lower-league ball is licensed as well (plus the Coca Cola patches appear on the sleeves). For the editing guys, you can’t edit player’s appearances, but you can edit the accessories that they wear, including the boots. The game must have broken some kind of record somewhere; there’s more boots than there are blades of grass on the pitch (slight exaggeration but you get the idea). There’s lots of unlockables, including lots of third kits (please see our third kits article from a few days ago for a complete lists) and a load of balls (if you’ll pardon the expression). So all in all, you can’t say that the game is short on longevity. And on the subject of presentation, the commentary is better than ever. Somebody said to me that Mourinho leaving Chelsea would screw the commentary up, but rather cleverly the commentators say “in the Mourinho days” – and it seems to be the same for every club, so that when a manager does leave, it still sounds correct. When a player takes a corner, the commentator will say, for example, “and the corner is going to be taken by Steven Gerrard”, rather than just “it’s a corner”, and when Gerrard lines up a shot, you jump – because Martin Tyler loves to scream “GERRARD” like somebody’s dropped your Xbox on his foot.
But this year, everyone’s a critic; especially if you have a surround-sound setup. I was playing the game and losing my third game in a row – the fans were already booing quite often, more strongly every time I lost the ball, but you can actually hear individual comments when they’re shouted out. Half-way through the game I distinctly heard a woman shout “RUBBISH” – I’m doing my best love, give me a break. It’s bad enough that the board are on my back, I don’t need you screaming at me as well. It’s only a game.
So there you are, an entire review and not one mention of the other football game. Why? Well, in my honest opinion, it doesn’t deserve one this year. FIFA 08 improves on every single aspect of FIFA 07 and UEFA CL, and the depth of the game is verging on ridiculous. I doubt I will ever learn all the tricks – I’ll be lucky if I learn a trick – but that’s what makes it so beautiful. The gameplay and the physics are incredible, not to mention the animation system (goalkeepers in-particular are by far the most realistic looking we’ve ever seen in a game). It’s challenging, rewarding, realistic, fun, and most importantly it’s a breath of fresh air for football games. There’s only one football simulation available this year and that’s FIFA 08.
Now, if only chairmen were in the game. Any chance of a loan, Mr. Abramovich?
UPDATE #1 (26/09/07 1:45) – After extended play in the game’s manager mode, I thought I should report the following two issues that I do have with it, that spoil the otherwise-perfect illusion a bit.
Because the simulation part of the game seems so random, you end up with teams like Aston Villa top of the table after ten games and Man Utd down at the wrong end. And if you ever reach a cup final, it’s likely that you’ll be playing someone like Luton, or Plymouth, with the last of the Premiership teams knocked out a month or two ago. The financial part of the game needs a look at as well, with transfer fees vastly under what they would be in real life. Players like Stewart Downing are transfer-listed for £2.7m when in real life, such a young talent would fetch over £10m. And players such as Fabregas earn around £70k-£80k a week in real life – in FIFA 08 he earns £25k a week, which is a long way short (less than half!).
UPDATE #2 (26/09/07 2:30) – To get back to the positives, I’ve just noticed what a difference it makes playing at home rather than away. I’ve just played West Ham away and the referee was … well, the famous chant comes to mind (you know, it ends with a word rhyming with “banker”). I was tackled badly twice, both times they were let off, and then I win the ball with a stab-tackle and it’s a free-kick to them just outside the box – thank God they missed. At home, a few games ago, I’d got away with murder when Cristiano Ronaldo managed to get past me. Well, up to the point where my studs pierced his leg. Sorry about that Cristiano.
It depends on the referee as well, I’ve seen some really soft guys and some who won’t let the slightest bit of jostling for position go without awarding a free kick. Brilliant, just like real life!