Despite EA's checkered relationship with its customers, the company seems to be going through some sort of incredible transition. EA has released a slew of new intellectual properties, hasn't scuttled any companies recently, and, if we're to believe our resident sports enthusiast, their latest sports offerings are more than simple roster updates.
FIFA 09 certainly has a lot to live up to -- producer David Hutter has hyped the "250 key improvements and additions" to its predecessor, and EA Canada has already proven itself capable with NHL 09. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I never played FIFA 08. I did, however, dig up copies of FIFA 05-07 and FIFA World Cup 2006 to see how well the latest iteration stacks up. To be honest, I'm amazed that FIFA 09 is the same franchise. For a company marked by incremental improvements on its tried and true formulas, EA Canada has made remarkable jumps.
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To be fair, many of FIFA 09's 250 improvements are aesthetic. The animations are more fluid, the character models more detailed, and the crowds are individually rendered, instead of being a writhing blob of polygons. Interestingly, though, it is precisely these types of visual improvements that allowed EA Canada to revamp its physics engine and improve responsiveness. Increasing the number and subtlety of the animations allow players to issue and cancel commands more quickly, creating a game that is much more fluid than its predecessors.
For the first time in the series, thanks to the new collision detection, I feel like I'm controlling real human bodies that have reaction times, that collide in mid-air, and that jostle for the ball. FIFA 09's new engine takes into account players' strength, size, and speed when calculating who comes out on top of a tackle. Bulky defenders can push smaller opponents off the ball, and light, agile wingers can simply slip out of tackles if need be. The weather also seems to have an effect on the behavior of the ball: it bounces higher on frozen, packed ground; skips quickly along wet grass; and stops dead still in standing puddles. This, I suspect, is another benefit of FIFA 09's revamped engine.
The AI seems to have gotten a boost as well, and I feel like I'm actually punished for playing bad football and rewarded for playing smart, another first for the franchise. Running and shooting and tackling aimlessly no longer brings favorable results like it did in, say, FIFA World Cup 2006. Offensive players have always behaved adequately, but FIFA 09's defenses are much more serviceable.
Furthermore, FIFA 09 introduces a brilliant give-and-go mechanic that works wonders for stringing passes together -- simply hold L1 as you pass the ball to continue your own run. With an incredible (almost overwhelming) amount of tactics customization available to you, there's no reason not to play elegant, engaging soccer with FIFA 09 -- the AI is smart, the mechanics are solid, and the controls are responsive.
While I have to commend EA Canada for making fundamental improvements to the core of FIFA 09, where it really shines is in its new game modes, particularly Be A Pro. Introduced in FIFA 08 and improved upon in 09, Be A Pro places you in control of one player (an absurdly customizable one) for the entire match and awards experience points based on your performance. If you tackle and pass well, hold your position, and take shots on goal, you'll receive points that can be used to increase your players stats. On-screen symbols will let you know when you're out of position, who you should be marking, and how well you're doing. The ulitmate goal is to become the captain of your national team after four seasons. Before each game, the game will provide you with certain goals that must be met for extra experience.
I really can't overstate how refreshing and enjoyable Be A Pro mode is. It is a wholly new experience for soccer sims, and EA Sports would be remiss if they failed to include something similar in each game from here on out (it's already in NHL 09). By linking you to a specific player who has specific goals to accomplish, Be A Pro mode creates something akin to emotional attachment, a remarkable feat for a sports game. When your player gets the ball, the camera shifts into a roadie run-esque perspective, creating a sense of danger and excitement. While I didn't get a chance to play online, 10v10 Be A Pro matches seem like an incredibly fun time.
Furthermore, Be A Pro mode becomes a meta-game unto itself: there is the option of controlling the entire team in a more traditional game, and Be A Pro will still track your player's progress. Frustrated with how many fouls my team (Lyon, in the French Ligue I) was comitting, I took control, only to find that the AI didn't handle my player as well as I did. It's an interesting catch-22: it's hard to be individually recognized if the rest of your team sucks, but you run the risk of scuttling your player's chances if you spend too much time letting the AI take care of him. Balancing the two is tricky, to be sure, but it is refreshing and fun.
There is also a Lounge Mode in which players can assign various handicaps to each of the teams. The home team may start two goals down, but the away team might start with half of their energy taken away, for example. Players can earn badges and points for completing certain tasks with certain handicaps. The mode is fun and lighthearted, but it's nothing too groundbreaking. If anything, I wish EA Canada would go further with the mode. Imagine fusing FIFA 09's mechanics with Mega Man Soccer- or Super Mario Strikers-esque special moves and silliness, and EA would have a hell of a Lounge Mode on its hands. Of course, this is a pipe dream, and the Lounge is fun, albeit not revolutionary.
Manager Mode has also made a reappearance, but I didn't notice any improvements or changes worth mentioning. It's the same sort of manager mode that's been around for years, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Players can also compete in and build their own tournaments, controlling up to four players. It seems like an oversight that EA Canada only included national club tournaments (think FA Cup) and not international ones (think Champion's League). Further more, there aren't any international tournaments like the World Cup, or the Euro, or the Copa America. Thankfully, creating custom tourneys is straightforward, so creating your own World Cup should be a breeze.
FIFA 09 is a great football simulator, but it isn't without its faults. For all of EA Canada's attention to detail, it seems silly that they would overlook really simple and obvious faults. For example, you can't change the offensive control scheme without it affecting the defensive controls; the menus are unintuitive and not as easy to navigate as they used to be, not to mention that they're almost impossible to read on a standard-definition television; and Be a Pro bombards you with symbols and on-screen indicators without any sort of explanation as to what they mean.
These are, of course, niggling errors that do little to hamper FIFA 09. The responsive controls, improved animations and mechanics, the new collision system, and the amazing Be A Pro mode all come together beautifully to create one of the best football games I've ever played and certainly the best in the series. In short, FIFA 09 lives up to its own hype.
Score: 9 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)