Mass Effect 2 and APB may be getting the pundits hot under the collar, but arguably the game drawing the biggest crowd of people actually able to get their hands dirty on EA's stand was the annually epic latest installment in the FIFA series, FIFA 10. Picking up EA Sports' opus on PS3 I was immediately impressed by the efforts the game's Canadian developers have clearly made in order to get the game playing and 'feeling' as fluid and authentic as possible.
Despite the obvious progress the series has made in recent years, it seems strange to be playing a FIFA game that has in some ways become more like perenial rival Pro Evo than Pro Evo itself. Witness the free-form feel of the play, the random nature of passing moves and interceptions and consider that while Konami's opus has in some respects become more controlled, a la the FIFA experiences of yesteryear, EA's creation has gone all out to become the title of choice for the purists.
Of course, arguments over simulation versus arcade aside, both series' still enjoy their fanatical audiences, and EA are going to have to keep churning out the improvements year after year if they are to become the true critics choice and lay to bed the debate once and for all. With this in mind FIFA 10 really is looking very slick indeed, the on-pitch action feeling every bit as inspired and unpredictable as the sport it attempts to recreate.
The full 360 degree dribbling is part of the improvement here, alongside the flexible nature of dribbling, while AI advancements, better positioning, a new-look passing mechanic not mention greater positional sense all come to bare upon the already much-improved FIFA 09 package.
In-game load times are seemingly better than ever, EA Sports having obviously lavished a lot of tender loving care on their match engine, insuring that no pesky judders interrupt the sense of total immersion in the beautiful game.
During one tense moment in my Stuttgart versus Juventus match (ably set-up by my EA guide), I became embroiled in a frantic penalty area scramble, complete with flailing goal keeper and insane ricochets, defenders desperately trying to clear while attackers attempted to craft a clear shot. This instance stuck in my mind because it not only looked like the kind of occurence you might see in any big game in the real world, but also because this was the kind of situation that was hard to achieve in previous FIFA outings, the game always engineering a surprisingly easy save for the goalie, or a shockingly composed finish for the striker. Hopefully this is the kind of frenetic fun will be seeing more of in the final release.
The presentation of FIFA 10 is everything you've come to expect from EA Sports, licensed to the hilt with menus so polished they would make Sky Sports blush. Player likenesses also seem to have been tweaked, with more detail added, while the animation seems much more liquid; limbs moving like limbs rather than the robotic, pre-programmed frame-sets of older football games. To be fair to EA, they had already made impressive efforts in this department with FIFA 09.
Back to the gameplay and I find myself on the attack for once, and I'm impressed by the way my star players are capable of bossing the game, much as a big name player like Steven Gerard might contribute to a real-life match. This adds to the sense of accuracy, while killer through-balls are now a little harder to pull off thanks to improved AI. Indeed, FIFA 10 feels just a tad harder in general, although this could be tweaked prior to release, the passing system requiring far more dexterity than in the past - opposition players finding interceptions less futile than in the past.
Of course, EA Sports are making a lot noise about FIFA 10's online play, and we've yet to sample the delights of this mode, but with the game moving towards full 10 on 10 (or 11 on 11, if the goalies are also player-controlled) action - it is likely that this won't be an area found lacking. Aesthetically this could be the best looking football game ever, while on initial impressions the gameplay appears to be heading in the right direction. Whether EA can strike a pitch-perfect balance and garner new fans as well as appeasing old remains to be seen, but this is a great to the season for the title favourites.
FIFA 10 will be released for every manner of games-playing machine imaginable come October.