Electronic Arts - a brand once associated with uninspired franchise-pumping, but is now quickly becoming a name which can be recognised for genuine quality - have really achieved something magical. Coming from a rather lame, overly-simplistic, and dull title called FIFA 07, EA have taken only two iterations - giant leaps - to create what amounts to a complete computer footballing masterpiece. Its barely even worth mentioning (at this point) the crumpled laurels which a rather tattered looking Pro Evolution Soccer desperately tries to fluff back together. Two years ago if you told me I'd be writing this I'd have gut-laughed all the way home. "The perfection of computer gaming football, I am you."
The motions of players and the ball physics are so finely-tuned there's barely a distinction from the real game. The game plays so well that it is aesthetically pleasing just to boot the ball around. Goals can be scored in a huge range of appealingly realistic ways, often in impressive fashion. Players will jump together and scramble for the ball in the air, trying to navigate the other player's body to direct the ball. Players will also audibly call out to each other, "time", and motion with arm points to indicate through-ball opportunities.
Referees work in a much more sensible manner. In almost all cases of a play-stopping foul or even a foul in which the ref plays the advantage, the offending player receives at least a yellow card. Football games have needed this strictness for years, FIFA 09 has nailed it right on the head. Realism is taken a little too far as the stray ball bounces annoyingly off the referees tailing leg; and the referee's assistants are fully modelled; entirely realistic in their flag-waving and jogging up and down the lines.
FIFA 09 controls like a dream. I didn't need to touch the manual; coming from FIFA 08 the controls were intuitive. All the usual features are there, but somehow they're just better than they used to be - lobbed passes, chipped through-balls, slide tackles, one-twos, shot fakes, and so on. And, there are goal celebration controls! This is an outstanding feature, making for truly awesome bragging rights between friends as your hat-trick striker hurls down the pitch spinning his arm around again and again at the shoulder, fully under your control - much to the disdain of your opponent.
A really nice little feature which I'm impressed EA picked up on is that when keepers are taking goal-kicks the camera pans behind them, so players can see the field front-on. This is obviously to prevent the age old "cheap goal" whereby you short-pass the ball from your keeper, and your opponent comes flying in with an unseen striker and hammers it home - a scenario which would never happen in a real game because the keeper has eyes on the front of his head.
The manager mode is just as addictive as it always was, the off-the-field section only needing a few minor tweaks to bring it up to the level once held by PES master league. The players gain experience points match by match and managers can then distribute points as they wish; actually the option to do this defaults to automatic assignment but I can't see why you'd want to miss out on this refreshing RPGish customization of your team.
There are a few interesting add-on features, such as the Adidas Live Season which updates player form from the internet week-by-week, allowing your in-game players to match the form of their real-life counterparts. Personally I don't see the appeal of this feature, but I'm sure there's a market for it.
There's also the return of the Be-A-Pro mode from FIFA 08. This is where you play as one player in the full team of 11, and are awarded points based on positional play and match performance. Except this time around, as was requested by the fans, you can play season by season as a single player - gaining experience and improving your skills as you go. You can also go online and, if you have enough nerdy friends, play a whole 11-a-side match with everyone controlling one individual player. I can only imagine the hilarity.
The commentary has noticeably improved. At first I thought EA had just used the old recordings from FIFA 08, which they have. However, they've put a few tweaks in there, both to keep it interesting and to make it more realistic. Not that I want Martin Tyler and Andy Gray to get too big-headed, but it os safe to say this is the best football commentary ever seen in a computer game.
The graphics have only seen minor tweaks; mostly lying in the realm of model movement. However, there is a noticeable gloss to what was already a good looking game last year. And, of course, the popular loading screens whereby players can practice 1-1 goal scoring opportunities has returned; interactive loading screens are the way forward.
FIFA 09 is more than just an update; its another huge leap forward for EA. It is the marzipan on a Battenberg, and the designer dress on a super model. How they're going to top this I don't know, so enjoy this near-perfection while you can.
Yes, this is simply the best football game ever made. Do you like football games?