Back in the early 1990's I became obsessed by a PC football game called European Championship 1992 from Tecmo. I'd rush home from school each day and play it for hours at a time until I had a mastery of it that none of my friends could match. I loved that game. Such was my obsession with it in fact that I can still remember a quote from a review I poured over in a prominent PC games magazine of the time. Coming at the end of what was a largely positive review the journalist remarked that at some point, in years to come, someone somewhere would create a football game that would perfectly replicate the beautiful game down to the smallest detail but until then European Championship 1992 was good enough to keep you busy.
Now, seventeen years later and seemingly millions of attempts to prove that prophecy correct, it's taken the release of FIFA 10, to remind me of that review quote and madke me think that perhaps, at last, its promise has been fulfilled.
Of course FIFA 10 hasn't appeared out of nowhere, EA Sports have been toiling away at this for eons now with last year's impressive FIFA 09 edition finally edging the series firmly ahead of its long term rival, the once mighty Pro Evo. What's impressive this year is how the FIFA team have taken their impressive 09 incarnation and managed to still push it forward in a number of ways. Some of them subtle, some of them significant, but all of them adding to an overall improvement that moves FIFA 10 into a new league of football games.
Uppermost amongst the raft of improvements is the introduction (at last) of full 360 degree control. It was getting increasingly hard to actually notice but up until now all FIFA games had relied on diagonals rather than full analogue control. It may not seem like much on paper but start a game in FIFA 10 and the difference is instantly apparent rendering any foray back to 09 seem painfully restrictive. This added sense of freedom allows you to angle passes and shots with far more accuracy and realism than before, and is probably the stand out reason that this version of FIFA is the best yet.
Onto the subtler improvements and there's also been some much needed balancing going on under the bonnet, for example pace is no longer the be all and end all it used to be meaning you'll often need to put a bit more work in to create openings for yourself. There's also been a splattering of common sense draped over some of the number crunching that goes on behind the scenes. Being tall and good in the air for example doesn't almost guarantee a goal if you win a header in the box anymore; the game understands that's unlikely and takes into account things like any pressure you're under and the like far better than it used to.
Ball physics have also been tweaked slightly meaning cross field Beckham-esque passes now fly that bit lower and faster giving them a sense of urgency that had been missing last time. Quick free-kicks finally make an appearance too, although perhaps never prove quite as handy as they do in real life. There's even room for a nice 'borrow' from Pro Evo that shows if a player's been yellow carded by colouring the indicator above their head when you have control. Helpful if you're thinking of making a last ditch sliding tackle.
Of course it's not all new, EA's Canadian team have rightly left well alone when it comes to the many things that worked perfectly last year. Exactly what you want from an annual update really. If we're being picky it's still not perfect, there's an over reliance on physical strength at times which lets lumbering carthorses muscle skilful geniuses off the ball with a little too much ease and there's odd moments when player animations still seem to have to finish before they'll react to a change in situation. These are minor gripes however and for the most part FIFA 10 plays an exemplary game of football.
EA have also got the tricky balance between the enjoyment of the gamer and the skill of the footballer pretty much nailed. There's obviously fun to be had playing as Man Utd against Barcelona with the world class players at your disposal feeling suitably nimble and full of trickery, but there's also something to be said for going down the pyramid and getting stuck into a Cheltenham Town v Hereford local derby. It becomes a completely different game without all the pace and trickery you've been used to and you'll need to adapt your play style to succeed - but its also still great fun and just as rewarding.
Off the pitch the flagship new feature is the Virtual Pro. This allows you to create your own player from scratch and use him any of FIFA's gameplay modes. He'll start off as a lowly rated numpty but as the more he plays and trains the more he'll improve adding an almost RPG element to proceedings. Since FIFA 10 uses EA's GamerFace technology you're able go that extra mile and really make your virtual pro look just like you by uploading a picture via EA's website and mapping it onto a 3D model before downloading it into your game. Its a clever bit of tech and obviously allows for a closer version of your own features than the standard player designer. However, it's not perfect quite yet and while the more time you spend fiddling with the model the better you can make it look it proves next to impossible to get it exact and can result in slightly zombie-ised version of yourself if you're not careful (or perhaps that's just my face).
In terms of game modes there haven't been many changes from the already exhaustive list included last year. There's your standard one-off exhibition games, custom leagues and cups for starters and your more in depth Manager and Be A Pro (where you can obviously now use your Virtual Pro) modes to spend hours with. Manager Mode has been given a lick of paint this year to iron out some of the quirks although it's still nowhere near the full on manager sim it'd like to be and its menus seem a tad sluggish compared to the rest of the game for some reason. Be A Pro, the mode where you control a single player through a career rather than a whole team, remains an enjoyable alternative to normal FIFA especially with the ability to use your Virtual Pro. There's the normal long list of online options too which all work as slickly as ever, there's even the chance to use your Virtual Pro online in Be A Pro matches. The areas that mask the game's loading screen also make a welcome return here and can now be used for full on training sessions including a nifty if slightly complicated free-kick creator if you so wish.
As you'd expect from an EA Sports game everything, on and off the pitch, is presented with the maximum amount of gloss and shine and comes complete with every option you can realistically expect. On the pitch things have improved visually, although not significantly, while the commentary from Martin Tyler and Andy Gray is noticeably slicker with far more improvised chatter between the two to break things up. There are all the team and league licences you could want (including for the first time the Dutch national side) and player likenesses that, for the most part, are instantly recognisable. The presence of a FIFA store is a little annoying, or at least its current content is. I'd never be as silly to think EA didn't want to eke every last penny from gamers but to allow people to buy things like the ability to max out a players stats for one game only just seems a step too far down an overly commercial road for my tastes.
People get very passionate about their football games and each year there are fresh claims, either by developers, reviewers or gamers that this time round it really is just like the real thing. Of course they're always wrong, such an aim is unrealistic not to mention pointless since I have no desire to ever play a game that perfectly replicates a boring goalless draw on a wet Tuesday night in League Two. The real question that we all should be asking is does it perfectly replicate the spirit of football? Does it provide the same feelings of gut wrenching excitement and flashes of unbelievable individual skill as the real thing? Does it tap into your imagination and create 'Roy of the Rovers' style stories in your head? Does it make you want to stand and cheer when you score then weep when you concede? In this more emotional sense FIFA 10 nails football wonderfully, its near technically perfect depiction of the beautiful game presents you with the very best bits of football letting you live the dream better than any previous virtual incarnation of the sport. It does make you wonder what they'll find to improve for next year, though.