Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: October 13, 2008
For several years, the FIFA series was largely outdone by the Winning Eleven franchise of soccer games (now Pro Evolution). While FIFA always had tremendously better implementation of licensed teams, Winning Eleven simply played a better game of soccer. FIFA '08 was the first real wake-up call that things may soon change, and UEFA Euro 2008 (which was essentially an enhanced version of FIFA '08) was another step in the right direction. FIFA '09 is now here, and to date is probably the most fun soccer game I've played. It plays a great game of soccer, there are tons of options with ridiculous depth, and there's some fantastic online play. Not all is perfect, and several problems keep FIFA '09 from attaining soccer perfection.
If you've played FIFA '08 or UEFA Euro '08, you probably have a pretty good idea of what's coming with FIFA '09. As a starting point, the menu system has completely and utterly unchanged from FIFA '08, right down to the arena where you can dribble around to kill time when you aren't choosing things in the menus. This is fine, as the menu system is intuitive and easy to navigate. There's only one real noticeable improvement to the already brilliant presentation, and that would be the loading screens. FIFA '08 allowed you to dribble around a dull arena at sunset while the game loads, but the indication that the game was done loading wasn't very noticeable; consequently, many players would spend a lot longer on this arena than they needed to because they simply couldn't tell that they needed to press the Start button to continue. In FIFA '09, when the game is done loading, the game seamlessly transitions to the arena where the match will be played, giving you a beautiful and noticeable indicator that things are good to go.
From the graphical standpoint, FIFA '09 looks mostly unchanged from FIFA '08, which isn't that bad, since last year's iteration looked really nice, but it's nice to see that a few things have been smoothed out, like loading issues with quick camera cuts. Better camera cuts and a better-looking in-game presentation (right down to different score displays depending on the league in which you're playing) help a great deal with the sense of immersion. However, there are a few random issues that I had with the animation system. While it's been great for FIFA to separate the ball from the player, this was the first version of FIFA that I've seen to have some bizarre animation bugs. For example, a player was hopping on one foot down the sideline with his other leg stretched out at the waist, while he tried to track down a pass that went over his head. Overall, though, I was impressed with the graphics, even if it is virtually identical to last year's edition.
The audio in FIFA '09 is pretty much par for the course. While the announcers Andy Gray and Martin Tyler do a fantastic job of calling the action, the rest of the arena sound disappoints. Soccer games have yet to accurately replicate the roar of an arena; there are thousands upon thousands of screaming fans in these arenas every time a goal is scored, and yet every time the crowd goes wild in a soccer game, it never quite sounds right. The soundtrack in FIFA '09 is also pretty standard fare, which means that a lot of songs fit the game fairly well but chances are that you've never heard of them before ? aside from one baffling pick to remix a song by Tom Jones.
FIFA '09 retains almost everything that was in FIFA '08, so you're getting tons of fully licensed teams and leagues, as well as plenty of game modes through which to take them. The main offering in the single-player portion is Manager mode, which doesn't seem to have changed at all from last year's version; changes are unwarranted, however, as the Manager mode is an addicting, deep experience that any soccer buff will have trouble stepping away from. Managing team fatigue, scouting new players, getting sponsorship deals, and making sure that fans and management like you ? it's all there and extremely well done as you guide any team from the MLS to Serie A (EA made sure the difference in player quality between those two leagues is enormous). However, it does cut off after 15 seasons, but that's a ton of soccer, and the majority of players will never get that far.
The major new addition to FIFA '09 is the Be a Pro Season, which is an extension of the Be A Pro mode that was introduced in last year's title. In Be a Pro, you play one position on the pitch for the entire course of the game. Depending on your actions and positioning, the game hands you a grade for how well you played the match. While this is generally fun, it's not as interesting as a full game, as you're often going to be far away from the ball and simply dealing with the positioning arrow that FIFA puts next to your player, telling you where you should be. That arrow is actually one of my problems with the Be a Pro mode this year. When possession of the ball changes, the game will often ? and quickly ? change where you need to be to a very, very different position. As you sprint to this new location, you'll be docked points for positioning, even though you were in the correct position before the ball changed hands and you made your way to the new location as quickly as possible.
With the Be a Pro season, the single match form has been extended so that you create a new player or fill the shoes of a real-life player for four seasons. I immediately saw similarities between the Captain Your Country mode from UEFA Euro 2008 and the Be a Pro season. You have goals that need to be met each season, as well as goals for each game. As a player, you'll have to slowly build up your player through experience into both a club and national superstar, and you'll have to juggle roles as a player for your club and national teams. Unless you picked a big name player, you probably won't be playing every game for the national teams at the outset. The problem with the mode is that it doesn't really hold up very well for a lengthy solo experience. It just isn't very appealing to sit around and watch the AI do most of the work, and there's no competition other than yourself. Even the Captain Your Country mode in UEFA Euro 2008 had competition in the form of some of the other AI players, and you were competing for the position of team captain.
If you ever manage to grow weary of the great single-player competition, FIFA '09 has a pretty big online component. Standard matches, leagues, tournaments ? most everything you could ask for is here and very well implemented, including an experience system that lets you know how good your opponents are and how much time they've put into the game. Generally, the online play is relatively lag-free, although it gets a little noticeable at times. The real star of the show for online matches is that Be a Pro now works with up to 20 players online, which means that in a full game, almost every player on the pitch is a real person. This makes your actions feel a lot more meaningful than playing Be a Pro by yourself. The teamwork, call-outs, and the insanity involved in 20 human-controlled players running around the field ? it's an absolute blast. It's made even more impressive by almost no noticeable lag in any of the two dozen player matches that I did on Xbox Live.
Without a doubt, FIFA '09 is the most fun soccer title I've ever played. There are tons of options for how to play the game, from the ridiculous number of teams to a large amount of modes that really deliver. The only rough spots come from occasional buggy animations and physics, and the biggest new addition ? the solo Be a Pro mode ? is just not that compelling to play. FIFA '09 is a wonderful game that any soccer fan should pick up, and the series has finally overtaken Winning Eleven as the best soccer game on the market.
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