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The 2009 crop of EA Sports releases have so far represented some significant steps forward in terms of solid, well-rounded playability. However, if one thing can either crystallise or undermine 09's shot at 'EA vintage' status, it's the performance of FIFA 09.
I've never tried to hide the fact that, for at least the last five years, I have been firmly in Konami's corner for the annual Pro Evo vs. FIFA bout. Like many people, I stuck to the (now clichéd) story that FIFA is all gloss and bubbles and serious fans will always opt for Pro Evo's ultra realistic gameplay. That was until last year.
I wasn't overwhelmed by FIFA 2008, but then, I hadn't expected to be. My problem came when I was seriously under-whelmed by PES 2008. It struck me then that although I thought Konami had made some poor decisions, it was probably also the case that the gap had been narrowing without my noticing (or more likely appreciating it). I resolved, therefore, to attempt to approach FIFA 09 in a way that left behind (or at least openly acknowledged) the biases I had developed.
I sat down the other night for my first taste and was left genuinely surprised: FIFA 09 felt disconcertingly strange. This might sound like a bizarre remark, but one of the things that I came to love about the Pro Evo series is the way that most instalments had an initially disenchanting effect on me (before eventually winning my effection). I even built this experience into my pro Pro Evo rhetoric - FIFA games were instantly accessible but ultimately shallow, whereas Konami's titles were hard work to start with but seriously rewarding over time.
It's slickly presented and, of course, an abundance of league, team and sponsor licenses have been secured.
Accordingly, one of my biggest disappointments with PES 08 PC was that it felt samey, and I reflected at the time that I felt Konami had borrowed from EA's playbook to the detriment of the game. Now it feels like the full crossover has been completed, and, what is more, EA may well have done best out of the seemingly mutual perception that the grass was greener on the other pitch.
FIFA 09 delivers on most of the things you would expect it to. It looks great (with the slight exception of player faces, which still seems to be a stumbling block), it's slickly presented and, of course, an abundance of league, team and sponsor licenses have been secured. However, at the moment that I might have once expected the wheels to come off... they don't. I just wasn't ready for it to play as well as it does. The gameplay has a depth to it that says, 'I could be a long-term friend and one who rewards the investment of your time' - a message I've never received (or perhaps been open to) from a FIFA title before.
Of course, it's by no means perfect. The game speed for a start - switching it to 'fast' was an absolute necessity after only a few minutes. Then there is the slightly frustrating contrast between passing and shooting. Everything except the shortest of passes requires the button to be significantly held, whereas shots must be lightly tapped to prevent them becoming efforts of which Johnny Wilkinson would be proud. This distinction is no problem in principle, but in practice it makes rapid interplay and split-second decision making tricky.
Whereas 'sluggish' is a term that the old me would have all too readily applied here, this time, however, there is a logic to the pacing. While many players do seem to lumber, this is counteracted by the fact that the physics takes account of their mass more effectively than ever before. The engine allows for far more realistic physical interaction between players, and strength and stature play a much bigger role. Whilst it's now less easy to skin a full-back, it's much more possible to tussle for possession, hold up the play and volley and header the ball in a realistic way. These improvements make for a visceral experience which stands firmly in opposition to any potential accusation of over-accessibility and a style-over-substance approach.
I feel like it constitutes the series' first genuine challenge in years.
So far I'm unconvinced that the 'Be a Pro' mode works as well here as in other EA Sports titles - for one thing, a maximum of four seasons to get my guy from Exeter City reserves into the England squad seems like an unrealistic ask - however, it once again adds an interesting dimension. Automatic roster and aesthetic updates via Xbox LIVE are also a nice touch and further emphasise the pulling-power of the license deals.
While I've not been totally won over by FIFA 09, I feel like it constitutes the series' first genuine challenge in years to Pro Evo's dominance in terms of realism and longevity. I guess all I can do now is wait for PES 09 360 to drop through my letterbox. Until then, I'll continue turning out for The Grecians in the hope of catching Fabio Capello's eye.
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