Since moving over to next-gen, FIFA has struggled to create an experience that relies on skills and creativity rather than exploits and “money” tactics. Whether it was the ping-pong passing down the field or the bang ball up the sides of the pitch, FIFA has struggled to make itself seem like the real thing. The organic nature of soccer is certainly hard to re-create, but the developers of FIFA have taken strides with FIFA 09 to not only remove “money” tactics, but also create an experience that finally lives up to the promises of next-gen gameplay.
One of the most frustrating things to do in Euro 08 was shoot the ball. It was near impossible to score outside the box and in general most goals were scored in very specific manners that everyone memorized and replicated. A big focus on the gameplay-side of things this year was making sure that everything about shooting -- goalkeeping, ball physics, the act of shooting, defense -- was tightened up and sharpened for ‘09. While it’s too early to say if all that focus on shooting and its surrounding elements have made a huge difference, clearly there have been refinements made in all of these areas that will improve the gameplay experience in FIFA 09.
EA hopes their new version of FIFA will continue it's run as the #1 best selling sports game worldwide.
I think the best way to explain the improvements I witnessed would be to simply describe a situation I found myself in when playing a human vs. human game: In the midst of a Chelsea vs. Arsenal match, I ripped a shot on net with Didier Drogba of Chelsea. As the ball approached, the goalie dove, arching his back to reach for the ball that was flying by him, missing it; but still the fact that the goalie simply didn’t dive in a straight arrow manner and realized that he needed to reach back for the ball was impressive. The ball ended up smashing off the post and careening back into play as the defense and offense scrambled to get to the loose ball. As A Chelsea player approached to head the ball into the open net, an Arsenal defender automatically -- without the aid of the human player -- went into desperation mode and made a goal-saving header of his own to knock the ball out of bounds.
The surrounding parts to the situation were just as important though: As the Chelsea player readied for a rebound header, the Arsenal keeper was already getting to his feet, much more quickly than he would have last year. (As a side note, this happens because now the goalies don’t always have to get straight up. So, if a shot goes off the left post and the goalie makes a play on the ball, then the ball goes to the right, the goalie will get up already moving to his right, therefore more easily getting to the next shot. It’s still not perfect though because sometimes the goalie will still do that dreaded slow side-step and thus be too slow to get post to post.) Clearly a lot has gone into creating new player and goalie animations to make situations like the one described above happen more regularly, keeping the soccer experience fresh and dynamic -- that would be a big step for FIFA.
Another big addition this year is team tactics. There will be various sliders to help tweak not only the style of the human players, but the CPU teams as well. This means if you want a CPU team to be more aggressive and foul you more that’s entirely possible by tweaking the particular slider. If you expect Arsenal to make short little passes all the way down the field (slicing up your defense in the process) then tweak the necessary sliders and there you have it. The menus are a bit laggy when tweaking these sliders, but otherwise it’s seamless enough. You can also set up four custom quick-select tactics that you can change on the fly in the game. So if you want to change from a quick-passing offense to a more long-ball oriented offense, then just have two different custom slider sets in place. Also, since the EA Locker is in the game this year, this means you could re-create the entire English Premier League tactics-wise, then upload and share those tactics with everyone else in the world. There’s a limit to how many tactics you can save, but there are enough slots to at least make the entire EPL if you choose. Basically if you think EA didn’t do a good job creating the way Chelsea plays in real life, then change it, end of story.
The FIFA 09 folks boast 250 new additions to the game this season.
Another area of concern in past versions has been the 50/50 balls as well as the jostling amongst players. The jostling has been given various upgrades, one being the effect different player sizes have on the interaction between ball handler and defender. If a bigger player has the ball, a smaller defender won’t be able to easily muscle him off the ball now, rather the defender will have to use his speed to get in front of the ball handler or simply contain the player -- which can do be done more easily with contain-like controls in place. The same type of system works into the 50/50 balls in the air. Guys like the lanky Crouch will have superior header skills due to height, but defenders who are strong can muscle him for position before the ball arrives.
The one area that perhaps isn’t seeing a ton of improvement is the hit-or-miss approach when it comes to stealing the ball. When a player is dribbling and a defender meets him head-on, it still seems like either the defender wins the ball or doesn’t, with little middle ground in between the two binary choices.
The FIFA folks like to bring up the “250 additions” being added to FIFA 09, and while I didn’t see 250, FIFA seems to be building upon the momentum from FIFA and Euro of last year and capitalizing on it with FIFA 09.