FIFA Soccer 08 Review (Xbox 360)

It’s not often that a developer that holds the upper hand in licensing plays the underdog role in a battle for console supremacy. It’s even rarer that EA Sports finds themselves on the short end of any competition. In the world of soccer (or football for the more sophisticated of you) gaming, however, while the FIFA series from EA moves more than their share of merchandise, it’s widely considered the inferior product on the market.

Last season, with the release of FIFA 07, I felt like the competition really started to get interesting. The gameplay in the FIFA series was starting to become a far greater strength than simply the rights the real players and correct kits. Now while the world waits till sometime next year for an effort from the competition, EA has fired another shot on net with the release of FIFA 08. With the significantly improved gameplay, FIFA 08 will now try to go for a deeper and fuller experience. But will it be a return to style over substance?

FIFA 08 achieves the goal of the enhanced experience through advancement, addition and the revolutionizing of their modes of play. The advancement comes in their expanding Manager Mode, which I found to be the meat and potatoes mode in this title. This is where most single players are going to get the most out of this game. With an astounding 30 different leagues and real life players that number north of 10,000, from the top leagues around the globe to those tiny little obscure ones, you would be hard pressed not to find the gaming experience that you’re looking for. In the Manager Mode, you’re thrust deep into the inner workings of your club off the pitch, but where you’ll find the most significant advances are on the field.

With the inclusion of experience points and an extremely sim oriented fatigue system, Managers are challenged like never before. Experience points, which can be manually or automatically assigned, lend so much appeal to taking the reigns of lesser teams in smaller leagues than ever before. You actually get a real feel and sense that you are building something every game. That there is a risk and reward to how you play the game and strategy plays the enormous role that it should.

Strategy, from a Manager’s perspective, is also highlighted in the fatigue system that is one of the better one’s we’ve seen in sports gaming. While the in-game fatigue system works well on its own, it’s the fatigue that runs from game to game throughout the season that forces you to play smart and expertly execute your substitutions week in and week out.

The gameplay itself is really a shining example of what can happen when a developer really works smart between releases. The team took everything that worked in FIFA 07, fine tuned it, and then improved, improved, improved. Some of the issues that existed last season are nowhere to be found in FIFA 08. It plays a smart game of soccer that will burn you time after time if you try to play “magnet ball” and simply try to run and gun. The decision making AI is very well done and makes for a steep challenge even on low to mid difficulty levels. Passing is smarter and more logical and runs develop, more often than not, when and how they should.

That’s not to say the AI is perfect. There’s actually one issue that really popped out at me and it’s in an area that is often overlooked. It’s not the opponent AI that struggles from time to time; it’s your AI teammates that hurt some of the fun in this game. I feel like AI controlled teammates do not behave in the same manner that AI opponents do. It’s almost as if they are programmed to wait for you to take control of them. They don’t play loose balls in open spaces and don’t make the challenges that they should without a human player forcing their hand. Well, technically, their feet.

While the teammate AI is suspect, it does little to detract from the overall experience - an experience that is further improved by top notch presentation both graphically and aurally. Players move on the pitch with a much more natural look and flow in FIFA 08 than we’ve seen in earlier releases. While the pulled back view of the field doesn’t always show the animation detail, the look melds beautifully with the feel of momentum and an actual weight to the players. Combined with the complex, yet rewarding control system, players are forced to think ahead when planning an attack and can not strictly count on a fast joystick to bail them out of bad decisions.

While I’ve often been a harsh critic of the audio in a sports title and how it plays into the total package, I am quick to give credit where credit is due. FIFA 08 boasts some of the best play-by-play available in sports gaming today and easily the best of any game in EA Sports’ library. Martin Tyler and Andy Gray do a superb job of painting an accurate picture of the ebb and flow of a match. Emotions are properly raised and lowered during the action and stories and tidbits mesh seamlessly with the call. Combine that with a stellar international soundtrack and you’re left with an achievement that the sound team at EA should be lauded for.

While the advancements in the Manager Mode and gameplay play a huge roll, I was also intrigued by the addition of the Be a Pro feature in FIFA 08. While not new to sports gaming in concept, this mode is essentially a training tool where you use a player lock system to play as one and only one player during the course of a game. When you’re not in possession of the ball, you use your controls to develop strategy for your player’s action on the field. While I was happy to see an addition like this, it needs to be fine-tuned a great deal to really fit into what that game is going in other areas. Be a Pro is a little too arcade to fit the sim style that the rest of the game seems to be going for. Even if you do resist the temptation of constantly calling for the ball and trying to create on your own, I’d love to see the mode punish me for not playing within the parameters of the offense or not handling my assignments on defense. As it is now, it’s almost more of a tutorial than a mode. Perhaps that was the vision, but I certainly see potential for much, much more.

Perhaps the place where FIFA 08 shines the brightest is in what I am considering the revolutionary mode of online play. Sure, things like online leagues and tournaments have been around for years now in gaming, it’s what EA appears to be setting up for the future that is going to revolutionize sports gaming online in the next few years. When I said that Be a Pro is more of a tutorial and training tool in offline action, it’s because FIFA 08 is laying the groundwork for what should be coming in the not so distant future. Full-on 11 on 11 action from 22 consoles around the globe. I can’t give this year’s release bonus points for a mode that isn’t there yet, but the groundwork is being laid and it’s exciting to see.

A lot of people lose site of what’s important when a competition exists. Only the uninformed and foolish want one product to be dominant over another in quality. How much would people enjoy the Yankees and Red Sox if the Red Sox were awful? Would Michigan and Ohio State have the same passion if they were not both Top 10 programs? Would Ali/Frazier be the legendary event that it was if Joe Frazier was more like Glass Joe? I love that the playing field is leveling in the world of soccer gaming. With two high quality products being released every year, the person that comes out on top will always be the consumer. FIFA 08, in my eyes, has nearly erased any lead that the competition had in terms of overall gameplay and depth. With the strides that they are making in both their single and multiplayer modes, we’re in for a match for the ages. Make sure you’re there to see it.

FIFA Soccer 08 Score
out of 10
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