FIFA Soccer 10 Review (Xbox 360)
Like many North Americans, my exposure to soccer has been limited to playing youth soccer (and one ill-fated adult season), catching the odd match on TV and, of course, learning the sport through videogames. While I wouldn't describe myself as a "hardcore" soccer videogame fan, thanks to some of the earlier Winning Eleven titles and last year's excellent FIFA 09, I have come to appreciate how well soccer translates to a fun, engrossing game experience. The nonstop flow of the action, coupled with the depth of strategy needed to truly succeed on the pitch, helps to create a videogame experience I feel few sports can match.
EA Sports’ latest release, FIFA Soccer 10, only reinforces that belief. Building on what was already a very well rounded product in FIFA 09, this year’s iteration of EA’s long-running soccer franchise pushes gameplay to new heights while sanding off a few of the rough edges.
FIFA is back, and hoping to be better than ever.
On the pitch FIFA 10 improves on its predecessor in subtle but ultimately significant ways. The most notable change is the implementation of full 360-degree dribbling. While it’s difficult to heap too much praise on EA for implementing a feature that probably should have already been in FIFA for years (analog controllers have been standard on consoles for a long time now), the abandonment of digital movement in favor of full analog control represents a fundamental change in the way the game plays.
It’s perhaps most noticeable when you get an attacker out in space and are trying to break down a single defender. In FIFA 09, if you didn’t feel you could use skill moves to beat the defender, you had to try to go wide and use speed to get by your marker. However, you were often forced too far wide, therefore giving up any advantage you may have had. In FIFA 10 the 360-degree dribbling allows you to attack the defender at precisely the angle you feel is appropriate, in effect giving you the best possible chance of getting by him.
The full range of movement is also very noticeable along the sidelines, where you can now feather your way along the chalk without being forced out of bounds nearly as frequently as you were last year. But really, the impact of 360-degree dribbling is felt all over the pitch. In a sport so dependent on accurate and timely passing, the ability to precisely control the ball handler opens up a host of offensive options that simply were not always available in previous editions.
Another notable change to the gameplay in FIFA 10 is the increased physical play. FIFA 09 introduced jostling between players, but FIFA 10 takes it to the next level. Now, big, physical defenders can -- and will -- simply muscle attackers off the ball if given the opportunity. Thankfully, along with more physical play, EA has also added far more foul calls, which gives the game a more realistic feel. Gone are the days when you might see only a handful of free kicks each match. Now, fouls are called at a more reasonable rate (though, many fans will certainly say that a "realistic" amount still are not called). Best of all, with the inclusion of quick kicks, the added fouls don’t feel like they disrupt the flow of the match.
Ball physics are another area where FIFA 10 has improved. Last year the ball felt too floaty, and it often seemed as though the ball just didn’t have the right weight to it. This year that appears to have been tweaked just enough to the point where you still have to time your strikes well, but it doesn’t feel like you’re always going to sail everything well over the bar. Likewise, passing and crossing feel ever so slightly quicker and crisper, which is a welcome change.
In terms of AI, EA claims FIFA 10 has been tuned to more closely mirror real-world soccer, and in some ways that’s true. On the back end, defenders do seem to do a better job of marking and, as mentioned earlier, will employ physical play to separate the ball handler from the ball when the opportunity presents itself. Perhaps more impressively, in the attacking third of the pitch, the CPU is now decidedly more patient and creative. Whereas strikers in FIFA 09 would often settle for a quick strike at the expense of all other options, in FIFA 10 they will now sometimes take that extra second to wait for another man or simply put themselves in a better position for the shot.
Regrettably, things in the midfield don’t seem to have changed much. If there’s a major flaw to FIFA’s gameplay, it’s that the CPU seems to be perpetually trying to force the ball forward. So you won’t see many instances where the computer will play the ball backwards, or even between midfielders. It’s full speed ahead, all the time. In fairness this is also probably how many human players play the game, so in that sense it’s a level playing field, but it does serve to remind you that you’re playing a videogame rather than watching real soccer.
But overall, there’s far too much to like about FIFA’s gameplay to let those relatively trivial objections get in the way for me.
While the gameplay in FIFA 10 has been refined from what we saw in FIFA 09, the graphics remain largely the same. Those familiar with the franchise will notice that the player models appear marginally improved (not every player seems quite as slight this year) and that the frame rate during replays also seems better. Otherwise, the game is mostly unchanged from a graphical standpoint.
Those new to FIFA should be pleasantly surprised, however. As in years past, the player likenesses -- at least for the big-name players -- are very good, the player models are realistically proportioned and the various stadiums are rendered in impressive detail. Make no mistake, while FIFA 10 may not be very different from FIFA 09 from a graphical standpoint, it's still a very attractive soccer game.
Being charged for additional commentary packs is a huge bummer.
The sound in FIFA 10 remains one of the game’s strongest points. With a nice surround-sound setup, there are few sports games as pleasing to the ears as FIFA. The crowds are superlative, the sounds effects (particularly when you ring one off the woodwork) are spot on and the commentary, handled once again by Martin Tyler and Andy Gray, has a beautiful flow and authenticity to it.
There has been a nice dose of new dialogue added to FIFA 10 for both Tyler and Gray, so while some of the duo’s commentary may be recycled, there’s just enough new here to keep things sounding fresh.
Sadly, based on the FIFA Store, it appears as though EA plans to charge for additional commentary packs this year instead of providing them free of charge like last year (with the exception of the secondary English commentary from last year).
One final note on sound: It deserves to be mentioned that FIFA games tend to have some of the best soundtracks among sports games, and this year is no exception. The perceived quality of soundtracks is obviously subjective by nature, but unlike other sports games where you get fairly uniform soundtracks in terms of included genres of music, FIFA’s international flavor permeates its soundtrack too, leading to a much more varied and eclectic selection of music.
Main Modes of Play
One of the first new offline modes you’ll encounter right from the get-go is the Practice Arena. In the past you’ve been able to use the arena to practice dribbling and free kicks, but this year a more robust practice mode has been built into FIFA 10. In the Practice Arena, you can still practice one-on-one with the keeper, but now you can also practice set pieces and matches, with the ability to specify exactly how many attackers and defenders you want on the pitch. This can be handy for those that want to brush up on their skilled dribbling moves without all the trappings of a full game. Also included is a set piece creation tool, which gives you full control over player positioning and movement on free kicks and corner kicks.
After all that practice, most gamers will want to put their new-found skills to the test against the CPU, which brings us to some of the game’s meatier offline modes. EA touts FIFA 10’s Manager Mode as "completely overhauled," but that’s overstating things. While club finances have been split into separate budgets for staff upgrades and player wages, and four friendlies have been added to the beginning of every season, on the surface Manager Mode is not dramatically different from previous incarnations. However, under the hood a few crucial fixes have been made that improve the overall experience.
Having played through multiple seasons of FIFA 09's Manager Mode, my biggest complaints with that version were the lack of long-term injuries and the fact that once you had maxed out your fitness coaching, in-game fatigue became non-existent. The combination of these two factors meant that not only did you not have to worry about injuries carrying over from match to match, you also rarely had to bother using substitutes during the course of a match. Your starting 11 were always well rested and healthy match in and match out. In effect this removed a whole lot of the "managing" from Manager Mode.
Happily, the fitness issue has been addressed in FIFA 10. Even with a maxed out fitness coach, your players will still become fatigued as the second half of matches wear on, meaning it will actually be worthwhile to use your substitutions on a regular basis. However, the injury situation is not quite as clear. I did see long-term injuries when simulating matches, but when I actually played the matches, I experienced injuries of only the short-term or one-week variety.
A less important but nonetheless appreciated fix is that the weather actually is variable in Manager Mode in FIFA 10. After a full year of playing Manager Mode in nothing but perfect, sunny conditions in FIFA 09 -- even in January in England -- it’s refreshing to play matches under overcast skies or in the driving rain.
Beyond those elements of Manager Mode, it's important to note that the European gamers who have already had the game for a few weeks have uncovered a host of bugs within Manager Mode. While I didn't experience these bugs during my time with the game, fans of the series will want to go in with eyes wide open. EA is working on a patch to address some of the issues, but it remains to be seen how exactly the patch will be received.
If managing all aspects of a club is not your cup of tea, Be A Pro: Seasons returns in FIFA 10. This year EA has added Virtual Pro. Here you can create a pro from scratch, including using EA Sports World to download a photo Game Face (similar to what we’ve seen in the Tiger Woods games in the past) for your pro. From there Be A Pro follows a similar path to previous editions, with you developing your player over four seasons while trying to become a star on your club team and earn the attention of your national squad. The added twist this year is that you can also take your Virtual Pro into any of the other offline modes, including the Practice Arena and Manager Mode.
Spending many a long day in Manager Mode is simply a right of passage to FIFA fans.
Your same Vrtual Pro can also be used online, where you can compete in the 10 vs. 10 Pro Club Championship. Either by joining an existing club (fully searchable by a number of variables, including region, language, etc.) or creating your own club, your Virtual Pro can then compete for online glory with other Virtual Pros from around the world.
Of course, standard online team play with existing clubs is still available. Again featuring 10-on-10 gameplay, this mode continues to have its strengths and weaknesses. With so many human-controlled players on the pitch, your matches will obviously only be good if you have good teammates, meaning if you have a group of friends to play with it can be incredibly rewarding. But if you’re playing with random people online, be prepared for some matches that feel a little disjointed.
I did experience a little bit of lag in online team play, but considering most of my teammates were based in Europe at the time, this is not particularly surprising.
Finally, regular online play is back again this year and I’m happy to say that during regular ranked matches, even against people halfway across the globe, my online experience was almost entirely lag-free.
Just the sheer scope of FIFA 10 alone is impressive, from the quantity of leagues, teams and players included to the variety of gameplay modes available -- both offline and online. When you take that depth and breadth and add it to a gameplay engine that continues to mature and be refined, you end up with a finished product that stands up as perhaps the best representation of the sport yet seen on a console. While it will inevitably be eclipsed at some point, I feel confident saying FIFA 10 will occupy my PS3 for a long time.
On the Pitch: The addition of 360-degree dribbling and some AI enhancements add to what was already an exceptional on-field experience. You’d be hard pressed to find a better game of soccer.
Graphics: Largely unchanged from FIFA 09, but in this case more of the same is not necessarily a drawback.
Presentation: Tyler and Gray’s commentary has been spruced up and many additional commentary packs are available -- albeit at a price, in most cases -- for those seeking additional authenticity.
Entertainment Value: The quality of the gameplay makes even exhibition matches enjoyable, but Manager Mode and Be A Pro give FIFA 10 hours and hours of replay value.
Learning Curve: Some of the skilled dribbling moves will take time to master, as will understanding some of the finer nuances of the sport itself. But beyond those aspects, there are enough assists available to allow newcomers to jump right in and enjoy themselves.
Online: Whether taking your Virtual Pro online, playing 10-versus-10 team play or simple ranked matches, FIFA 10 likely has an online mode that will appeal to most gamers.
Score: 9.0 (Exceptional)