Overshadowing the competition

Last week, Electronic Arts released its newest addition to the FIFA Soccer series, FIFA 2009. For American soccer fanatics, it was a long wait (the North American release was two weeks after the release date in Europe) – but now that it’s here, the wait was worth it.

Players of FIFA 2008 will be familiar with not only cover boy Ronaldinho but also most of the game’s features. However, it is more than just a $60 roster update. The most noticeable changes come in the actual gameplay, an area in which EA claims to have made over 250 improvements in.

What gamers will notice right away is the new player momentum physics engine. While FIFA 2008 matched the blistering pace of real life Premier League matches, FIFA 2009 introduces the big hits to go along.

So now when a player has Cristiano Ronaldo running full speed down the wing directly at his defender, there is going to be some damage when they meet. There is no more running straight through another player, as the game is able to detect how fast a player is going and how hard he is going to fall if he collides with another player.

What this also means is that 6-foot-7 striker Peter Crouch has the realistic advantage he deserves when going up for a header against the likes of 5-foot-5 winger Shaun Wright-Phillips. Strength, height, and other physical abilities can be seen influencing the videogame, just like they do in real life.

The next biggest change came in the ability of the AI. Whereas last year, playing the computer was horribly predictable, EA has implemented custom tactics into the game this year. What this means is that if you’re up against a team with excellent wingers, you can expect to see more crossing of the ball than if you were matched with a side blessed with skillful strikers, in which case you may see more short passing around the box.

Customizable sliders allow not only the computer, but the player too, to personalize what style he wants to play his soccer – longball, short passing, offside trap defense – whatever you want to try on the pitch is open to you.

The biggest new gameplay mode is Be a Pro: Seasons which allows you to take over the career of an existing footballer or start your own with a custom-made player. The goal is to work your way up to a starting position in your squad and eventually, earn captaincy on your national team. Playing as just one man on the pitch is a unique experience and actually not as boring as it sounds.

The game also introduces 10-on-10 online play. When connected to the internet, a player can hook up with 19 others in a cooperative match with each player controlling one of the 10 outfield players on either side. It is great to show off your individual skills and score a goal for all to see but this mode can also easily degenerate into something like youth league soccer. No one plays in their position, everyone simply chases the ball, and has more concern with scoring than with actual team play.

It is not all improvement in FIFA 2009. Manager Mode, for example, the standard single-player season mode, has been left almost unchanged from last year – glitches and all. Fans of this mode will be let down with a still sub-standard transfers system and no pre-season match-ups.

Another minor but truly inexplicable setback is that the menus are a lot clunkier and less natural in FIFA 2009. The simple act of choosing a team seems to take double the amount of time it used to. It seems to be a case of EA making changes for change’s sake.

Still, even with these little problems, FIFA 2009 shines above its competition once again. With as many leagues and players as most can ask for and still-excellent online modes, along with a great new physics engine, FIFA 2009 should be a must-buy for soccer fans everywhere.