With the world's biggest football tournament approaching like a juggernaut, it's comforting to know that, in the likelihood our national team fails to hold aloft the trophy, we can always play out our World Cup fantasies with EA's inevitable pre-tournament footy release. We caught up with 2010 FIFA World Cup's line producer Simon Humber to find out all the details he couldn't tell us last month and to get our hands on all-but-finished PS3 and Xbox 360 code.
Let's kick things off with the game's all-new optional two-button control system, which Humber believes will allow newcomers to jump in and start playing. "As well as the usual FIFA controls we've added an ability to play the game with two buttons," he explains. "We're calling it the Dad Pad as we hope it'll bring sons and fathers together to play."
The Dad Pad layout consists of one button to pass and one to shoot. The longer you hold down a button, the harder a shot or pass will be. As ever, player movement will be controlled with the left analog stick, while sprinting will be automated. While Humber and his team deserve kudos for giving greater accessibility a crack, the jury is still out as to whether a two-button greenhorn will be able to hold their own against a more adept player using a traditional FIFA button layout.
One of 2010 FIFA World Cup's biggest innovations is its revamped penalty system. "As you know, for many teams the World Cup comes down to penalties," laments Humber as he casts our minds back to England's wretched luck in shootouts.
"Our previous penalty system used a rock/paper/scissors mechanic. You'd just choose the direction, hold the stick to an extremity and hope the goalkeeper didn't choose the same direction. We wanted to implement a system that engaged gamers with a twitch mechanic that factored in how important the kick is. We wanted to make penalties feel really dramatic."
In theory, it all sounds rather good, but how does it actually work? Well, the more important a penalty, the harder it becomes to score it, due to the added pressure of the occasion. Take a spot kick when leading five-zilch in a backwater qualifier and your chances of rippling the net will be considerably higher than attempting to score the winning penalty in the World Cup final.
While Humber is keen to extol the virtues of the new system and the role played by pressure, in reality the new system boils down to a rather simplistic yet surprisingly tricky experience. Firstly, you have to stop an oscillating needle as close to the middle of a horizontal bar (aka the Green Zone) as possible. Once you've pressed shoot, you must hold it down to determine the strength of the kick. Your shot's direction is, as ever, controlled with the analog stick.
Now, perhaps it was just a balancing issue - one that as I type is being painstakingly tweaked by a team of gameplay boffins over in Vancouver - but both my opponent and I struggled to get to grips with the new system. Almost every penalty we took - of which there were many - either ended up spooning into the goalkeeper's hands or almost hitting the corner flag. Here's hoping the problem can be rectified before release.
The system for saving penalties has also been revamped, and in this instance it's a big improvement over FIFA 10. "The keeper can dive early to get to the extremities of the goal. If you wait for the kick to be taken before you move, you won't be able to leap as far but you might be able to make a reaction save by reading where the ball is going," explains Humber. "Even if you dive in the right direction and the ball is behind you, you can still reach back and make the save."
So, let's move onto the all-important World Cup mode, which allows you to pick from 199 teams on a fully rotatable 3D map and attempt to bring home the grandest prize of them all. You can play through the qualifiers, tinker with your formation in pre-tournament friendlies, or just head straight for South Africa to duke it out with the world's elite. You can even sit through a live draw and watch as plastic balls are plucked from an urn. Here's hoping we're spared the strained banter between clueless Hollywood A-listers and humourless FIFA executives that make these otherwise austere occasions such cringe-fests.
As well as the World Cup, there are also 50 scenarios from the World Cup qualifiers to play through, including 'that' game every Irishman is still trying to forget. If attempts to drown the memory in a cauldron of black stuff have failed to exorcise the ghosts, you can try to get even here. Humber also promises that during the World Cup we'll be able to download scenarios from the previous day's matches and see if we can change history.
Of course no modern-day FIFA game based on a major international tournament would be complete without Captain Your Country mode, in which you bid to lead your nation from the front while fighting the temptation to give another squad member's missus a lesson in ball skills. There doesn't seem to be much new to talk about in this department, but the mode is as welcome as ever, especially when the prize is to see your player lift five kilos of 18-carat gold above their steaming coiffure in front of an audience of billions.
Online play will involve the eponymous tournament and a new mode that allows participation in a league and cup tournament. There'll be 10 leagues, with promotion to the next tier gained by earning 16 points in a single season, while eight will see you drop to a lower division. The cup tournament will pit teams from all leagues against each, making for the mouth-watering prospect of some giant killing escapades.
On the pitch there have been numerous nip and tucks since FIFA 10. Improvements of note include the ability to take the ball on your chest, spin and run with it. Attackers now appear hungrier to get on the end of crosses, while AI defenders seem slightly savvier. Top-class attackers also appear to strike the ball with more spin.
While concrete conclusions are impossible without spending a sizeable chunk of time with final review code, from what I've seen so far, 2010 FIFA World Cup appears to have taken the finest elements of FIFA 10 and mixed them with a number of smart tweaks and a shiny World Cup veneer. While it might not be a recipe for a groundbreaking must-buy if you already own FIFA 10, with action this good and with the destiny of football's greatest prize in the balance and open to the widest possible audience thanks to the Dad Pad, EA might just have another FIFA-licensed winner on its hands.
2010 FIFA World Cup is due out for PS3, PSP, Wii and Xbox 360 on 30th April.