The World Cup may only come around once every four years, but when it comes to the associated videogame there's usually a sense of over-familiarity. EA Sports' FIFA games are the best football titles out there at the moment, but with updates already arriving annually, spin-off games specific to international tournaments are a bit like the Premier League's aborted "39th game" plan - an idea that seems to suit the stakeholders primarily, with only token concern for the fans.
2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa hopes to change that. As a World Cup game, it's defined to some extent by what it doesn't have (300 domestic clubs, most obviously), but EA Sports has compensated by drawing up several interesting and varied game modes, and uses the legendary status of World Cup shoot-outs as an excuse to rethink penalties.
Most importantly, it tweaks things on the pitch. Goalkeepers stand their ground rather than charging suicidally out of goal, and there are myriad interesting deflections to contend with, so it's harder to pass your way through midfield. Passing may prove divisive - there seems to be more "error" than before - but then aerial passing is now a practical aspect of attack, which is welcome. The referees have also calmed down, rarely blowing for harmless shoulder barges as they did in FIFA 10.
There are still weaknesses and potential exploits (when through on goal it's quite easy to move to one side of the goalkeeper and roll the ball into the opposite corner, and crosses from the by-line always seem to swing out of play), but new animations, tweaks to ball movement and a faster pace mean that World Cup is distinct from FIFA 10 without abandoning its best features.
Most fans' first port of call will be the World Cup tournament itself. There's something jarring about new commentary duo Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend eulogising South African football stadiums they have presumably never visited, but the ticker tape, gorgeous lighting conditions and cutaways to anxious managers on the touchline and dancing fans make the most of the licence.
Commenting on EA Sports' slick presentation used to be a backhanded compliment, but in this case it's deserved. The result centre between matches enhances the feeling of continuity, and having latest scores filter through from other group games while you play is another nice touch. From naming your squad to lifting the cup, the ritual emphasises the right details and makes it easy to suspend your disbelief.
Not convinced? There are practical considerations too, like the way the game tracks form. For example, if Wayne Rooney begins the World Cup injured and the mighty Peter Crouch scores a few goals in his absence, it may suit you to stick with the little fellow even when Rooney is declared fit, as the Spurs and England striker's form may give him the edge.
The World Cup mode plays out with traditional control of the whole team, switching between players when you want, but Captain Your Country mode is closer to FIFA 10's Be A Pro and Clubs modes. You and up to three friends choose specific players to control and work together in the hope that your individual performances will catch the manager's eye and secure one of you the armband.
The game is supposed to acknowledge positioning, team play and individual skill by adding or removing points from your running total, but it often does things that make no football sense, like marking you down for an incomplete pass because your brilliant back-post cross eluded a team-mate.
However, there's undeniable satisfaction in combining to undo a tough defence and seeing those points totals totting up, and in some respects this is the best mode in the game, because playing together towards a long-term goal heightens the fun and drama. You can import a custom pro from FIFA 10 for this mode, too, and when one of you does become captain you gain the ability to direct other aspects of the team.
Online, the World Cup offering is comparable to FIFA's Interactive Leagues system, building up a nation's ranking over a succession of games, while regular ranked matches now use a promotion and relegation model, awarding points for wins and draws over subsequent matches. The underlying tech appears unchanged, however, suggesting that @FIFAQuitters will have to keep fighting the good fight.
Elsewhere, the single-player Story of Qualifying mode mixes full-squad and single-player scenarios to good effect, plunging you into dramatic circumstances - the Ireland vs. France playoff just after Thierry Henry's infamous handball, for instance - and inviting you to write your own legend. Apparently EA can introduce new scenarios quite easily, too, so we should see some contextual updates during the World Cup itself.
Drama was a watchword for the development team judging by the wholesale revamp of penalties, which now place greater emphasis on timing and judgement as opposed to luck. Spend a bit of time on the practice pitch investigating how the power bar works, how to use the stutter step and when and for how long you need to angle the left stick to bury the ball in the side netting, and the results will be there for all to see. Whether you can do it all in the heat of the moment is another thing.
The learning curve on penalties is steep enough that people will be caught out by it initially, but 2010 FIFA World Cup makes concessions elsewhere, with a new two-button "Dad Pad" control scheme that does most of the thinking on your behalf, leaving you with little to worry about beyond running around, passing and shooting.
The idea is to make it easier for newcomers to play against experienced players, and to some extent it works, as Dad Padders simply aren't allowed to make basic mistakes in defence, and a lot of pass selection is automated. We can probably expect to see it again, although a refined version that allows you to gradually expose yourself to more difficulty might be a superior long-term option in FIFA 11.
Whoops, we've gone and mentioned FIFA 11. EA Sports' next "proper" football game could be as little as five months away, and is likely to absorb all the best things 2010 FIFA World Cup does on the pitch and surround them with more modes, features and playable clubs than ever before. It's not the World Cup developers' fault that their game is sandwiched between annual updates, but that doesn't entitle their corporate overlords to a free ride.
2010 FIFA World Cup isn't a cynical release, at least, but it was always doomed to be obsolete within months, and by that token it's hard to offer more than a guarded recommendation - even though those who do make the investment will probably enjoy their footballing summer more than the numpties we're sending to South Africa.
8 / 10