I'm watching a video of Alessandro Faiolhe Amantino Mancini scoring for Roma against Lyon in the Champions League. EA's Joe Booth turns it off and says: "We want to give the user that kind of freedom to improvise." Since you couldn't be bothered to click on the video link above even after I went and bloody well found it for you, he means that you should be able to feint right from standing, feint left, step-over right, feint left, step-over right, step-over left, step-over right, exit to the defender's left and put the ball into the roof of the net from six yards, all within one fluid, exacting motion that remains completely under your control. What's brilliant about FIFA 08 is that you actually can do that, it blends logically into the game, and it looks bloody amazing.
There's times, listening to Booth and his colleagues Gary Paterson and Kaz Makita, and playing around in the Arena mode with Ronaldinho, that FIFA sounds like the most realistic football game ever made. Consider what happens when you take a shot. Often you just kick the ball and don't think about it. Frank Lampard certainly does. The 22-page design document for FIFA 08's shot system, which Paterson walks us through, suggests EA does think about it.
The ball, now completely freed from the animation system, is influenced by variables most of us never think about. The connecting foot's angle and position in 3D space is the starter step. Then it factors in its lateral and incoming velocity, the air pressure and density, and the mass of the ball, among other things. The endless graphics on Paterson's Word document show the multitudinous possible outcomes. "Once upon a time we used to compute error by saying, okay, the guy's trying to shoot into the top-corner, we want to do error so we're going to move it into space over here," Joe Booth explains, waving his arms about. "But that's not how real physics works, so what we do now is apply the error to the ball, so you get much more subtlety." Like the Reynolds effect. Which is what, maths-man Gary Paterson? "It's where you hit it so hard the spin doesn't have any effect on the ball until it's slowed down enough. Like Roberto Carlos' goal against France." Aha.
The other part of what happens when you strike the ball is down to the player. "The key thing for us is to try and analyse the context in which the shot was taken, to try and understand how the player would then kick the ball in that situation," says Paterson. "Once we understand how he would kick the ball we can then apply the errors that would be realistic for football." For example, they've made certain animations slightly longer. "It kind of feels like it would be counterintuitive because you think your responsiveness is going to go down if that's the case," he adds, anticipating concerns. "But it doesn't really, because you see the player trying to kick the ball and that's enough for you." He makes a good point. When people's-champion Steven Gerrard shapes to hit a shot, he needs time and composure. The player logically expects to need that in a game, and shapes his tactics to build towards an authentic shooting opportunity. That realism keys into the emotions the player feels. "When Steven Gerrard gets into space 25 yards from goal and he's got enough space to take a touch and set himself up for goal," says Paterson, allowing us to shoehorn more Steven Gerrard mentions into this paragraph, "that's when the spectators feel that anticipation. We want that in FIFA."
Football, for me at least, is all about the aesthetic beauty, the search for a truly original goal. When Torsten Frings wrapped his foot around the ball in the last minute of Germany's World Cup opener against Costa Rica, I leapt out of my chair as it rose and swerved violently into the top corner. "A lot of those goals that continue to rise into the back of the net is down to backspin, and if you get your ball physics right that comes through," Paterson notes. In concert with ball physics and shot maths, then, comes the animation system. It's rooted in last year's "LocoMotion" system, which separated the ball from animation, and allowed the player to react dynamically to where the ball is. Last year's barely perceptible limitations (apparently it had to guestimate the final metre of logic in certain obscure situations) are sorted, and now it can handle things like walking, slow-dribbling, and all sorts of other permutations. "The animation system allows us to be a lot more explicit and a lot more sophisticated with how we kick the ball," says Paterson. "We have animations for when the ball's close, we have animations for when the ball's far so you're stretching at it. Power animations, placed animations."
The upshot of all of which is that this is a game where you could conceivably hit Matt Holland's 50-yard looping volley, or heroic Xabi Alonso's 80-yard open-goal winner against a retreating Luton goalkeeper, or, for the sake of mentioning it, Lee Dixon's hilarious own-goal lob of David Seaman. And, of course, Mancini's absurd, Ronaldo-shaming stepover feint epic against Lyon, which flows from another element that FIFA 07 fans will be keen to hear about: the skill move system. Because, of course, 07 didn't bother with it. "We did that on purpose because that felt very old-fashioned," Joe Booth explains. "It was a button combination and a canned move, and we wanted something a bit more organic." So, for the sake of freedom of footballing expression, you can now hug the left trigger to move into pace-control, and then use the right-stick to perform timed, combined skill moves: a step-over is an upward gesture that turns to the right, for instance. We're shown a chart of all the skill moves you can do, and it's already dozens, with more to come. All can be initiated from a standing start, a jog, or a slow dribble. You can do reverse-stepovers, flip-flaps (Ronaldinho's one-foot misdirection), over-the-head rainbow flicks, fake shots, heel to heel, even Rebonas.
Naturally the team is giving a lot of thought to how to balance this system within the game context, because it wouldn't be much good if you could just waltz around as Ronaldinho embarrassing people after five minutes' training. "Depending on attributes and other things, like the timing of your skill moves, the defender can be fooled by the feint move or not fooled by it," Booth says. "The way we're doing them right now - although it's not finalised - is that if you're manually moving the player it's up to you to avoid being fooled, but if you're using the assisted press then you'll get fooled depending on timing and attributes." It's hard not to like their logic of gently persuading the player to learn proper defence rather than relying on the assisted press buttons. As a defender, you also have a jockeying ability that allows you to keep pace and tussle with an attacker in close quarters - a more responsive way of positioning yourself and then pressing for the ball when an opportunity presents itself. What's important about the skill moves though, says Booth, is that "it should be no more or less powerful than it is in real football, which is where we take our lead from".
Booth and company are keen that FIFA isn't pigeonholed as some sort of fantasy plaything obsessed with football's high end, either. "If you watch most football, or certainly for example Darren Huckerby [of Norwich City fame], the way he beats players is with acceleration and change of direction," Paterson points out. "Everyone can do slow dribble in football to a certain extent, and we've given the user the ability to control the speed of their player more, so they can use this to slow down and accelerate and beat players, and that's how most of football's decided." For a practical example, we return to the top flight. "I don't know if you remember Henry scored against Liverpool, he took on about four players or something and got into the box and slid it," says Paterson. Yes, I do remember that, funnily enough. It rings some bells. "We looked at that and said, this is the kind of thing we wanted people to do. He started off in slow dribble, exited to jog to beat the first guy, then he went into a sprint to get to the second person, just before he got to the second person he went into slow dribble again, and then he did a feint and turned to the left and slow dribble again, and finished it with his trademark left channel slot. All he used there was change of speed and direction." Yes, he's a predictable sod. "So that's what we've tried to achieve."
Another element of FIFA 08 is called "Be A Pro", and it's been envisaged as "a new way to play FIFA". More significantly, it's the first step towards full 11-versus-11 gameplay, which Booth believes FIFA will be able to offer in time for the 2010 World Cup. It's a mode that gives you control of one player, and one player only, following him with a camera that zooms out to frame him, the ball and the goal when he's not in possession, and that follows closely like a chase-cam when he's on the ball. So yes, someone call in the Libero Grande fanboys; their time has come. "The camera is the sexy side of this, but the feedback system is the brains of it," Booth elaborates. There's a meter that tracks how well you're doing, an arrow that shows you if you're out of position, and small icons hover over the heads of the three opposition players who are currently most relevant to your position. In other words, people you perhaps should be marking, or who are a threat to your impending possession. Your controls when you're off the ball allow you to call for it, or urge your team-mates to perform other actions.
But why not just go the whole hog and allow people to play as a full team? For that, if you'll forgive the overlap, we turn to what Booth said in our accompanying interview. "At this moment it's still speculative. I think until we get the gameplay balance, we won't have a sense of how well we've done, and I think we're going in with an open mind so we're not trying to position this as the main new feature of FIFA," he says. Another reason is that you have to teach people things slowly. "A lot of people only interact with football on TV, and don't understand what you have to do as a left-back, or a winger or midfielder." Be A Pro will aim to change that. "It's creating a logical system that's going to give you positive and negative feedback. And at the end of the match, it will give you feedback on how you've done overall, and give you certain Achievements for perfecting each position," Booth concludes.
One thing that Be A Pro is certain to do is bring other areas of the game into sharper focus. The AI, for example. It'll be clear if they're not up to much. Fortunately, EA's been thinking about how they think, promising "a huge amount of investment on the player brain". "We have this technology the guys have built called 'threat maps' or threat-analysis, which does a picture of the pitch and it kind of works in peaks and troughs of opportunity versus threat, and so each player interprets it depending on where they are and their situation, and that kind of leads them to decision," says Booth. "So if an attacker's coming down on a defender, rather than it just going to pick on the attacker, he may move into a more threatening space to force the attacker into safer space and then make the tackle."
"As we improve on that you can imagine it becoming more adaptive, so if one player becomes more effective then his level of threat can increase and others would dynamically respond to that." True, and that ties again into the concept of giving the player strong and accurate visual feedback. The players, for example, have to have believable reaction times when the ball rebounds or flies over them. Along similar lines, the team has adjusted the shot-power bar so that in pressured situations, it fills faster, with the ball flying off-course. Previously it was harder to tell at-a-glance why your shot had come off wrong. Other refinements are going into areas like "finesse shots", which are reserved for players of a certain calibre. Meanwhile, years of work conducted on tactics and formation will start to bear fruit in how the AI behaves off the ball.
The broad scope of FIFA 08's refinement won't lead to a shortfall in content, either. Quite the contrary. "We have all the leagues and teams of the current-gen last year, which was 26 leagues, and we've taken that and we've added four more to take it to 30 leagues, so that gets us to 15,000 players," says Booth. "That's something crazy like 13,500 players more than Madden." Madden, eh? They're just not trying. "To put that into perspective, we deal with more transfers in our last ten days of production than the total number of players that were in PES6, Madden and NBA combined." He'd been saving that one up, obviously. Unfortunately, for today, they're continuing to save up chatter about online, too. Last year though Booth worked on the PS2/PC version of FIFA 07, with its Interactive Leagues online structure, in-game developer podcasts (still running), and other initiatives, and that should give us a flavour of what to expect. "When we do announce what we're doing, it's not just going to be about features - it's going to be about other stuff as well," he says.
Much, for now, remains in the air. We're not able to play full games on the build that EA provides us access to, because LocoMotion has only just been reintroduced following its tune-up and a lot background work remains to be done before the game's September/October shipment target. What we do play though hints at the treasures of the skill-move system. Just playing with Ronaldinho, twisting the right-stick around in logical patterns, is an invigorating experience for a life-long football gamer. Close control hasn't really been tackled like this before - certainly not to the same degree - and while it will take significant effort between now and later this year to make everything interact in balanced and convincing fashion, even in its infancy it's a powerful indication of the control FIFA aims to provide; the ambition commendable. And with Pro Evolution Soccer's as-yet shadowy next-generation redux set to launch against it, we ought to be spoiled for choice when the teams square up later this year.
FIFA 08 is due out on PS3 and Xbox 360 around September/October. It'll be joined by a "current-gen" version for PS2 and PC, and a separate Wii version, and we'll be bringing you our thoughts on those in due course. So, next week. Stop nagging.