It's the eternal struggle. You do a footy game, it comes out every year and it sells loads. Why reinvent the wheel, risk a fan backlash and face the critics who accuse you of inventing needless gimmicks to appear fresh and new? The reason is simple. EA are fixed on moving the beautiful game forward, even on the PS2, which most developers have either deserted or prematurely classed as a Fisher Price toy, suitable only for games involving angular-pant-wearing heroes and bobble-headed French ragdolls.
So, while FIFA 08 is set to be dramatically reborn on next-gen platforms, FIFA 08 on PS2 is a solid, finely tuned finale to the series. Producer Paul Hossack is keen to stress that, on his 7th FIFA, this is a very different game to the one appearing on PS3: "we're not told what to do, we're not looking at the next-gen version and doing the same. Internally, we see what they're doing but we get the chance to polish the core system we've been working on for seven years," he explains.
There's a push to make FIFA 08 a more social game and it's aimed at gamers who want to work together as well as putting a few screamers past each other. "Sometimes the most fun you have when playing videogames is sitting on the couch with your buddy," says Hossack. "We allow people to play to head-to-head, but I've always had this gut feeling that there's more we can do." He's right, too - looking at the EA Sports roster, it's not hard to see where the drive to build the multiplayer aspects of FIFA comes from when looking at milestones like Fight Night, Madden and Tiger Woods. The chances are, if you've played a game against someone lately on PS2, it's got an EA Sports label on the box. The pressure to make something that works, isn't classed as a gimmick and fits in with the quality of the other triple A athletes standing tall in the EA Sports line-up must be huge. FIFA 08 looks to have cracked it.
The key difference with 08 on PS2 is the custom-designed co-op mode. It's called Be A Pro Co-Op Season and it gives you and a mate the chance to pick a team member and play with a team of PS2-controlled players. The idea is that by working together and using just one player without the ability to switch to another player, gamers will be forced to learn the importance of playing a set position. Each player can call for the ball if he's in space and there's a realistic five-a-side feel to the matches. Run around like a headless chicken in defence and you'll lose stamina and expose holes in the backline. There's set challenges within the mode, with hundreds of achievements from hitting a set score line to committing less fouls, accumulating assists and letting the PS2 take charge when necessary. Be a goal-seeking glory boy and you'll lose and run the risk of your mate passing to a PS2 robot rather than you when it comes to spectacular set-pieces. There's the option to pit two teams of two against each other and play matches, but with just two players doing a season, the rewards are huge - especially if you've created an average player to build and improve as part of, say, Manchester United. Play as Rooney and there's not much room for improvement on his stats and you'll lose the sense of satisfaction of playing as (go, on admit it) yourself, living the dream.
In terms of the main controls, player switching can now be activated by the right stick. It doesn't replace the traditional shoulder button player selection scrolling but allows you to 'point' at key players, rather than scrolling through a few players to get to the one you want. "I can't play without using it. I play FIFA 07 and it feels so limited. You could get frustrated at the game," admits Hossack.
Elsewhere, there's tweaks designed solely to keep multiplayer matches exciting. When a throw in or free-kick occurs, you can hide the player selection marker, so your rival won't have a clue which way the ball is heading. It seems like a small touch, but in addition to the ability to take full control of the keeper, it gives the game a strategic edge that just wasn't there before. Through balls and passing are varied, and the manual through balls give you greater control. Practice and there's less chance of the ball going beyond or behind a player. Watching FIFA 08 in action, it looks more like a real match of football. Players make proper runs and keepers scramble to make saves instead of staring at the ball until a player enters the box. Second-guessing a rival's throw or free-kick looks realistic - there's little chance of a rival piggybacking your receiving player, dry-humping him before the play has even been made.
In terms of the structure, there's new leagues to be announced and the addition of custom formations and no formation is exactly the same, mimicking the traditional starting line of each team. Individual 4-4-2 formations will all have subtle changes which has a real effect on the play, given that PS2 controlled players move more intelligently and aren't always caught offside or, worse still, staring in the opposite direction. When crosses occur, you can bet someone's there, ready to take the shot which removes all of the frustration of previous games where there wasn't always someone to score. Play feels more open, less on rails and - with the co-op mode - gives gamers the chance to learn what future 11-versus-11 multiplayer games might feel like in the future. "It's going to happen, it's part of the evolution towards 11-versus-11 matches" says Hossack, giving a teasing insight into how FIFA is rapidly evolving in the face of increased competition and the shift to next-gen. On PS2, FIFA 08 is the most innovate game in the series yet. The overall structure, key gameplay and the new co-op mode all conspire to show how innovation in the beautiful game isn't exclusive to the bigger, shinier black brother of PS2.