Version tested: Xbox 360
Let's rewind twelve months. ‘Watch your back, Konami' was the ominous warning that rounded off our review of FIFA 07, a statement fuelled by a belief that after years of churning out identikit pap, EA had finally taken the hint that tacking on a novelty feature onto the previous year's game and slapping it onto the shelves was no longer a recipe for global domination. Having had its nose blooded by the mesmerising Pro Evolution Soccer series, FIFA 07 was an attempt to bite back. But it wasn't quite enough. Now, FIFA has returned, refocused, leaner, hungrier and eager to retake the crown that PES swiped off its cocky head a few seasons ago.
As has become the norm, every new FIFA game is preceded by bold boasts from EA about why this year's version will be 'The One'. It's a statement that's usually followed by lists of features and numbers containing countless zeros. Apparently, the revamped game engine now sees players making 1000 decisions every second. They can also strike the ball in an infinite number of ways - a stat that's numerically impossible to display, as there simply aren't enough zeros in the universe. EA also claims that defenders are more intelligent than ever (and by that they don't mean they've added home economics to their woodwork GCSEs) and that the ball physics are affected by a multitude of factors, including wind speed, player balance, ball spin and even air pressure. All sounds very impressive, right? But how does it translate on the pitch?
Well, incredibly well actually. From the first moment you kick off, the sheer amount of love that's been lavished on FIFA 08 is immediately apparent. Charge forward in a cocksure attempt to dribble past the opposition with a journeyman midfielder and you'll be left more red faced than an exfoliated tomato. As is the case with every part of FIFA 08, you're going to need to put in some serious practice if you're going to master its subtleties. Thankfully you can do just that on the training field - which you're transported to every time the game loads a match - for some one on one practice against a goalkeeper. Which is a nice touch.
What will strike you even more is that FIFA 08's pace has been toned right down when compared to the likes of PES. Not to the treacle-like plodding of UEFA Champions League 06-07, but rather to the tactical, considered, multi-tempo pace you'd associate with real football. Instead of just charging forward in endless waves of attacks, you're forced to stop, look around, shield the ball, make space and try to find a team-mate while the opposition incessantly harries you into making a mistake. An excellent fatigue meter ensures that you can't spend the entire match with your finger jammed on the run button. Instead, you're forced to sprint in short, sharp, bursts and bamboozle the opposition by suddenly accelerating past them before trying to release a team-mate with a perfectly timed through ball.
However, passing is no longer a case of pointing in the vague direction of another player and hoping for the best. You see, not only do you now control the strength of each pass but its exact direction (particularly challenging if you turn off passing assistance). This makes for some excellent build up play, where players jostle for position and momentarily find space only to be quickly closed down, forcing you to reassess your approach play on a second by second basis as you look for an opening to thread through that killer pass.
It's right about now that it hits you. FIFA 08 is perhaps the most realistic virtual rendition of football you've ever played, one that requires you to think like a real player, to probe and pass and ping the ball around the field rather than charge forward en masse like an invading army. Every bounce and spin affects how the ball leaves a player's foot when they shoot. Defenders and attackers desperately lunge and poke at the ball when it's loose in the area rather than having it sucked miraculously onto their toes by an invisible tractor beam. And then there's the way that you can only ever truly get at the opposition if you put your foot on the ball, graft hard and look for those rare openings that typify a real game of footy.
To emphasise my point, let me take a small detour. After spending a couple of days in an intimate clinch with FIFA 08, I fired up PES6, a game I've always considered a slick and fairly realistic rendition of the beautiful game. It was like someone had sped up time. Players buzzed around the ball like flies around a horse's arse and it wasn't till an hour later that the joys of PES's unadulterated end-to-end mayhem came seeping back into my overwhelmed brain.
The distinction between PES6 and FIFA 08 proved so wide, it was almost hard to believe they were the same sport. And herein lies the age-old conundrum. Which is better, the slow, considered simulation or the madness and mayhem of arcade-inspired action? Well, as with all such decisions, it totally depends on what type of experience you're looking for and how much time you're willing to invest before you master it.
I've heard grumblings from some sections of the press that the game is too frustrating, too hard, that there simply aren't enough goals. All of which, admittedly, are valid points. But that's because FIFA attempts to recreate real professional football, which by its very nature is itself frustrating, hard and often fairly frugal with goal counts. FIFA is like watching a ninety-minute match, one packed with jostling and failed attacks punctuated by the occasional moment of magic that makes the whole affair worthwhile. PES is more like watching the highlights: a series of frenetic exchanges where the action never ceases.
Anyway, before we get too bogged down with this, let's move on to some of FIFA 08's other new features, starting with the Be A Pro mode, which sees you taking control of one player and mastering his position. This is an inspired inclusion, as it allows you to play anywhere on the pitch other than in goal (shame) and then have your performance rated. Thanks to a superb camera system you always remain on screen, with the camera zooming in on you when the ball is close and pulling out when you're far from the action.
Play at left back and you'll have to shuttle up and down the pitch, overlapping the winger and whipping in crosses, then track back to snuff out an opposition foray. Play up front and you'll be attempting to get behind the other team's defence. A simple call for the ball button set-up allows you to request a pass, a through ball or shout for defensive backup. However, almost criminally, you can only play one off games in this mode. Why you can't play an entire career or even just one season in which you build up your player, work with your team and maybe even interact with your fellow squad members is beyond me. Had these features been implemented, FIFA 08 would have been propelled into a league of its own.
So far, you've probably picked up on the fact that I've been pretty glowing about this game. Of course, you've probably also had a look at the score. Maybe you're wondering why it's only an eight and not a nine. Well, let me just clear that up before we start winding things down.
For starters, the game is too hard on the easier difficulty settings. I've no problem with a game being a challenge and requiring you to put in the hours, but when even the beginner settings make it fiendishly hard to find the back of the net, I start to worry. Defenders are impressively efficient, almost too efficient, and you can't help but wish they'd been toned down ever so slightly to make the game more accessible early on, and it's more than possible that a fair number of you will be discouraged by this steep early learning curve.
FIFA 08's front end is also a mess. Clunky menus, unclear save features, fiddly squad editing options and an infuriatingly awkward tournament creation process are just four irks that'll irritate you before you even step onto the pitch. The whole team chemistry mechanic is also very undeveloped and somewhat confusing, often feeling like a puzzle game where the right players need to be slotted into the correct positions rather than being a powerful formation tool. What's more, the Manager Mode is pretty under whelming, with transfer negotiations and board interaction the biggest culprits.
So there you have it, FIFA 08 is, on the whole, a triumph. Had the Be A Pro features been more fleshed out and the lower difficulty settings somewhat more forgiving, then it would undoubtedly have scored a 9 rather than an 8. However, thanks to the promise of the former feature, multiplayer games that are little short of superb (due to the lack of AI defenders thwarting your every attack), the usual exhaustive array of official league and cup competitions and some stunning visuals and animations that milk next gen power for all it's worth, it very much feels that the FIFA franchise is genuinely teetering on the cusp of greatness.
So, to finish off, we come to the inevitable question. PES or FIFA? Well, perhaps the most pertinent point here is that FIFA 08 now feels more like an alternative to PES rather than a direct rival, due to its slower, more considered and realistic approach. The two series feel very much like they're on opposite ends of the spectrum now, with both possessing a host of merits, but ultimately providing two very different experiences. Maybe it's time we stopped torturing ourselves about which is better and started thinking about what kind of footy experience we're looking for, then make our decisions based on that instead. Now there's a thought...
8 / 10