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.