If you think the main FIFA team is tired of being asked about PES, spare a thought for the Wii guys. With Konami edging perilously close to the piss-take with its lethargy in giving fans a genuine from-the-ground-up kickabout on 360 and PS3, EA must have felt quietly confident that it would have a clear sight of goal with proper motion-controlled gameplay for this year's update.
That was until, in March, its bitter rival sneakily went and released Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 for Wii. Which was fantastically innovative and anything but, as Kristan put it, "the tired port many feared it would end up being." Including EA.
"It came out here in February, so we were already well into development. It's interesting to see; I thought we were going to be the first ones to it, but these things are going to happen," sighs producer Kevin Chorney.
His team, you see, is currently implementing a similar style of off-the-ball controls to those Konami delivered so impressively at the very first time of asking. (Given the daft monikers adopted by the respective team leaders at the Japanese publisher, we're beginning to think Aesop missed a trick by skipping the fable of the Greyhound and the Seabass. 360 and PS3 owners could probably have a decent stab.)
EA's first take on Wii footy wasn't quite as successful, although its priorities were markedly different. Where Konami adopted the polar opposite tactic to most Wii translations in daring players to step up to the plate with an unapologetically complex game, EA kept its eye firmly on the casual ball.
Fronted by a charming Mii incarnation of Ronaldinho - infinitely more appealing than the grasping has-been of the real world - it mixed a primary-coloured kickabout with simple, accessible controls and a party-game mentality. Never quite raising itself above middle-of-the-table anonymity, it nevertheless had a reasonable crack at appealing to Generation Wii with its remote-only Family Play controls. Despite the portentous promise of "revolutionary FreeMotion controls", this was largely restricted to flicking the wrist to shoot, throw-ins and mini-games.
FIFA 09 will release on EA Sports big cheese Peter Moore's new All Play Wii label, formalising the title's casual aspirations. The basic structure of last year remains intact: top-drawer authenticity, full league mode, online play, mini-games and so on. But the feature EA is screaming loudest about from the terraces before kick-off is Footii Match.
"Footii Match is something we're really proud of," says Chorney. The team believes this is as big a deal to Wii as the brilliant Be A Pro feature (which sadly isn't transferring to the Nintendo version) was on 360 and PS3 last year. "It's a new way of playing the game, never experienced before, taking it to the next level. We wanted to create something unique, something very different."
Rather than the standard 11 vs. 11 of regular FIFA (and, well, actual football), Footii Match throws together a motley crew of Miis for an 8 vs. 8 free-for-all with emphasis on the kind of outrageous hit-and-hope playmaking that would have Brian Clough spinning in his grave.
There are seven international sides, each captained by a caricatured star. Beat one, and the captain will transfer to an All-Star line-up, which will become playable once you've done over the lot. As you'd expect, your own Mii creations can be used here, too.
It's very clearly not meant to recreate to tactical ebb-and-flow of real football: this is playground one-upmanship for selfish show-offs. Getting the ball to your star as quickly as possible seems to be the wisest tactic, as they're much more likely to belt one in from miles out. Shot accuracy is further affected by a momentum meter: the better you're doing, the more it fills and the greater the accuracy of the subsequent attempt.
Using 'All Play' controls, sans nunchuk, A is pass, B is tackle and runs to the ball, and shaking produces a shot, its velocity determined by your arm's. Trick moves, meanwhile, are context-sensitive and require a double-press of B. So if you happen to be David Hasselhof and drunk, AI will take care of the actual movement of players; adding the nunchuk, meanwhile, gives you standard analogue control.
Footii Match is a lot more fun than we expected, even though it's more of the five-minute distraction variety than something we'd want to spend hours with. Likewise, mini-games like table football (tweaked since last year), are engaging quick-fix additions to the package.
But nothing here so far to distract the seasoned Wii footy fan from their copy of PES, which is where the 'Advanced' controls come in. And, yep, that means a similar point-and-click-where-you-want-him-to-go system to PES, except with a Peter Moore-approved concession to casual gamers in that it can still be played without the nunchuk.
"We listened to our consumers last year," insists Chorney. Family Play was good, but as a hardcore game I felt the experience was reduced. This time it's a level playing field, it's just that the controls are slightly different."
What he means by "level playing field" is that each player can select their control style: so in theory, a non-gaming idiot person can swish-and-click at random and still do a passing impression of the beautiful game, while a FIFA veteran will have the same basic skills at their disposal, but in a much deeper, more satisfying way.
Once again, there's a Soccer Academy to work you through the basics. And EA is keen to stress there will be "stepping stones" to take the willing and able from All Play up to Advanced, with additional support for the Classic controller and GameCube pad, covering off all the bases.
"We've done some crazy, wacky prototypes," Chorney reveals. "That's the thing with the Wii - it's a unique gameplay experience. We've also been testing it with a broad demographic of people, from kids all the way to their parents."
Motion-sensing play might seem an obvious choice for any Wii sports title, but while its application is relatively obvious and intuitive for tennis, bowling and golf, football - the clue's in the name - is by definition a more abstract proposition.
"Shooting is the biggest problem," reckons Chorney. "What's the perfect way of doing it? Do you put the Wiimote in your sock, as that might feel more natural? In other sports games, when you're doing a motion that's natural it translates; it makes perfect sense."
Anyway, shake-to-shoot might not provide that 'eureka!' Wii Sports moment, but it's a perfectly acceptable compromise, and one which we, if part of EA's marketing team, would be paying Maradona industrial quantities of pies and burgers to promote.
However, the system is still very clearly work-in-progress in the build we get our hands on at EA's Season Opener event in Vancouver: while the basics are in place, implementation needs attention. We have a blast through a few quick games of FIFA in both Footii Match and standard modes. In the spirit of 'Family Play', it's no surprise that EA has catered for up to four-players at once; but in practice, you begin to understand why Konami stuck resolutely to a two-player limit.
Icons and flashing indicators litter the playing area in a manner more reminiscent of Rez than a football game: arrows everywhere, visual trails from shots, flashing circles to show where the ball will land, coloured circles around each controlled player, individual pointers... It's as confusing as it sounds, and runs counter to the philosophy of accessibility at the heart of the project.
EA readily acknowledges this and is swift to point out that, since this is the first time any press have played the game, feedback is important, and there is still plenty of time left to make changes. Clearly, the fewer human players involved, the more comprehensible and therefore enjoyable the action; but for a title that puts 'Family Play' at the top of its team-sheet, EA won't want Uncle Dave and Nana Doris going catatonic before half-time.
These presentational issues aside, the team wishes to draw a clear distinction between its title and Konami's.
"What we've tried to do is create a comprehensive package," says Chorney. "Personally, when I was playing [PES], I felt like I wasn't having the control I wanted to over the defence. On the attacking side it felt good, passing felt good. Konami's strong, we know they're strong, but that makes us stronger.
"We want to be a lot more approachable; but we also want to cater to the hardcore gamer, as these are fans that we've had for a while and I think what we're doing with our Advanced play is getting them to that position. And we're also introducing a new audience who, when they pick up the controls for the first time, don't need to know 300 combinations."
And this a fair point. Right now, Wii football fans have the deliberately simplified FIFA 08 at one end of the scale, and the unashamedly Gordian PES 2008 at the other. And as persuasive as those ads featuring Michael Owen and grinning-imbecile-for-hire Ian Wright frolicking on a sofa may have proved, one wonders how many footy-loving-but-resolutely-casual Wii gamers ever got beyond learning the most basic controls.
With FIFA 09 EA is attempting to bridge the gap between the two and deliver an experience that makes good on the promise of that cheesy 'All Play' tag. Over the past couple of seasons, the lead version of FIFA has proved emphatically that it need no longer exist in the shadow of Konami's colossus; the onus is now on EA to prove the same on Wii.
FIFA 09 is due out later this year.