Version tested: PlayStation 3
The myth that EA makes the bimbo football game and Konami makes the cultured one is probably dead by now, but just in case, I have sent it to McDonald's at 2am to spill Joey Barton's pint. FIFA has long since put its dark, deformed days of knee-length grass and knee-deep gameplay behind it, and with this 2009th instalment it delivers solid, realistic football along with its trademark compellingly polished presentation. And careful, because it probably is trademarked.
What's more, it's got more good ideas than FIFA's dad, Sepp Blatter, has had in his entire career. There's Adidas Live Season, which allows you to download form updates for your favourite league, and benefit from them in exhibition, ranked online matches and Interactive Leagues. Interactive Leagues were a good idea from last year, you may remember; you pick your favourite team, and then play against people who represent your next real-life opponent. Worldwide results in these fixtures determine worldwide positions on the Interactive League table. (The game will also support the FIFA Interactive World Cup.)
FIFA 09 also allows you to define tactical presets, and then map these plans to a d-pad menu, so if you go behind late in the game, you could push your full-backs forward and press for an equaliser at the touch of a button, or if you're 2-0 up you could load the midfield. There are slider bars for all sorts of variables, and toggles for things like playing the offside trap. As ever, whether your team can do all the things you ask of them is down to their individual stats, and you still have the option to pick and tweak standard formations, set up man marking and kick takers, and drop Dirk Kuyt even though you love him, in the standard way.
All of this comes in handy when you're playing with friends, and there's a new mode for that too. Lounge mode invites you to set up a league with up to 19 friends and then use "cheap shots" to give yourself pre-game advantages, like extra goals and reduced opposition performance stats. Or you can play them online in the 10-versus-10 games that rely on the "Be a Pro" mechanic introduced in FIFA 08, where you control one player for the whole match. Pre-release we couldn't get enough people together for this, but we wouldn't recommend anybody trying it out without practicing offline first.
Good thing, then, that there's a companion single-player mode, Be a Pro: Seasons, where you get four campaigns to try and rise through the reserves and first team to become captain of your country, as the game puts ticks and crosses against your name for moving into the right positions, completing passes and tackles, scoring goals and contributing to positive results. Online FIFA 09 Clubs allows you to set up a clan, effectively, and then compete for selection in Be a Pro online games. Whether online or off, you can use a typically robust character creation suite to define your player; from the name on his shirt to the sweatbands on his wrists. Well, that's just his torso, thinking about it, but you can also do how he looks, and whether he's got a stupid headband and poncy boots.
Manager Mode, EA's attempt to compete with Konami's revered Master League, also returns in tweaked but not expanded form, even though it's not mentioned on the box or in the manual. It puts up another stern test, allowing you to play around with a transfer budget, field weakened teams in the cup and get turfed out by your board if you don't win enough games, which you control in standard fashion. Konami purists may feel it's a bit light next to their obsession, but it's buckets more shiny water in a vast, vast well here, which also includes licensed leagues from across the world (Premier League, Championship, League 1 and 2 and FA Cup from England), albeit with randomised fixture lists.
If this were old-days FIFA, we'd now moan that it's all very well having more options than Starbucks, but it all looks a bit indulgent when your football moves around on a secret network of arching conveyors and the score's 16-7. Not any more, of course, and FIFA 09 rams the point home with the emphasis on physical midfield battles and possession football, where teams hold their shape and press, and jostle with great effect, and it's up to you to exploit them by dragging defenders out of position, switching the play and paying attention to personnel. Slide tackles haven't much place here, and sprinting is best saved for decisive openings, or you'll run out and continually lose the ball as it moves a fraction out of control with every step. Meanwhile, pressing with two players at once - the default tactic for impatient defenders - does more harm than good, particularly as the refs are officious to say the least.
Along with the tactical presets on the d-pad (or analogue stick, if you switch them around), you also have a broader range of skill moves, accessed by holding a shoulder button and wiggling the right stick in prescribed patterns. The right stick also handles your first touch when receiving the ball, and elsewhere in the increasingly complex control system are various holding moves, jockeying options, fakes, dummies and shot or pass modifiers. As ever though, a player with a good eye for space and movement can get by with just a few buttons and no in-depth knowledge of the fancy bits, even if it never hurts to bone up.
FIFA 09 may want a certain type of passing football to succeed, then, but it's also built on a bedrock of good ball physics and realistic player behaviour, and it's not quite as mean around the box as PES used to be, so while the goals are hard to come by, they can be spectacular. Volleyed and driven shots are particularly fearsome, and while 25-yard potshots won't work as often as placement and good build-up, you rarely feel like the ball is caught under your feet when you should be in prime position to really murder it home. The only slight disappointment is how little joy we had from corners and wing play. Cutting inside to pass it to the striker was always a better ploy, as the physical presence of centre-halfs and the goalkeeper turfed us out of the box on most of the occasions the ball arrived in the air. Particularly strong aerial attackers, like People's Hero Peter Crouch, are exceptions, but it's odd to see the likes of Torres coming up so short.
Otherwise, there are only niggles. There's one irritatingly persistent bug that spins your player round when he's running onto a loose ball, which looks odd and often costs you possession, and there are other times when your team-mates apparently lose all sense of time and place, as well as the traditional football game grumbles of the player-select button selecting a player you didn't want, passes going to the player next to the one you meant, and button presses getting buffered for the next player on the ball, who passes it harmlessly into touch when you wanted him to run with it.
On the whole though, the depth of choice on and off the pitch makes up for these things. FIFA 09 feels like a proper football game. It used to pretend to be football, dressed up in face masks and gluey boots, but these days football is exactly what it's computing. And the face masks are prettier too. Likenesses do vary in quality (Crouch looks like a tanned smurf, for one), but the animation is phenomenal, and there's so much subtle variation in the visual language EA's defined that we could swear they've even replicated stuff like Kuyt's shambling gait. But then perhaps we're just imagining it, or expecting it, because the game's otherwise very convincing. It feels like football, it rewards football, and it punishes football, for football reasons. It may not always be your brand of football, and you can ask for more, but only by degrees. The myth is dead. "Let's FIFA".
8 / 10