Version tested: Xbox 360
The deluge of downloadable content for Xbox 360 and PS3 continues unabated, and EA Canada is the latest to throw its hat into the arena with this add-on for FIFA 09. Ultimate Team is actually a rehash of the hit-and-miss Ultimate Team feature that debuted in UEFA Champions League 2006/2007, and is ostensibly a concoction of vanilla FIFA and a trading card game with a hint of Pro Evolution Soccer's Master League thrown in for good measure.
To begin with you're allocated a set of random playing cards. These range from players (each with their own unique stats) to home and away kits, your stadium, training ground and a collection of in-game Gameplay Modifiers that you can cash in during matches. Your ultimate goal is to collect and trade your way to the best possible team and bonuses by swapping cards and spending Coins earned through the successful completion of games against online and AI opponents.
Any card can be directly traded for another. Alternatively, you can spend the Coins you've earned to acquire better cards by hopping online and haggling with other players. If you ever played a Panini trading card game in your primary school days then you'll have a vague idea of what this involves. However, for the impatient player there's the opportunity to buy new cards online in exchange for Microsoft Points or funds from a PS3 wallet: a disappointing design choice that will clearly give some players an unfair advantage.
Both cards and players come in three categories: Bronze, Silver and Gold. By training up lesser players you can advance them to the next rank or alternatively, you can simply try to to buy your way to success. There's also an option to create and customise your own player who, with enough care, attention and outlay, can also be trained up to become world-class.
In a clear attempt to add an extra strategic vein, Ultimate Team employs a rather lackadaisical chemistry mechanic that factors in each player's nationality, favoured position and preferred formation. You're also given a Manager playing card, with each gaffer preferring certain formations. Use this formation and your team's chemistry receives a boost. The more members of your team that play where they want, how they want and with players from the same country, the higher your team's chemistry rating becomes. In theory, this means better performances on the pitch, although actually gauging the effect it has during a game is difficult unless you play everyone out of position. It's also a strangely restrictive system that often dictates line-ups and formations to you rather than allowing for the more tactical and considered approach of standard FIFA 09.
Player and manager contracts must also be monitored closely, because each squad member will only play a set number of matches before their contract expires. In these circumstances you need to invest in contract cards to extend a player's stay, while crocked squad members can have their recovery sped up with healing bonus cards, which is a decent touch that adds a modicum of depth.
Once you've settled on a formation and starting line-up, you can choose up to four Gameplay Modifier cards to take into a match. These cards give your players a bonus for a specific amount of time, reduce the opposing team's skill or fitness levels, or influence the ref to turn a blind eye to potentially career-threatening tackles. To activate a card during a game, you simply hold down the Back or Select button, depending on your console, and then press the d-pad direction that correlates to the bonus you want.
It's here that Ultimate Team begins to show some real promise, but sadly the system is compromised by a lack of visual prompts that indicate when a card has been activated, how it affects the gameplay, and how long it will last. Admittedly it's a relief that EA Canada has avoided the type of over-the-top bonus score icons that often obscure the action in PES 2009's Legends mode, but some flashier visual prompts displaying card-related information during games would have been welcome. (On a slightly separate note, these Gameplay Modifiers are responsible for an unintentionally hilarious disclaimer that flashes up every couple of minutes in the main menu, stating that using Gameplay Modifier Cards in Ultimate Team is not representative of real world football and the laws of the game. Thanks for that.)
Another new feature is the Custom/Quick Tactics option that allows you to customise build-up play, attacking preferences and defensive stances and easily switch between them during matches. It's certainly a decent enough feature, but again it can be hard to judge just how much of an effect your on-the-fly tactical tweakings are having on the bearing of a game.
While you're likely to spend a large chunk of time collecting bonus and player cards and playing around with the chemistry of your team, Ultimate Team's biggest selling point is its 36 online and club tournaments. There are twelve unique tournaments in total with three difficulty levels for each one, but before you can enter any of these you need to earn Skill Points. This is done by completing competitive games against AI or online opponents, and through skilful performances. These tournaments - especially the ones against other human opponents - constitute some of Ultimate Team's finest moments, notably when you find yourself up against fellow players who make cannier and more unpredictable Gameplay Modifier decisions than the AI.
While it's some way short of an essential buy, Ultimate Team is a solid enough addition to FIFA 09, adding a neat though not wholly original twist to conventional football. Collecting and trading cards and competing in the myriad tournaments can be fun, but the lacklustre chemistry mechanic and a lack of in-match glitz to accompany the more arcade-style feel created by the Gameplay Modifiers ensures the package often feels more like a glorified trading game than a whole new way of playing through 90 minutes.
At 800 Microsoft Points on Xbox Live or GBP 7.99 on PSN, you'll need to think carefully about just how much entertainment you're likely to get from trading with other players online, while it's also worth noting that the servers currently have some frustrating stability issues. It's fun in bursts, but you're likely to find that Ultimate Team is more a short-lived novelty than an addition that will significantly heighten your enjoyment of what is already the best football sim on the market.
6 / 10