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.