Following on from last month's in-depth previews of the next-gen and Wii versions of FIFA 09, we were recently given hands-on time with the latest next-gen and PC code, the latter of which proved to be the surprise package of the afternoon.
As EA has so proudly proclaimed, FIFA 09 is packing 250 new features. Had we brought our abacus, perhaps we could have kept count, but seeing as we didn't, we focused instead on getting a feel for each version and siphoning any extra info we could extract from next-gen FIFA producer David Rutter and FIFA PC associate producer Paul Hossack.
So let's kick off with the PS3 and 360 versions, which bar a few cosmetic differences felt pretty much identical. While lacking the same level of innovation as FIFA 08, these next-gen offerings certainly felt like a confident stride forward for the series, displaying enough polish and refinement to potentially push FIFA 09 over that line of excellence that 08 so marginally failed to cross.
A tad slower than Euro 2008 and a smidgeon quicker than its predecessor (there's an option to set the speed to match either of these two games if you desire), FIFA 09 retains much of the realism that made its prequel such a triumph. However, while realism has clearly remained high on the agenda, this year's offering feels somewhat more accessible, with a learning curve that's likely to leave you mildly panting rather than rasping like an asthmatic climbing Everest, thanks in no small part to the new responsiveness and physicality systems that make for more free-flowing matches.
Unlike last year, we were able to ping passes away instantly after trapping while shielding was a far more robust affair, allowing for increased possession retention and more imaginative build-ups. There was also a greater emphasis on midfield battles, with players lunging into 50/50s and able to pull off full stretch passes and last-ditch tackles more smoothly and effectively than in the more rigid 08.
Another tweaked area was dribbling, with players taking fewer touches for added realism and reacting in a far more lifelike manner when tackled, often stumbling and recovering rather than tumbling at the merest contact. Most satisfying of all was how responsive the players felt, especially in and around the penalty area, with strikers far more alert when following in after shots. Keeper AI, however, was still somewhat patchy (apparently this side of the game is still being balanced) and at times produced the type of comical moments usually reserved for You've Been Framed and England internationals.
As well as giving our thumbs a thorough workout, we also worked up a cerebral sweat by playing around with the new tactical options. Thankfully, these proved more than just a tacked-on feature and went some way to adding strategic variety. While the collection of tactical slider bars may have been a little more simplistic than we would have liked, the results of our tweaking certainly seemed to pay dividends as we seamlessly switched between custom-made defensive and offensive strategies, with our team responding with satisfying levels of intelligence.
Up close, graphical detail wasn't a world away from last year's models, with some players still looking a little odd (especially on the PS3 version), including Dirk Kuyt who looked like the lovechild of Dracula and Cher. On a more positive note, the much-vaunted new physical jostling mechanics proved worthy of its fanfare, adding a real sense of muscularity (or lack of in the case of weedier players), with plenty of bone-splitting shoulder barging that typifies the modern game.
Once we'd had our fill of 360 and PS3 goodness, we cornered producer David Rutter to find out more about the game's four season Be a Pro career mode and the highly anticipated 10-versus-10 online multiplayer action.
Unlike last year's one-off Be A Pro match options, FIFA 09 will follow a similar template used so successfully in UEFA Euro 2008's Captain Your Country mode. "Be A Pro lets you create a player and play through four seasons as that player," explained Rutter. "You start off as a reserve and the idea is to become a club legend and captain of your country. You can also choose to play as an established player like John Terry. If you do this, you'll need to maintain your chosen player's reputation, such as remaining the England captain or continuing to help your team win the league on a regular basis."
As for the 10 v 10 online mode, Rutter promised that his team is working hard to make 11 v 11 a reality, something that was sadly not possible this year. "You need to be far more disciplined now than in 5 v 5 games," he explained. "You'll have to play your role properly. Whilst you won't get as much exposure to the ball in 10 v 10 games as in the 5 v 5 games, the exposure you get is much more important as you'll have nine other players screaming abuse at you if you don't play your role properly." Rutter also revealed that EA is currently in the process of rolling out a new matchmaking system that will simplify the process of finding similarly skilled players online.
So, let's move onto the PC version. After countless years of second-rate FIFA releases, PC gamers could finally be on the verge of having a version of FIFA designed specifically for their gaming platform of choice, thanks to FIFA 09's innovative new mouse and keyboard control setup. While you will still be able to play with a gamepad, FIFA 09 also features two new mouse-based control methods that could forever change the way we play football games on the PC.
Baring more than a passing resemblance to the Wii version's control interface, you move your players around with the WASD keys, while using a mouse pointer to direct where you want to pass and shoot. You can also trigger AI players to run into space by rotating the mouse wheel on an area of the pitch, allowing for far greater team orchestration. A simpler version of this will be available for beginners, whereby players will simply follow the direction of the mouse cursor, so negating the need for WASD.
Granted, it took us a couple of matches to get the hang of the full mouse and keyboard control combo, but within half an hour we were pulling off some of the most sublime build-up moves of the afternoon, marshalling our team like generals while remaining in full control of our selected player. As well as the new control system, the revamped game engine, which ran at 1920x1200, displayed impressive levels of player facial detail (right down to beads of sweat on foreheads), and looked a considerable improvement from last year's offering.
"We wanted to add some features that make sense on the PC that aren't possible on other formats," explained the game's associate producer Paul Hossack. "We didn't just want to do another port of the console version, so we've added this new control system. We've also added a widget system that makes use of the PC's online capabilities. One of these is called the Favourite Team widget and it pulls information from the Internet about your favourite team, so you can instantly access the latest team news and stats about its season.
Racing towards a typically noncommittal autumn release date, FIFA 09 is shaping up to be a solid and highly entertaining step forward for the series for next gen and a potentially groundbreaking leap ahead on PC. Due to the quality of FIFA 08 and Euro 2008, FIFA 09 may not arrive with quite the fanfare and wow-factor of its two next gen predecessors - which did so much to reinvigorate the ailing series - but there's still more than enough potential here to carry on the recent tradition of quality content to back up the series' monstrous sales.