FIFA 09

Extensive hands-on with PC, PS3 and 360.

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.

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A player's physique and strength plays a far greater role when tussling for the ball.

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.

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FIFA 09 will give you on-the-fly control of your predefined tactical setups.

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.

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