Transforming any star performer into a true champion can often come down to the minor details: tweaking, polishing and refining an existing set of skills to eke out that extra couple of per cent. It's a challenge that now faces EA Canada, the development team behind the current undisputed king of football simulations, the FIFA franchise. After FIFA 09 cemented the series' dominance over the increasingly identikit Pro Evolution Soccer, EA Canada finds itself faced with the unenviable task of improving its already excellent football formula.
One of the most striking aspects of EA's FIFA 10 announcement is its timing, with the code only 45 per cent complete and six months from release. Never in the series' history has a FIFA game been announced, let alone showcased so early in its development. "There are a few things that we want to tell people about and one of those is just how much we're polishing and refining the game," explains producer David Rutter at the game's announcement press conference. "We spend a huge amount of time on forums trying to make sure we listen to what our fans want. We're also innovating and we wanted people to experience some of those innovations firsthand to find out what they think. That way we can revaluate things as we go along. I'm a big fan of getting feedback."
So what's new? Well if you're expecting an avalanche of grandstand features then you may be a touch disappointed, as much of this year's new content will be incremental rather than revolutionary. If it ain't broke and all that. "We're focusing on gameplay, refining the game and innovating," Rutter divulges. "About 70 per cent of the development time is being spent on refining the game through feedback and 30 per cent on innovating."
Eradicating all of the irks that occasionally sullied FIFA 09 and caused fits of impetuous fist-slamming - most notably when someone scored against you from the halfway line - is a clear priority. A number of other key features are also being prioritised. Player urgency is to be sharpened to create more realistic player actions. Rutter promises that players will move into position with greater intelligence and realism, and when distant from play, they'll saunter around the pitch like Dimitar Berbatov on a summer stroll - although Berbatov will probably just act like that the whole time.
Trapping was another bugbear. "Last year we used the earliest trapping system, which often led to players failing to control the ball properly as they'd rush towards it to trap it at the earliest possible moment," says Rutter. "Now we have a system based on the easiest trap, so players will back away from the ball to get into the best possible position to control it."
Cross-field passes are also in line for tweaking. Whereas spreading the play in PES has been a great way to stretch the opposition for some time, it's never quite worked in FIFA. This, Rutter believes, is due to his game's overly slow and unrealistic cross-field ball movement, a problem EA Canada is keen to eradicate by halving the length of time it'll take to ping the ball from one wingback to the other.
In a further bid to add greater realism, players are being made more tactically aware. A typical corner scenario in FIFA 09 would see your centre-halves head up-field in a bid to get their noggins onto a whipped-in cross, leaving a gaping hole in your defence that a hopeful punt and a nippy opposition striker could easily exploit. In FIFA 10, defensive midfielders are set to intelligently drop back to cover the space vacated by centre-halves during set-pieces. This, coupled with less accurate up-field punts, should hopefully lower the number of breakaway goals. And despite their increased believability in FIFA 09, goalkeepers are also being lavished with attention, with 'keepers set to rush out more urgently in one-on-one situations while resisting the temptation to show off to the cameras by hurling themselves heroically at rudimentary saves.
After last year's version took the robust, physical nature of the beautiful game to the next level with an improved jostling system, FIFA 10 is promising to further develop the system with the introduction of increased defender and goalkeeper momentum, which will hopefully prevent defenders from sticking to attackers like young, beautiful women with daddy complexes stick to Hugh Hefner. This should hopefully make it easier for tricky wingers to give shadowing defenders the slip or play them for fools with a deft feint. Goalkeepers will also possess greater levels of momentum, which could result in greater attacking variables when the shots start raining in and pinging off their flailing limbs.
While the code we sampled was only 45 per cent complete and missing a number of the promised new features, we were able to gain a very early first impression. By far the most striking on-pitch addition was the 360-degree dribbling system, which provides greater player control compared to last year's eight-axis movements. With this improved level of control it's possible to make space for players far more easily, while the angle of a player in possession had a far greater effect on the accuracy of through-balls, allowing us to slot our passes into space far more easily than in FIFA 09.
Off the pitch, Rutter and his team have also been busy, with over 50 improvements being made to Manager mode. "We've worked really hard on this, especially in the realism, transfers and player development departments," he says. "We're trying to make management more believable by having other things going on around you in the world of football. We also want to make a big deal of the transfer system. A club, player and manager's prestige will all be taken into consideration during the transfer process, as well as the player and manager's experience, and whether the squad already has lots of great personnel in that player's position."
"We also want to make sure that we have proper player development in Manager mode. Not every new player will end up being the next Zidane. The player's environment will affect their growth, so if they play at a great club they'll grow better than at a bad club and also if they play better. A player's ego will also grow and they may become more demanding. The AI-controlled teams will also work far harder towards improving their squads than before."
While still in its infancy, FIFA 10 is already promising much, with its myriad tweaks and innovations hopefully proving sufficient to adequately improve the game from last year. However, with the series already riding high, maybe a succession of tweaks to perfect the already highly realistic and accessible on-pitch action is just what the franchise needs to take it that extra, often elusive step from star performer to true champion.