"We tried sticking the Wii Remote to the bottom of a sock. I used a needle and thread." This is how the producer of FIFA 08 chronicles the back-to-basics approach to football using Wii hardware. Brad Porteous is downbeat about the 'FIFA sock' - he thought it'd work. "It felt strange kicking air, if you didn't have contact with a ball. I still have it at home, though."
"Some of the stuff we're doing, which we can't talk about right now, I think it's quite revolutionary" says group producer Tim Tschirner. "My friends who don't play games; since the Wii came out, they play games and don't feel afraid of them anymore. That's the kind of philosophy we wanted to use in this game, so people aren't afraid that the control scheme is overwhelming."
It's true that FIFA 08 on Wii is, on paper, a simpler game than the one on PS2 and PS3 but, as ever, mastering the Wii remote for a game of football takes time. Eventually though it's very satisfying. Compared to the recent Mario Strikers: Charged Football - developed just a few miles away from the Vancouver-based sports HQ of Electronic Arts - FIFA 08 offers complexity beyond the realms of the Mushroom Kingdom. There's the traditional skill moves which require actual wrist movements (no sock required) and measured after-touch on a shot - flick the Wii Remote up and to the left after a shot and it's heading to the top corner of the goal. Most impressive is the throw-ins which ask you to put your hands up in the air and physically throw the ball towards a team member. It feels intuitive and works well. Your neighbour may look on and spend time debating whether you're violently practicing the dance moves to Steps' Tragedy video or doing karate gestures on an invisible man, but it's worth risking the white coats turning up with the straitjackets. Again, taking a shot requires a violent upwards (or downwards for a low shot) flick of the Wii Remote and it's hard to avoid looking like you're involved in a make-believe fencing game, shouting "come on you bastaaard, get in!" as you play. It's probably best to close the curtains, thinking about it.
The other key change to FIFA 08 on Wii is the camera, which will remind many of both Kick Off 2 and Sensible Soccer. "The old angle is still in there but we found, with the Wii controls, it works much better this way," says Tschirner. The new view offers a wider, top-down viewing angle and scrolls at a good pace, allowing accurate passes with a flick of the remote and a chance to prance across the pitch using the nunchuk for skill moves. Mastering the flick-flack (apparently that's what it's called) somehow feels more of an achievement compared to tapping shoulder buttons, and it's impossible not to sway, just a little bit, as you weave through the defence. Taking a shot can be tricky at first and it's hard to get into the box. Novices will take shots from a distance, learning how hard they need to flick the Wii Remote for a screamer and what is considered to be slightly limp wristed. The nunchuk is where all the player movement happens, with the Z button used to sprint. Effectively, the remote is used solely for "anything you do with your feet" including passing, shooting and tackling.
The twin controls have been neatly divided and while play initially feels like tapping your head while rubbing your stomach, things eventually fall into place and become intuitive. In a similar way to when Namco decided to assign each limb a specific button in the original Tekken, EA has decided to divide motion and action between the nunchuk and the Wii Remote. Like many Wii releases, it requires a complete rethink by traditional FIFA or PES players and initially feels completely alien. On the flipside, it removes all the stigma of learning tricks and tactics for new gamers. You can easily jump in and not be defeated just because you didn't know the weak spot of the CPU keeper or how to perform an elevated through-ball. There's depth to the play and with practice you'll become better, but anyone can pick up the controls and give you a run for your money. You can't rely on the defence to bail you out and there's a frantic rush to the ball at all times, giving FIFA 08 a more arcade bias especially when played against a human competitor. The online leaderboard will also support simple head-to-head games. If Mario Strikers: Charged Football is anything to go by, there's zero lag and the only time-consuming thing is the input of friend codes.
Overall, FIFA 08 on Wii looks very promising. The arcade feel is perfect for Wii and it's the control system that really stands out here. Without the presence of the nunchuk and Wii Remote, this game could've been made five years ago, but that's missing the point. The fresh control method and retro-tinged arcade pace of the game will appeal to gamers whose only previous game experience is SingStar and Buzz, but there's something here for the hardcore too. Did we mention Sensible Soccer? You know, the first one on the Amiga? Depending on what happens over the next few months before release, FIFA 08 on Wii could end up being more fun than the PlayStation 3 version. Wouldn't that be an unexpected result?
Tim Schirner and Brad Porteous Q&A
Eurogamer: There's been a lot of talk about the Wii hardware and how much people can actually get out of it. Care to comment?
Tim Tschirner: It's about as powerful as the original Xbox. The video hardware unfortunately is not as powerful. There's just a couple of key things that you can do on Xbox like shaders which you just cannot do on the Wii. It's unfortunate in the sense that for a lot of things we can actually use some of the current-gen code, and other solutions that already exist in the building, where people have already come up with, for example, a shader for the pitch; we kind of have to re-implement this now, but can't use shaders and have to find a different way to make it work. Overall though it's pretty much what the original Xbox was.
Eurogamer: But presumably it feels worthwhile overcoming those obstacles for the sake of what the Wii can offer?
Tim Tschirner: Well, other than the rendering aspect it's been very straightforward to write code for. I think from a creative point of view it's been awesome working on this platform because there's obviously stuff we couldn't do before. It's a great creative challenge for designers to take an existing game like FIFA - that's been around for so long and has a very established, quality control system - and now try and reinvent that.
Eurogamer: The counterpoint to that is that it's reinventing the wheel. A lot of criticism of Wii ports has been that they're quite contrived. How do you feel about that?
Brad Porteous: We've tried to make sure that all the gestures are close to the real thing so they're easy to remember. And adding gestures just for the sake of it obviously doesn't do anyone any good.
Tim Tschirner: We could have gone crazy and just added, like, 25 gestures into this but it just didn't make sense. At the same time though we didn't want this to feel like it's just a port and that we were just throwing in some Wii controls. We found that we had a great opportunity to provide a different spin on playing FIFA, but also introducing a lot of new consumers to FIFA as a series.
Eurogamer: Right. A lot of people do see it as a way of broadening the demographic.
Tim Tschirner: Yeah. I mean, what Nintendo has been doing with the Wii is great; saying they're going after 5-to-85 year-old people; trying to broaden the market and get people to play videogames who have never in the past. That's certainly been true in my own circle of friends. I have friends who usually don't play a lot of games - Guitar Hero aside - but ever since the Wii came out, there's a lot of games they've been playing. They feel they don't have to be afraid of videogames any more. And that's a bit of a philosophy that we wanted to get into this game as well - that people don't have to be afraid of finding the control scheme overwhelming or overly demanding. And then on the flip-side, we wanted to make sure that long-term FIFA players would find everything they love in the game still in place.
Eurogamer: How do you think EA's done educating players in their Wii games so far?
Tim Tschirner: I think in the games we've shipped so far there's been some good stuff. Madden last year did some stuff that we took our cue from. They've done that really well. American Football, for me, takes a bit of time to get used to, but with the Wii Madden it not only helped me pick up the game but also learn a bit about the sport itself.
Eurogamer: I found Tiger slightly confusing because what it was measuring was slightly different to the stuff it was describing in the tutorial. Are you mindful of that sort of thing?
Tim Tschirner: I think the final judgement is going to be when the game's out, but what we have and how we laid out the football academy it should be okay, and of course with the in-game tips as well - every time you get yourself into a situation it shows you what action you need to perform on-screen, which is something where we're trying to take a page out of Nintendo's book in terms of how they educate players in their games.
Eurogamer: Sorry to go off on a tangent, but can you tell us about online in FIFA Wii?
Tim Tschirner: Sure. There'll be match-up, leaderboards, message board. It's just two players - you can only connect two Wiis online, and then it's one player per Wii.
Eurogamer: That's that then. Er. What would be the standout title for you so far on Wii in terms of the way the controls are implemented?
Tim Tschirner: I enjoyed Super Paper Mario a lot, but not really for the control aspect so much.
Eurogamer: Bit of a sore point for us, since it's not out in Europe yet.
Tim Tschirner: Yeah I can imagine. I think Wario Ware was pretty cool just in terms of what they did with all the controls - the variety of things. Wii Sports - there's a lot of possibilities in there. It's deep if you want it to be.
Eurogamer: Yeah. Some people criticised it for the lack of depth in control, but in actual fact it worked well for the simplicity of the controls married to the depth of gameplay.
Tim Tschirner: Some of the controls in SSX Blur, I thought were brilliant - the carving stuff. I think actually most of the controls in Madden were really balanced. One of the challenges of course with FIFA is that it's a game that you usually play with your feet, and aside from the throw-in there's almost no real gesture you do with your hands.
Eurogamer: Apart from holding up an imaginary yellow card to the ref.
Tim Tschirner: Yeah. Yeah! That actually would be good [laughs].
FIFA 08 is due out on Wii this autumn. Impressions by Richard Melville. Interview by Tom Bramwell.