Version tested: Xbox 360
People have every right to moan about the monotony of incremental 'spot the difference' updates. We can understand that the ever-changing nature of sports games justifies a new version every year, but when it comes to FIFA, EA not only takes the biscuit, but waves it in your face, munches it with undisguised glee, dances a jig on the coffee table and runs out of the door screaming with its shirt pulled over its head. Not even counting FIFA Street 2, FIFA 07 on Xbox 360 is the fifth update to the franchise in just shy of 400 days.
Over the past 12, 13 months, we (well, mainly me, to be precise) have had to reconsider and re-evaluate the franchise so often that we thought it might be easier to just collate our most recent diatribes and run them through our newly constructed random review generator. You'd barely see the join. So, join us for highlights of FIFA 07: the 'no really, this year it's better than ever' edition.
In fact, I'm feeling mischievous today, so let's play a little game of "guess which FIFA review was this quote is from". Answers at the foot of the review. No peeping.
To kick off with mystery quote number one: "It's definitely a more instinctive, intuitive and unpredictable game than before, and one that's been tweaked in generally the right areas. With a bit more work on providing more realistic ball physics the game has the potential to become an irresistible alternative to PES, but as things are it's still not quite up to the mark [but it's] undoubtedly the most solid release for some time." Sounds promising.
And which one could quote number two refer to? "[There's] precious little advance - save for some relatively minor additions that do little to address our ongoing concerns... no amount of official team and player rosters can disguise that underneath there's a game that's desperately trying to be as good as its elusive competitor, but failing". Hmm. Not so impressed with that one.
Quote number three's even worse: "The ball moves seemingly on rails, at weird velocities with unjust momentum, robbing any lofted ball of the feeling of weight. Precision is at an absolute premium. Players move glacially, even the nippiest ones, so that they can be scythed down in time to prevent them reaching anywhere dangerous. The ball bobbles along like it's made of wool..."
We would bring you a fourth quote from the most recent 'current-gen' version review but [mumbles] the review got lost down the back of our sofa. Then we found it again, but it got lost with Rob's baggage somewhere in Tokyo. It was good - certainly the best on the PS2 or Xbox in every way. But, to be completely honest, with the 'next-gen' 360 version following a few weeks later, there was always the temptation to hold out and play it side-by-side with PES to see how the two heavyweights measured up. Besides, our doctor advised us to play up to four FIFAs in any one year. Something had to give.
Ploughing endless hours into trying (in vain) to 'master' PES6 before reviewing FIFA is an experience comparable with brushing your teeth and then glugging on fresh orange juice. Your palette is so shocked and confused that there's inevitably that involuntary 'wince period' while your brain tries to work out exactly what kind of strange torture you've voluntarily perpetrated upon yourself. This is exactly why so many PES fans routinely slag off FIFA before they've even had a chance to adapt - because the contrast is initially so jarring, and why year upon year so much petty baiting goes on between camps. Me? I tend to appreciate both for what they have to offer. Neither are perfect, but both have their well-documented strong points - and it's, sigh, pretty much the same story when it comes to comparing and contrasting FIFA 07 with PES6. The main difference this year is that the former is better this year and the latter is worse, making the decision making process over which one to buy trickier than ever.
But this year, the simple fact is EA has gone to far more effort than Konami in just about every way imaginable to improve its game. You could argue that Konami didn't have to change much to keep itself top of the pile, but it's precisely that air of complacency that has allowed FIFA to make its strongest challenge ever for this latest incarnation. EA is desperate to woo the PES crowd and win back the critics, and it's in evidence everywhere you look.
Let's start with the ball physics - an area FIFA has woefully lagged behind PES for years, and a major reason why PES has been at the top of the pile with millions of players for so long. In simple terms, EA reckons it has finally "freed the ball from the constraints of a traditional animation engine" which affords the ball "its own unique physical properties". For once, it's not spurious marketing spin - within seconds you'll notice that the ball does feel like it's not tethered to your foot, allowing for real weight to be placed on passes and crosses in a way that simply wasn't convincing before. You'll start to dink passes where you want them to go, loft passes over onrushing opponents into space, feed players down the wing and gain an understanding of roughly where the ball will end up within a few games. You'll start to appreciate the PES-like way that the ball bobbles off players in a crowded penalty area and adapt your game accordingly. Sometimes it's not pretty, but then a crowded penalty box rarely is. The dynamic way the ball reacts to collisions with various parts of the body (and the force behind the clearance or shot) means you can never quite be certain what will happen. The ball could bobble off the despairing keeper and roll nicely into the path of the onrushing forward - with the resulting shot quite capable of cannoning off both posts and back into open play before eventually dribbling off the stranded defender's arse into the net. Such situations are common in FIFA 07. The key word throughout is it's dynamic.
Other such choice adjectives that fit nicely with 07 are 'smooth' and 'fast'. Coming to this version after PES, it's striking how much faster the game feels, and after a couple of years of relatively sluggish FIFAs, the change of pace is very welcome indeed. Not only do the players move comparatively faster than PES, but their animations are perhaps the most fluid ever seen in a football game. There's a real sense of momentum - not just in terms of when they run, but the way they turn and shift their weight when setting off on an attacking foray, or the way they react to being jostled for possession or get their stride disrupted by the trailing leg of a mistimed sliding tack before building up into a sprint down the channel. The way they jump for headers, the ways the ball's plucked delicately off the toes of an onrushing forward all look more convincing than ever.
A lot of what's impressive about FIFA 07 are little touches, but they contribute to not only making the game look far more realistic than ever, but play a much better game of football than it ever has done in the past. Stood side by side, FIFA has always been the flashier-looking game than PES, but PES players always took comfort that the glitz didn't really translate into substance. This year, it's different. The character models don't just look better now, they move better - the animation is an absolute revelation, with extremely smooth blending and transitions that make it the most authentic looking football game. Going back to PES feels downright weird after playing FIFA 07 - not just because of the relatively old school character models, but because of the way the outfield players move around with an unnatural crab-like sideways shuffle when not in possession. So, without a doubt, FIFA is a far smoother, faster feeling football game than PES6, no question.
Whether it's the more entertaining game of the two... Well, that's a far more complex issue that depends a lot on what you want from a football game.
The way FIFA handles fundamental manoeuvres like 'pressing' and through balls feels frustratingly ineffective. In theory, you'd expect to be able to split defences and feed wingers with deftly weighted balls, but FIFA 07 is nowhere near as intuitive in that respect. In fact, unless you're plain lucky, a through ball down the middle will almost always be instantly handing possession back to your opponent, while balls down the wing are annoyingly hit and miss. The passing system lets you dictate how far the ball will go depending on how long you hold the button down, but in terms of fluid intuitiveness it doesn't hold a candle to PES. It may simply be a learning issue, and maybe I'll 'get' it in time but even after a solid week, my passing game never seemed to click properly, with passes consistently missing their mark.
Getting possession back, too, can be a real chore. In theory, simply pressing A to apply pressure or a press tackle instructs your nearest man to harass and closely mark the player on the ball. According to EA's own literature "the defending player will tackle as soon as the opportunity presents itself" which is as woolly a definition imaginable. Apparently, the player is supposed to automatically track the ball, meaning you don't need to apply a specific tackling direction, but it's an instruction which appears completely inconsistent - sometimes working a charm, other times seeming to be a completely ineffective means of wrestling back possession.
Beyond that you can resort to pressing B to call upon the 'secondary press' which calls a second player to help close down the player, but, again, two of your players will stalk a zig-zagging player for half the length of the pitch and still be unable to get a decent foot in most of the time. Other times it works well, and it's this inconsistency which makes FIFA sometimes a mite more frustrating than PES. In PES you'll stand a much greater chance of succeeding with pressing, and that makes you learn how to double tap RB at the right time to get extra space, and shield in tight situations. FIFA makes it easier for the attacking team to smuggle the ball through and go on snaking runs, but when you're the defending side it can feel like the game's not giving you a fair fight.
As for sliding tackles... don't even bother. Whereas PES 6 lets you block tackle quite effectively with timely ground-based interceptions (which allow you to 'scoop' the ball off the opposition's toe when you're running alongside them, too) and lets you off with yellow cards if you tackle from behind (most of the time), FIFA is a different story altogether. EA's handling of the dreaded sliding tackle is not only far less flexible, but hands out straight red cards for the most innocuous trip in non-threatening parts of the pitch. In addition, rather like PES5 you'll constantly find yourself penalised with free kicks for the crime of merely pressing opponents (something fixed in PES6, incidentally), which essentially neuters the whole process of regaining possession. It's a strange non-contact sport that gets a bit exasperating after a while and leaves you unable to give a true physical response to your opponent's attacks. While this isn't such a big issue with the AI, played against the less forgiving human player the ref is constantly breathing down your neck for the most trivial misdemeanours and it's difficult to work out the parameters of what you can and can't do. In summary, a slightly broken tackling system and harsh refereeing contribute to spoiling some of the core facet of a very promising game.
The sprinting system, meanwhile, is a damned sight more effective than previous FIFAs, and in some senses more effective and therefore less frustrating than PES this year. For a start, wing play is noticeably more effective here when you feed someone like Robben down the left, and makes for a an exciting, free-flowing game with plenty of crossing and goal mouth incident as a result. Tied in to the two-tier fatigue system, you get a handy visual indicator of your player's long and short-term fatigue. For example, a player will recover quickly from a quick dash, but gradually lose energy the more you punish them with a high tempo game. Similar in a sense to PES' less visible system, there's a definite benefit to being able to see exactly how fit your player is at any given time. In terms of actual pace, FIFA's sprinting system is much more like PES5 in being able to outpace your opponent, and I have to admit I much prefer it this way.
Shooting, meanwhile, feels slick and intuitive, not to mention spectacular. Shots connect with real venom and purpose, and you can enjoy some hugely satisfying moments when things come off. Allied to the rather wonderful animation system and some decent ball physics, you get a much better sense that the body parts properly connect - and you don't need the replays to confirm that. Certainly, the new high-def FIFA on a big screen is one of the most visually stunning sports games yet, and the benefit of being able to see the precise animations of relatively small players is enormous. On the other hand, it's a mite annoying to have to remember to press RB to perform what EA terms the 'finesse' shot. In other words, it guarantees accuracy at the expense of power. As with PES, EA can't resist loading up FIFA with so many modifiers and combos that your head's spinning with the control options available to you. Several years on from the introduction of the 'trick stick', it still doesn't feel remotely natural to reach over to the right stick when you receive the ball and then go back to the buttons and switch back, loose off a shot while holding RB just to stand a better chance of getting a shot on target. As an aside, can we not go back to basics and refine these bloated control systems? Less is more.
In so many areas FIFA 07 gets things absolutely spot on. The online play, for example, is streets ahead of PES6's lag-ridden farce and makes it instantly the preferable choice if you intend to spend most of your multiplayer time on Live, with results logged and mailed to your real-life inbox. But even then, EA manages to do strange things like not allow you to replay your last opponent without re-inviting them from scratch.
As is the case with every FIFA, the presentation side of the game is mostly superb - as it always is - but it's not the definitive article that we were hoping for. For example, you might be a little perturbed to find that a mere six leagues made it into the game, which amounts to a mere 117 clubs. Compared to previous FIFAs this is a paltry amount (no Championship for starters), and with some questionable player likenesses this time around, you might baulk at some of the next-gen corner-cutting that has ensured that the game has shipped with a fraction of the content that you might expect.
There's also the question of achievements. Whereas PES6 dishes out points almost for free, FIFA 07 has some ludicrous requirements, such as 50 wins in a row, or 50 man of the match awards as a defender and so on. Put it this way, you won't be mining this FIFA for cheap points like the infamous World Cup edition, and focusing on rather arbitrary goals it gives less incentive to explore the other single-player modes - such as the rather basic (but nevertheless entertaining) Manager Mode. Would it have really taken much effort to throw in a few achievements based on, say, winning the league, cup or promotion?
FIFA 07 is without doubt the hardest game in the series I've ever had to assess, because in so many fundamental ways it kicks PES off the park, yet there appear to be an equal number of similarly crucial things that PES still does better than FIFA. Both play a great game of football, but it's no longer a clear-cut decision to recommend one over the other. If you could fuse the pace, excitement, licensing, online play, presentation and free-flowing accessibility of FIFA with the solidity of PES' peerless AI, satisfying tackling and spot-on passing game we'd have the perfect football game. Sadly, there's major room for improvement in the pair of them.
FIFA 07's technological superiority will definitely go a long way to providing the wow factor that's needed to tempt the next gen punters, and its initial fast, exciting accessibility both off and online is something many of us have been crying out for. But as much as we wanted to hail EA's proactive progressive approach to FIFA as the great slayer of Konami's complacency, the fact remains that PES6 is marginally the better game in ways that matter.
Next year might be a different story. Watch your back, Konami.
8 / 10
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- Quote 1 - From our 7/10 review (28/4/2006) of the horribly titled 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany on Xbox 360.
- Quote 2 - From our 7/10 review (30/9/2005) of FIFA 06 on Xbox.
- Quote 3 - From the legendary 2/10 review (28/11/2005) of FIFA 06: Road to the World Cup on Xbox 360.