As the shame of England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008 still tugs at the entrails of our eviscerated pride, EA readies itself to roll out the latest iteration of FIFA in the form of UEFA Euro 2008.
Now, before you start spitting in disgust at having to fork out another thirty-odd quid for an EA football game having only recently forked out another thirty-odd quid on FIFA 08, hang tight, as not only is Euro 2008 your chance to get some payback and erase the memories of the McClaren era, but it's actually shaping up to be a fair improvement.
How do we know? Because we recently pootled down to EA's Guildford headquarters to spend half a day with the Xbox 360 version of the game, and speak with producer Simon Humber about what we can expect to see when it ships on 18th April.
"We've made the game more responsive and a little quicker," explains Humber, exhibiting those qualities himself. "It's 6 percent faster than FIFA 08. Player acceleration is also faster." As well as the slight speed increase, and more responsive and fluid player acceleration, it's also possible to jostle and stretch for the ball (as well as trap it and turn with it) with greater levels of control.
While FIFA 08 was undoubtedly the best game in the series for a while, it wasn't without its faults, with many games between equally matched opponents regularly degenerating into dogged wars of attrition. That doesn't look to be as much of a problem here. While retaining the tactical and realistic spine of its predecessor, Euro 2008 also seems to have lightened up a little, and it now appears to make it easier to launch attacks and enjoy end-to-end thrillers rather than always searching for that one killer pass. Crosses feel crisper, first touches less clumsy and player animations more realistic. What's more, when you score you retain control of your player, allowing you to execute one of dozens of goal celebrations (dependent on which player you're controlling) including knee slides, Shearer salutes and acrobatics.
Euro 2008's impressive list of new features and modes suggest it could easily surpass the lacklustre mid-year offerings of recent tournaments. Take qualifying, for example. Rather than playing every qualifier in pristine stadiums inhabited by boisterous but generally well-behaved fans, you'll now find yourself travelling across Europe and experiencing a variety of pitch types and intimidating crowds. "We wanted to create a feeling that you have to play some really nasty matches when you're playing away from home, matches that can cause upsets, like when Kazakhstan beat Serbia or Northern Ireland beat Spain," explains Humber. "We've also added more negative tactics for the weaker teams to use."
Keen to find out for ourselves, we selected England and took on minnows Andorra on their home turf. The pitch was more akin to a mud-wrestling ring (we've seen a few in our time, obviously), with the word 'quagmire' instantly springing to mind. Puddles of water sat on the pitch causing the ball to suddenly stop instead of pinging off the surface. Rain pummelled our players as the opposition set up a ten-man barrier in front of its goal and hoofed the ball up-field in an attempt to catch us on the counter. And for every second we were in possession the crowd whistled and jeered with increasing intensity.
One of the best and, conversely, most frustrating aspects of FIFA 08 was its debuting Be A Pro mode. Finally, we had the chance to play as one player in our favoured position. In this sense, the mode was undoubtedly a triumph. But where was the career mode? Thankfully, UEFA Euro 2008 looks set to rectify that omission.
Captain Your Country is a mode in which you and up to three other players (either human or AI-controlled) choose a player from your favourite European (international) team and embark on a twenty-five match campaign, during which you must outperform your rivals and earn the right to become captain. "The idea is that you each have a real or created player and you all start off as B internationals for the same team," explains Humber. "Through your performances you need to persuade your manager to keep picking you and ultimately make you captain. There's a real-time rating system that rates your performance from how well you play your role to how many goals you create and score."
Euro 2008's other major selling point is a feature called Battle of the Nations, which will pit the skills of players from across Europe against each other in order to determine which country has the most adept players (or the ones with the most amount of free time). Here's how it works. For every match you play (on or offline) you'll be awarded points. Play as a top team against lowly opposition and you'll only be modestly rewarded. However, whip one of the superpowers as a lowlier team and you'll be lavished with points.
It's certainly promising to see that this principle will also apply to online tournaments and games, as it'll hopefully help negate FIFA 08's Barcelona syndrome and give less experienced players a fighting chance against hardcore opponents. At the end of each day, a points average will be compiled online for players from every country and the nation with the highest average will be victorious. "Come June 30th we'll declare the champion nation and gamer and if you're in the top 250 players, you'll get a special trophy that goes in your trophy screen," promises Humber.
Another new addition is the Tournaments Make Stars feature. At the start of your qualifying campaign your star players will be rated with a gold, silver or bronze star. However, throughout the campaign, some of your best players may perform poorly, while other members of your squad may surpass themselves, causing their ratings to fluctuate. Granted, it may not be groundbreaking, but it's certainly a nice touch. Rounding off the package are the Story of Qualifying mode (in which you must attempt to recreate heroic comebacks from the actual qualifying campaign) and an Online Knockout Cup.
UEFA Euro 2008 certainly has the potential to build successfully on the qualities of FIFA 08, and Humber is confident that England's failure to qualify won't affect UK sales. We're not, but we'll leave you to debate that one. Either way, we may find that EA's mid-year UEFA-branded offering isn't just a stopgap between FIFAs. We'll let you know for sure when we've put the review code through its pace.