Version tested: Xbox 360
Writing a Euro or World Cup review usually involves moaning about the absence of club teams and other FIFA features. So we will do that, but let's concentrate on the good news first: last year's FIFA, as you may remember, was arguably the best yet, perhaps even toppling Pro Evolution Soccer, and EA has actually improved on almost every part of it, with game elements and modes that aren't the usual vacuous twaddle slapped on the box to tempt unwary fanboys.
The excitement of Euro 2008 comes not from tweaks to passing, shooting, crossing, tackling and heading - although veterans might spot a few nips and tucks, such as more easily definable passing meter, more satisfying header contests and better turning - but from the plethora of new modes and how well they play to the game's strengths. The headliner is Battle of the Nations, which is introduced - at length - the first time you load the game up. Designed to milk the rampant xenophobia/patriotism that accompanies international tournaments, you select your European nation and your performances both offline and online contribute towards an overall daily leaderboard specific to your country.
At the end of June (when the real tournament finishes) the winning nation will be crowned European champion, regardless of which team you actually play as (for example, you could decide to play as France, even if your chosen nation is England). The number of points you earn at the end of each match are relative to the challenge, so there's a greater incentive to play as a minnow, and this subtle tweak is a smart one, as it gives Euro 2008 a degree of depth that it might otherwise lack. Until the game is out, though, it's hard to tell whether the extra reward for playing as underpowered teams will be enough to stop people picking the big guns as usual - or whether national allegiances will be anything more than a gimmick. Will players simply abuse it and play as the Faroe Islands en masse to expose the system? Actually, probably not.
Elsewhere, there's the new Captain Your Country mode, a rather interesting, fleshed-out evolution of the Be A Pro mode from 08, where you play as one player rather than switching between all 11. As you may recall, we criticised Be A Pro for only allowing you to play one-off games, rather than a full season, but Euro 2008 fixes all of that by extending the idea into what amounts to an international career. Firstly you create a player from scratch and fiddle about with customisation options (like skin colour, hairstyle, height and, amusingly, the conundrum of whether to wear gloves or not), or you can shortcut all that and select People's Hero Peter Crouch and look forward to an unending succession of top-drawer strikes beyond the despairing dive of the keeper. The ultimate aim is to be awarded the international captaincy via a string of eye-catching performances, and controlling a specific player for the entire match changes your priorities. Up to three friends can also join your team and compete for the captaincy.
Consistency here requires a fair amount of discipline, patience and sticking to the task at hand, rather than ball-chasing. During a game you're rated from 1 to 10 in passing, positioning, shooting, tackling and dribbling, with an overall mark displayed at the bottom of the screen, so there's an added incentive to buck your ideas up if things aren't going to plan. A few good shots, accurate passes and winning tackles boost your rating in no time, and also help change the way you play. Rather than worrying about scoring with every attack, passing to better-placed team-mates can be more rewarding, and you get credit for assists. The fans won't shout at you, either. Once you gain the captaincy, you're then given a degree of control over team tactics, such as formations and when to make substitutions.
In what already amounts to an extremely well-realised mode (in single or multiplayer), perhaps the element that really elevates it is the quality of the AI, and how frequently your team-mates read your intentions or play the ball with precision. Playing it entirely with CPU AI can be more rewarding in the initial stages, simply because they're likely to be far better at reading the play, but further down the line, with more experienced players by your side, the Captain Your Country mode becomes one of best additions to a football game in years.
Elsewhere, some of the most pleasing aspects of Euro 2008 are vanity tweaks, like the introduction of personalised commentary. If you're blessed with a relatively common surname (around 200 are supported), you can live the dream with Clive Tyldesley bellowing in triumph or berating you or harping on about that night in Barcelona. Similarly pandering to our need for personal glory, the new interactive celebration is a pointless but brilliant inclusion, giving you about ten seconds to pull off a signature move, like the Shearer salute or an aeroplane, with a further option to kneel and point to the sky, slide on your knees, chest, or bait the away fans. It all adds to the sense of fun and drama. Other minor tweaks worthy of praise are more general improvements like the team-specific chants, or shouts of frustrated derision from individuals in the crowd. Or the little pools of water on specific parts of a pitch which slow the ball down. Or. Or or or.
To add a final gloss, you can also run through a bunch of 'what-if' scenarios in the Story of Qualifying mode. Similar to previous, internationally-flavoured FIFAs, the game throws up all manner of quirky challenges at a specific point in one of the real-life qualifiers. For example, rescue Bulgaria from the jaws of a certain 2-0 defeat, or match the 13-0 scoreline Germany racked up against the hapless San Marino. None of this, of course, makes up for the utter farce of allowing Croatia to humble England following the People's Hero's heroic equaliser, but it will have to do (and success, happily, unlocks the 2004 campaign if you fancy reliving past failures). You also have the option of controlling an entire qualifying campaign, followed by the upcoming tournament proper, but then you probably expected that. More exciting are online elements like the Euro Online Knockout Cup, with support for up to 16 players, not to mention regular one-off online multiplayer games.
So, if money's no object, or you simply missed out on FIFA 08, by all means pick up Euro 2008. With the added bonus of Captain Your Country, and a host of welcome tweaks and additions, it's a Russian linesman away from being given 9/10, and only the inevitable absence of club teams and other FIFA-level content get in the way. Overall it's a great game now, but it should be an even better one when FIFA 09 comes out.
8 / 10