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.