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Changing tactics with Xbox 360 and PS3.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Jamaican-Canadian? EA's lead FIFA team comprises staff of over 18 nationalities, which, were it a real squad, would no doubt have shifty FIFA president Sepp Blatter railing against the vile destruction of home-grown talent.

The three amigos in question are, respectively, producer Dave Rutter, senior gameplay designer Gary Paterson, and gameplay producer Aaron McHardy. They're currently huddled together in a meeting room at EA Sports HQ in Vancouver, preparing to give us our first taste of this year's kickabout.

With the debut of FIFA 07, they and their team-mates struck upon the best FIFA formula in years. We thought last year's was rather good, scoring it 8/10; and the recent UEFA Euro 2008 was even better, with Kristan insisting it was just "a Russian linesman away from being given 9/10".

We see a hell of a lot of sports game presentations over three days at EA's Season Opener event, and one of the more short-sighted talking-up techniques employed by the teams is to rubbish the previous year's version, then wax lyrical on how life-changingly amazing it is for this time around.

Of course we expect areas of games to improve over time, but this is a nonsense strategy, since the logical extension of this argument is that today's giant leap forward is next year's embarrassed shuffle back.

So when new producer Rutter raves about "250 key improvements" for FIFA 09, scepticism is already off the bench and warming up nicely. Yet in its current successful groove, the team is quickly building a reputation for impressive delivery.

"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," added Kristan in his UEFA review, the title that serves as a bridge between FIFAs 08 and 09.

We prefer the one on the left, frankly.

As Rutter has it: "We're at a point now where we've established such good gameplay that all we need to do is polish it as much as possible and it will get better and better. In many respects this year's version is the evolution of that rather than the revolution."

If you can pick out 250 key improvements with the naked eye then, well, you deserve some sort of special prize, but the main areas of 09 earmarked for improvement are: physicality, or the realism with which players physically react to one another; responsiveness, right down to the difference between tackling a player's front foot, or trailing leg; and strategy, namely the facility to create your own.

Let's start with physical play. Size matters, so if a big player clashes with a lesser being they should both react accordingly. And familiarity with the physical aspects of your players should be able to deliver convincing gameplay moments a little more nuanced than the "give it to Ronaldo as he can dribble a bit" school of realism.

We watch an in-game clip of Man Utd midfielder Paul Scholes clashing with Chelsea's swan-diving striker Didier Drogba. Since Drogba is "such a hulk of a beast in the game", he is able to hold off players as you pick out the perfect pass. But the yin to this yang is that the necessarily more sluggish bigger player can in turn be outrun by the nimbler, lighter rival. "You'll feel the difference between Ronaldinho and Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and John Terry and Drogba."