EA takes on the World
The Cup runneth over.
The advent of another World Cup tournament is the perfect opportunity for Electronic Arts to make maximum use of its highly lucrative exclusive partnership with world football's governing body FIFA - this week extended to 2014. Love it or loathe it, FIFA is consistently among the very biggest selling titles released in the UK every year, going on to sell millions worldwide. Yet a tournament-specific edition presents unique problems to the US publishing giant.
Stalwart fans and casual gamers alike are programmed to expect a new update of FIFA within the same annual window. The release of a one-off World Cup title could cynically be viewed as a hastily knocked-out souvenir edition to cash-in on the hysteria surrounding the world's biggest sporting event.
And this perception won't have been be helped by last year's Xbox 360-exclusive Road to World Cup title, which Drogba-dived into the console's launch line-up and was promptly yellow-carded by some critics for its rushed feel and thin content.
The facts of the matter are, as EA is keen to highlight, that a dedicated 45-strong team at the firm's Canada HQ has been beavering away on 2006 FIFA World Cup since April last year. As such, EA is unashamed in its belief that it has created a comprehensive football package, strong as a standalone game and as a virtual sampler of the World Cup experience.
"It's the most realistic football game we've ever made," insists EA's ebullient producer Joe Nickolls, who spent most of this week on a whirlwind evangelical tour of European territories.
"The best way to describe my team compared to the main FIFA team is it's almost like a car platform," he explains. "VW and Audi are made by the same company, but one gets to be a VW and one gets to be an Audi. We take things we think are important to take from FIFA and then we add a bunch of things of our own."
Top of Team World Cup's agenda was addressing criticisms of the most recent FIFA titles and establishing key areas of focus where the lion's share of energy would be expended. Think freedom to change, without any radical departures; a license to be different, while remaining true to the mass-appeal spirit of FIFA.
"It's important to focus on the things that are important to the consumer. We read the forums all the time and we pay more attention to Europe than anywhere else because that's who loves football [videogames] more than anyone," Nickolls reveals. "I'm always of the belief that rather than rip everything apart and start again, I like to find what people are really asking for to change and then focus on those things alone. If you work harder on less things, the end result will be better."
What has changed? Quite a lot, if you believe EA. "Responsiveness of play was key for us - we've been able to increase it by about 50 per cent from the time you push the button," he claims. "People also want ball physics to be a little different. We tuned the physics engine so the ball feels a little heavier, like a football should feel. The ball behaves, I believe, a little more realistically. You'll see a lot more variety of goals as a result.
The real World Cup is, of course, the stage upon which the greatest footballing talent on the planet performs in front of billions of transfixed eyeballs. The prospect of Ronaldinho, Henry and Rooney (notwithstanding the last desperate actions of the grasping halfwit who manages England) performing at their peak is a mouthwatering one.
EA has hand-picked around 150 of nature's finest specimens (in skill if not in looks, admittedly), spending extra time honing attributes to make them behave as much like their real selves as possible.
"With Holland, for example, if you cross the ball into the box, 99 per cent of the time Ruud van Nistelrooy is waiting there for you to serve up a nice fat ball for him to slap his head on and get into the net," Nickolls enthuses. "Players like Michael Owen, when they get away from you, you won't be able to catch because they're really fast; Ronaldinho's style will be more evident whether you're playing or the CPU."
The shooting system has undergone a complete overhaul. Holding the 'shoot' button determines the angle of the shot - nothing to do with power anymore. "It's based on the attributes of the player, where they are, whether they've hit it with their right or left foot and what kind of a player they are," Nickolls elaborates.
Gameplay tweaks aside, the single-player portion of the game is packed with an impressive array of features. Road to World Cup's relative paucity of teams has been bumped up to a respectable 127 countries, from all corners of the globe, with extra emphasis on previously uncelebrated African nations, for instance.
And an in-game store provides a wealth of unlockable content to keep football zealots young and old amused, with classic kits, new balls (including the Adidas 'Golden Ball' that will be used in this year's final), classic players and a range of gameplay cheats, including invisible walls, slow motion and turbo. For a fuller taste of this year's tournament, a movie theatre provides featurettes on the construction of new stadia in Germany and other goodies. You can at least remark how nice the place looks before the inevitable legions of lager-swilling thugs descend and turn it into a bloodbath in violent clashes with riot police.
"When you make a product like World Cup it's a real challenge, because we're making the greatest hits of football," Nickolls soundbites. "It's not a coat of paint. God knows we've put enough hours into this game. We did a lot of refinements to make it fun; we did a lot of things that no-one's ever done to a football game before and we've made it last longer because we've given you all the different modes in the single-player experience."
While, as Nickolls observes, "90 per cent of what this product will sell on is on current-gen", the next-gen Xbox 360 incarnation is attracting a great deal of interest from those wanting to see what tricks the world's biggest games publisher can perform on the new hardware with decent preparation. EA's first attempt was dogged by slowdown and various other issues as the developer familiarised itself with a new set of tools. But EA believes it has now remedied most of these.
"When someone hands you the most powerful games system on the planet and says go for it, that doesn't really mean anything until you know what you're doing with it," Nickolls concedes.
"It's about spending our memory budget wisely where we want to spend it. The memory cost of the stadiums is 50 per cent of what it was in Road to the World Cup. But you don't look up at the sky and say: 'That poly's out of place!' People who do that should do something other than review games; they should go work for NASA and find some problems there."
Speaking of critics, FIFA, as EA is all too aware, does not exist in a vacuum, and no new title in the series can release without drawing inevitable comparisons with Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer franchise. For EA, it's a no-win argument. FIFA might receive less critical acclaim, but it consistently outsells its Japanese rival - justification enough for EA that it is pursuing the right path.
"It's like asking Coke what they think about Pepsi - you never get a straight answer as you can't really say the right things," Nickolls says in response to the PES issue. "But suffice to say, if for example we took our game and completely changed it, the six, seven million people who buy it will be pissed off.
"You have to make sure you make the game that people like and people want. It's really about personal taste. I'm the first one to say, thank goodness we have healthy competition in this market, because a one-man show would be boring and stale. You don't need to improve unless you have competition."
Whether or not FIFA has improved you can find out tomorrow when our in-depth review goes live to coincide with the release of the game across Europe.
In the meantime, you can see the game in action in exclusive FIFA trailers now playing on Eurogamer TV.