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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Going into extra time.

People have every right to moan about the monotony of incremental 'spot the difference' updates. We can understand that the ever-changing nature of sports games justifies a new version every year, but when it comes to FIFA, EA not only takes the biscuit, but waves it in your face, munches it with undisguised glee, dances a jig on the coffee table and runs out of the door screaming with its shirt pulled over its head. Not even counting FIFA Street 2, FIFA 07 on Xbox 360 is the fifth update to the franchise in just shy of 400 days.

Over the past 12, 13 months, we (well, mainly me, to be precise) have had to reconsider and re-evaluate the franchise so often that we thought it might be easier to just collate our most recent diatribes and run them through our newly constructed random review generator. You'd barely see the join. So, join us for highlights of FIFA 07: the 'no really, this year it's better than ever' edition.

In fact, I'm feeling mischievous today, so let's play a little game of "guess which FIFA review was this quote is from". Answers at the foot of the review. No peeping.

To kick off with mystery quote number one: "It's definitely a more instinctive, intuitive and unpredictable game than before, and one that's been tweaked in generally the right areas. With a bit more work on providing more realistic ball physics the game has the potential to become an irresistible alternative to PES, but as things are it's still not quite up to the mark [but it's] undoubtedly the most solid release for some time." Sounds promising.

And which one could quote number two refer to? "[There's] precious little advance - save for some relatively minor additions that do little to address our ongoing concerns... no amount of official team and player rosters can disguise that underneath there's a game that's desperately trying to be as good as its elusive competitor, but failing". Hmm. Not so impressed with that one.

Behold, the headless footballer.

Quote number three's even worse: "The ball moves seemingly on rails, at weird velocities with unjust momentum, robbing any lofted ball of the feeling of weight. Precision is at an absolute premium. Players move glacially, even the nippiest ones, so that they can be scythed down in time to prevent them reaching anywhere dangerous. The ball bobbles along like it's made of wool..."

We would bring you a fourth quote from the most recent 'current-gen' version review but [mumbles] the review got lost down the back of our sofa. Then we found it again, but it got lost with Rob's baggage somewhere in Tokyo. It was good - certainly the best on the PS2 or Xbox in every way. But, to be completely honest, with the 'next-gen' 360 version following a few weeks later, there was always the temptation to hold out and play it side-by-side with PES to see how the two heavyweights measured up. Besides, our doctor advised us to play up to four FIFAs in any one year. Something had to give.

Ploughing endless hours into trying (in vain) to 'master' PES6 before reviewing FIFA is an experience comparable with brushing your teeth and then glugging on fresh orange juice. Your palette is so shocked and confused that there's inevitably that involuntary 'wince period' while your brain tries to work out exactly what kind of strange torture you've voluntarily perpetrated upon yourself. This is exactly why so many PES fans routinely slag off FIFA before they've even had a chance to adapt - because the contrast is initially so jarring, and why year upon year so much petty baiting goes on between camps. Me? I tend to appreciate both for what they have to offer. Neither are perfect, but both have their well-documented strong points - and it's, sigh, pretty much the same story when it comes to comparing and contrasting FIFA 07 with PES6. The main difference this year is that the former is better this year and the latter is worse, making the decision making process over which one to buy trickier than ever.

Socks appeal: fans of the woolly undergarments will be delighted.

But this year, the simple fact is EA has gone to far more effort than Konami in just about every way imaginable to improve its game. You could argue that Konami didn't have to change much to keep itself top of the pile, but it's precisely that air of complacency that has allowed FIFA to make its strongest challenge ever for this latest incarnation. EA is desperate to woo the PES crowd and win back the critics, and it's in evidence everywhere you look.

Let's start with the ball physics - an area FIFA has woefully lagged behind PES for years, and a major reason why PES has been at the top of the pile with millions of players for so long. In simple terms, EA reckons it has finally "freed the ball from the constraints of a traditional animation engine" which affords the ball "its own unique physical properties". For once, it's not spurious marketing spin - within seconds you'll notice that the ball does feel like it's not tethered to your foot, allowing for real weight to be placed on passes and crosses in a way that simply wasn't convincing before. You'll start to dink passes where you want them to go, loft passes over onrushing opponents into space, feed players down the wing and gain an understanding of roughly where the ball will end up within a few games. You'll start to appreciate the PES-like way that the ball bobbles off players in a crowded penalty area and adapt your game accordingly. Sometimes it's not pretty, but then a crowded penalty box rarely is. The dynamic way the ball reacts to collisions with various parts of the body (and the force behind the clearance or shot) means you can never quite be certain what will happen. The ball could bobble off the despairing keeper and roll nicely into the path of the onrushing forward - with the resulting shot quite capable of cannoning off both posts and back into open play before eventually dribbling off the stranded defender's arse into the net. Such situations are common in FIFA 07. The key word throughout is it's dynamic.

Other such choice adjectives that fit nicely with 07 are 'smooth' and 'fast'. Coming to this version after PES, it's striking how much faster the game feels, and after a couple of years of relatively sluggish FIFAs, the change of pace is very welcome indeed. Not only do the players move comparatively faster than PES, but their animations are perhaps the most fluid ever seen in a football game. There's a real sense of momentum - not just in terms of when they run, but the way they turn and shift their weight when setting off on an attacking foray, or the way they react to being jostled for possession or get their stride disrupted by the trailing leg of a mistimed sliding tack before building up into a sprint down the channel. The way they jump for headers, the ways the ball's plucked delicately off the toes of an onrushing forward all look more convincing than ever.

The slime's gone this year, but the likenesses are the least impressive for some time.

A lot of what's impressive about FIFA 07 are little touches, but they contribute to not only making the game look far more realistic than ever, but play a much better game of football than it ever has done in the past. Stood side by side, FIFA has always been the flashier-looking game than PES, but PES players always took comfort that the glitz didn't really translate into substance. This year, it's different. The character models don't just look better now, they move better - the animation is an absolute revelation, with extremely smooth blending and transitions that make it the most authentic looking football game. Going back to PES feels downright weird after playing FIFA 07 - not just because of the relatively old school character models, but because of the way the outfield players move around with an unnatural crab-like sideways shuffle when not in possession. So, without a doubt, FIFA is a far smoother, faster feeling football game than PES6, no question.

Whether it's the more entertaining game of the two... Well, that's a far more complex issue that depends a lot on what you want from a football game.