Just when you were thinking that the annual tussle between the _FIFA_ and _Pro Evolution Soccer_ series had become a dead rubber something completely unexpected happened. EA actually made a decent football sim to finally punish Konami for resting on their laurels on the current generation of consoles. _FIFA09_ was such an improvement that the big, bald Masterchef judge would have ‘taken a bath in it.’ _FIFA09_ was by no means perfect, but it hammered _Pro Evo 2009_ on gameplay and, predictably, in terms of sales. With such a solid foundation, EA have understandably spent most of the last year refining, rather than reinventing, their product the approach has emphatically paid off. _FIFA_ is so good, in fact, that I strongly doubt any game in the sports sim genre will top it in the next twelve months (sorry, _Pro Evo_ fans).

The game’s presentation will probably come as a surprise to those familiar with the _FIFA_ series. Known for its flashy visuals, menus and a general style-over-substance feel, it’s unusual for a _FIFA_ game to look so similar to its previous incarnation. The menus are simple and easy to navigate while the player likenesses are solid without the photo-realism of the latest _Pro Evo_ demo. While the polish and (inevitably) licenses remain, it’s obvious from the outset that this has not been the focus of EA’s work this year. The time and effort spent on honing the already brilliant gameplay experience of ‘09 has been gloriously well spent.

As soon as the game has started up and you’re posited in the ‘Arena’ mode (a one-on-one scenario with a forward and a goalkeeper) the new freedom offered by the 360º movement system is obvious, if a little tough to get to grips with. You almost find yourself looking down at the controller to make sure you’re pushing the sticks in the right directions, but bear with it. Once you get into the full game environment it’s clear just how revolutionary this is. Rather than being trapped on the traditional eight-directional grid found in any footie-sim I can remember, I found myself properly thinking the way I would when playing in real life. ‘I can squeeze between these players. I can curve my run past the shoulder of that defender.’ This feature has been harped-on about a lot in the games media, so much so that I’m almost ashamed to be tagging along so shamelessly but there is a reason for it. Just as there is a reason that Konami has so hastily adopted it for their game such a short time before release – it’s almost difficult now to imagine playing a football game without it.

It is almost a shame that the 360º movement works so well; an awful lot of the great work EA has done over the last year might go unnoticed in its shadow. It’s worth remembering, however, that the feature would be useless if all the other gameplay mechanics weren’t similarly tight. Fortunately, it is good news there too. One of the most infuriating things about _FIFA09_ was that, after playing a few intricate passes to create space, the shooting felt woolly and limp. Long distance efforts would just balloon up mercifully into the goalkeeper’s hands. For this year’s game the shooting has been revamped: players like Gerrard and Lampard can now fizz the ball from distance with the power you would expect. In short, this means that when you have control of a player you would expect to score regularly from distance it’s now always worth a punt from the edge of the area. To add to this new attacking threat the already close to perfect passing system from last year has been honed further. The power and aiming of passes have been left alone but the AI of your players off the ball has been improved to great effect. Players will position themselves sensibly to help create space and keep a passing move going. Wingers will pull out wide, sometimes even just outside the pitch, before tucking in to receive the ball in space. It all feels natural and you can now have your team pass the ball exactly as you would expect a top professional side to do so.

With these improvements made to attacking play, _FIFA_ could easily have lacked balance and become a mad goal-fest akin to _Pro Evo 2009_. That EA have avoided this is perhaps the greatest achievement of their game: the refined tackling works beautifully, and I do mean beautifully. For a start, it looks the business with so many animations that you can convince yourself that they are infinite and just as likely to offer the unexpected as watching real football. On top of that, it all makes sense. The Left Trigger button has been devoted to physical challenges in the game, from jockeying to putting a shoulder across quicker forwards – and it’s super context-sensitive. When jostling for position underneath a high ball, you can almost see the game working out who should win the challenge: calculating which direction the players have approached from, their relative strengths, their momentum etc. The outcome of these challenges always seems realistic without being predictable.

As a result, full matches take on a new character. Teams like Bolton can now take on the likes of Arsenal with a game-plan of winning physical challenges and lumping it into the box while the frail waifs in red will try and pass it and try and break down a bulky side with pace and movement. Because of this games are genuinely varied depending on the teams involved and, most importantly, this variety makes for an even more enjoyable experience. You can get what you want out of games, whether that is recreating the passing of a Brazil ’70 side or the blocking off tactics of a relegation scrap.

The foul challenges that result are also completely different from anything seen in football games before. You can block players’ runs before they reach the ball or put Vidic’s shoulder across lil’ Theo Walcott and cackle with glee as he changes direction and you waltz off with the ball. When the referee called me up I found myself getting emotionally involved in the decisions – there’s no more black and white scale of ‘win ball’ and ‘don’t win ball’. It’s not that the referee’s decisions are wrong (though I swear that he sometimes is); it is just that he is now a part of the game, a genuine presence that you should account for. If he doesn’t get you with his decisions then he may get you with a sneaky touch on the ball. But again, it’s a really fun development: I want to scream at the ref when I play football games.

If I am going to nitpick, then the game modes available don’t quite live up to _FIFA’s_ performance as a pure footie sim. The manager mode is frankly unrealistic (e.g. Why would Exeter City’s Troy Archibald-Henville not sign for my Ipswich side when Louis Saha of Everton would?) and the Be-a-Pro mode, where you control one player’s rise to superstar status while your AI-controlled team-mates appear to conspire against you, probably isn’t ‘thrill-a-minute’ enough to cater to everyone’s tastes. I can’t criticise these too much though, as both are immediately playable nonetheless and easily redeemed by the functionality of online multiplayer and the joy of 10.vs.10 player matches.

It must already be clear that I think _FIFA10_ is a brilliant game but that’s not what anyone wants to know. You don’t care if I’ll still be talking about 360º dribbling in a year: you want to know if you should get it instead of _Pro Evo 2010_. In honesty, I don’t know for sure; Konami still have a little time to improve the clunky demo released last month. What I do know is that if you’re looking for a footie sim and you buy this game now, then you’ll be too in love with _FIFA10_ to notice _Pro Evo’s_ release. That’s certainly good enough for me.


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