For many years the FIFA series from EA was maligned as a simple cash-in year after year and, in gameplay terms, was dominated by Pro Evolution Soccer for a very long time. Since the introduction of next generation consoles however, EA have been steadily improving the series, taking it from an arcade style game through to a simulation game. Ironically PES has been heading the opposite direction. There is no doubt EA has put a lot of work into FIFA and the 2009 edition is by far the best addition to the series we have seen.
Perhaps the biggest and best change to the series is 'Be a Pro Seasons'. In 2008 you could control single player on a team for a one off game in a mode which really threw a curve ball to the competition. 2009 takes this to the next level allowing you to play as one player for a club for four seasons trying to become a legend. In an interesting decision you can choose to play as a real world pro or build your own character. If you choose a Pro their current real world progression carries through. For example if you choose Frank Lampard you are a Chelsea and England squad player at the start of season 1, whereas a new player starts in the club reserves and has to put together some performances to make the first team, let alone the international team.
This mode really is the best feature of 2009 and once you try it you will be addicted. It is much more gratifying to score a goal when you have worked with AI team mates, or pass a through ball to a striker for a goal. There are some visual indicators to help you such as when you're offside or in the wrong position in comparison to the ball. As well as this the harsh realities of world football apply with red cards earning you an enforced suspension, and injuries putting you on the bench for a while.
Other game modes are the more traditional style where you control all players. You can play an exhibition game, take on a tournament or take the managerial reigns where the rest of the game is to be found. You can be a player manager or watch the games only but this really is FIFA Manager 09 lite. Winning games earns money for the transfer market, and also increases job security. There are also some interesting aspects such as media interviews which affect your player's performance.
As expected a whole bunch of real world leagues are included such as the English Premier League, Serie A and Spanish leagues. It is interesting to note that EA never made much use of the license in FIFA but they have lost the UEFA Champions League license for 2009. The real world players are featured and those who are recognizable on the pitch are easily recognizable in the game. There is no doubt this is one of the most impressive facial scan technologies around.
The gameplay has been mixed up as well. You now have to weight your passes. Holding the button longer means a longer, quicker pass. This allows you to easily move up the field. Also players do not instantly catch the ball with their foot, especially when running. There is also a much more prominent sense of momentum. A player running at speed will collide heavily with a stationery opponent and players can be knocked over while trying to head the ball.
There have also been improvements to the presentation. The referees now display FIFA accredited badges and also know the recent law changes such as they will not flag passive players offside. However in some respects the referees are over the top. For instance, the assistants will flag for fouls no matter where they are on the pitch. I may be overly harsh as I am an accredited football referee myself, but if EA is going to do it, they should do it right.
As expected the graphics engine hasn't change all that much. FIFA 2009 does not necessarily look better than 2008 but some small changes improve the title such as seeing the players line up in the tunnel waiting for the call, through to players giving the referee stick for bad decisions. It is interesting that EA has not implemented a dive mechanic but I get the feeling that FIFA would frown on such a move. That said, given the current Respect for Referees campaign worldwide, why would they allow players to give referees stick in the game?
FIFA 2009 really is the culmination of all the work EA has put into the game since the Xbox 360 launched a few years back. The gameplay is almost perfect, the visuals are unbelievable and 'Be a Pro Seasons' is the best new feature in years. FIFA 2009 really is as good as it gets right now.