FIFA Soccer 08 (Xbox 360)
The love/hate relationship inspired by EA Sports' FIFA series continues with the 08 edition. This is perhaps the most hit-or-miss series in the EA stable, which sees a new version ship nearly every six months; thankfully this one hits most of the right notes, and while from a pure gameplay perspective it's still not as good as Winning Eleven from Konami, it's certainly worth a hard look.
As with most games in this series, FIFA 08 inundates you with options. The game licenses leagues from 23 different nations, including their sub-leagues. The only noticeable omission is the J-League, but chances are your favorite club team is in the game and ready to go with rosters that are current thanks to EA's online integration system. There is also a rich list of International squads. Five new stadiums are included as well, bringing the total up to a gaudy 28.
Manager Mode remains the real draw to the offline game. Everything from scouting to developing young players is included -- even working out team finances. Granted, this is still pretty much the same stuff that was in FIFA 07, but it is fun to tinker with your club nonetheless. The biggest problem is that there are too many top-line free agents every year, and they sign for little to no money, making this mode a bit easier than it should be.
In addition to Manager Mode, you also get the new Be a Pro Mode. Be a Pro is a great idea that isn't taken far enough. It's basically a player lock function that lets you play a game simply as one player, playing positional soccer and not controlling everyone on the pitch. After the match you earn a game rating that scores how well you played -- but that's as far as it goes. There's no development of your player like you see in Madden's Superstar mode. It's literally just a one-game thing.
Online play is the highlight of FIFA 08. Thanks to the fantastic pace, which flows as realistically as any soccer game to date, playing online matches, leagues and tourneys has never been more fun. When you toss in staples like Scenario Mode and all of the little mini-games, you have a lot of stuff to keep you occupied.
The most important aspect, the gameplay, is where the FIFA series sometimes has a tendency to struggle. FIFA 08 plays a very sound brand of soccer, but there are a few areas that bring it back down to earth and keep it from reaching Winning Eleven status. The defensive artificial intelligence (AI) is as good as it has ever been, but the problem is that every team, no matter how good or bad, plays ridiculously tight defense -- picking off through passes with shocking ease. You could be playing as Manchester United against the Columbus Crew, and the Crew defenders would all look like world-class superstars. This is a crucial gameplay quirk, because if the players don't play like they should, it defeats the purpose of having player ratings in the first place. Sure, you can see the difference in obvious areas like speed and shot power, but when it comes to intangibles like defense, position and passing, everyone plays about the same. Making it worse is the fact that teams rarely use varying strategies; everyone plays the same brand of soccer, which leads to a lot of repetitive games.
This also is a problem when playing online. Picking off passes even with less-than-stellar defenders is simply too easy and leads to a lot of low-scoring turnover-fests. Once you get used to the fact that you can't play long ball or try long lead passes, the frustration subsides a bit, but this remains a big sticking point that needs to be addressed.
That's a shame, too, because the ball physics are much improved, allowing rebounds, goals from outside the box -- you name it. The new Skill Stick dribbling works extremely well. You hold down the left trigger and use the right stick to perform all sorts of cool moves -- which, ironically enough, is based on player ratings, so you can't do spectacular maneuvers with poor players. If only the rest of the game worked like that.
As is true of most games in this series, the presentation, graphics, and sound are all top-notch. The play-by-play from Tyler and Grey is some of the best in the business and draws you into the action. The player models look a lot like those in FIFA 07, but the animations are significantly better. Everything looks fluid and smooth, and with all of the new moves possible thanks to the Skill Stick, it looks highly realistic and less robotic. Of course, it looks less appealing when zoomed in, as the players continue to look like soccer-playing zombies, but when zoomed out in 'play' view it looks pretty sharp.
Problems aside, this is still the best FIFA game in quite some time, and even though Winning Eleven continues to hold the gameplay advantage, the gap isn't quite as wide as it was a year ago. Add in all of the licensed leagues, options, and online play, and the game is inching closer and closer to where it needs to be.
This review is based on a retail copy purchased by Crispy Gamer.