FIFA Soccer 09 was arguably the best the franchise had been in years. The game took some massive strides in providing soccer fans with a game that was easy to learn, fun to play, and addictive as all get out. When I saw FIFA Soccer 10 a few months ago, it played very well, and had some noticeable differences, but I wasn’t completely convinced that enough was going to be different about this year’s version to warrant a day one purchase. That was then. Now I can tell you that not only does FIFA Soccer 10 improve on what EA Canada did last year, but makes a case for being the finest football game this generation.
Several of the changes made to FIFA 10 are apparent right from the start. Utilizing the game’s loading lobby/pitch, you can enter the Practice Arena. Once there, you can instantly set up skirmishes to hone your skills or get a handle on the improved controls before getting into a full match. If you’re playing a soccer game for the first time, you might even notice the 360° dribbling. Returning players, however, will take immediate notice that players now have a full range of motion instead of the eight directions that previous years were limited to. True analog control when a player has the ball makes quite the difference when trying to navigate your way through multiple defenders, or when working against a lone defensemen as you try to advance to the other team’s side of the pitch. The goalkeeper’s intelligence has been reworked as well. Now, they’ll be able to attempt secondary saves, as well as position themselves better on the first shot. I was still able to sneak a few too many goals in on the short side, and despite the keeper’s ability to defend much better, the computer consistently kicked goal kicks right down the middle of the field. It’s a bit odd considering how much went into making keepers better, but it’s hardly something that will tarnish the gameplay experience.
FIFA 10 also comes complete with an overhauled AI for the rest of the computer players, making them more reflexive and aggressive. Defenders not under your control will always follow the ball, and should a teammate run to help provide coverage, you’ll see another player shift position to better cover the area left vacant. The computer is also much more aggressive on the attack, constantly pushing the defense as they try to create an opening to capitalize on. Computer players are also more aware of passing balls, and will try to stop them by throwing a leg out or sliding to prevent the ball from getting through. Head tracking has been improved this year as well, which leads to the AI being much better at trapping. EAC has even tweaked the trapping mechanics to allow players to fall back to the most natural trapping position, allowing them an easier path to getting the ball under their control first, rather than last year’s effort, which saw the computer always take the quickest position, and not come down with the ball in traffic very often. Positioning for balls in mid-air is even more important now that the computer will always look for the best possible way to win the fight.
The Practice Arena is also home to the brand new Custom Set Piece menu. Simply tapping Back/Select opens the menu, allowing you to create or edit the set pieces you want to use in the game. The pitch is broken down into eight quadrants, each assigned to a specific free/corner/penalty kick. You can move a player to any other spot on the turf in real time while a telestrator line records his path so you can more easily remember the route he's running while positioning another teammate. It can be a bit confusing to execute a workable plan at first, particularly for those of us who just have their team rush to the net all at once, but experienced fans should be able to create plays that take advantage of the computer. The set pieces can even been taken online, which for the moment is a great idea, but may not seem that way once a few people upload their “insta-goal” plays. Admitedly, I’m not a brilliant football manager, but that certainly didn’t stop me from creating new corner plays with ridiculously unnecessary player movement just for the hell of it. This type of feature goes a long way in making a massive game like this much more personal, which is an interesting concept in a game where you’re likely always playing as someone else.
When you’re done messing around with everything the Practice Arena has to offer, there’s a wealth of game modes to check out. Live Season returns again, and has clearly become the new Franchise mode. Interacting with the real season’s results of your favorite league takes the importance of every win to a new level. It’s a shame that the weekly update costs extra, particularly since this year’s game doesn’t come with a free download of at least one of the leagues like NBA Live. True, there’s only one basketball league, and FIFA Live Season has more than five to choose from, but they should have given the option to at least get one of them for simply purchasing the game new. Virtual Pro is again the area of the game that I spent the most time with, but with all the options this one single game mode has, it's easy to understand why. Just like last year, you’ll have the option of creating a player from scratch to assign to whatever team you like. When you play a game, you’re only in control of that single player, and you’ll be rated on everything from positioning, tackling, and dribbling, to whether or not you were able to score or take three shots on net. The better your rating at the end of the game, the more notoriety and acclaim, as well as experience, you’ll earn. Unlike last year’s effort which limited created players to the offline game, you can now join with up to 49 other people to create a Pro Club and compete for both regional and world championships online. Have I mentioned that you can use EA’s game face for this feature? Or how about that once you’ve got a full squad, you can download all 49 or your other friends’ faces as well? Sadly, you still can’t be a keeper, and the default camera is still a bit tough to get used to, but regardless the mode provides hours of fun.
Your self-made pro can also be imported to the revamped Manager Mode. Last year’s effort was a solid but buggy mix where match results and player development were often far from what you would expect from a particular club. This year, EAC made sure to address the issues that plagued 09, and have come back with a much more realistic simulation of what it would be like to manage a professional football team. There was a lot of fine-tuning that went into making the managerial aspect that much more true-to-life, including team play based on the strengths and weaknesses of actual teams. This aspect seeps into the standard play modes as well. Very few teams will play you the same way, and while I won’t go so far as to say I noticed the AI making adjustments on the fly, there’s a distinct difference game-to-game, and team-to-team, as to how the computer will play you. Players also progress using a much more scientific scaling system. Obviously the goal is to win, and get your club the championship, but you’ll have other tasks as well like signing “X” number of players or keeping your team from being booted from the league. These improvements go a long way in providing an engaging and deep mode for people who don’t want to spend the money on Live Season.
If there’s a knock on FIFA 10, it comes in the presentation department. Player models look great, with many more established professionals' faces making the game this year. Animations are fluid, and the collision detection is close to spot-on. Commentary is an issue in any sports title, but in this game in particular, the announcers never seem to have the intensity that replicates the action on the pitch, nor do the stadium sounds really invoke a sense that actual people are watching the game. Sure, the proper chants are there, and fans will “Oooh” and “Aaah” at the right moments, but the only part of the game that keeps me immersed is the gameplay. It’s a shame because EA gets this right with so many other titles. EA Canada in particular handles NHL, NBA Live, and FIFA, yet FIFA was the only game where I felt a surprising lack of virtual fan presence. The stadiums all look great, and the lighting effects are top notch, but the turf doesn’t really look that fantastic close up, and it may just be me, but I would love to see some pitch deformation as the game winds on. We’ve come far enough with processing power that this shouldn’t be that hard to pull off. None of these factors ruin the game, but are surprising, especially considering how much effort went into each and every other part of the game.
Last year’s effort was the first soccer game I’d played in a few years that had me continually coming back to play again and again. With FIFA 10, EA has another surefire hit on their hands (as the millions upon millions of copies sold in the UK can attest), and has established this franchise as the preeminent football game. As long as EA Canada remains in charge of this title, I don’t think there’s a chance any other game can knock FIFA from the top spot.