UK REVIEW--Last year's FIFA was supposedly built from the ground up for the Xbox 360, though the game still had yet to surpass the standards set by the franchise's entries on the previous generation of consoles. For FIFA 08, EA Sports promised to refine last year's effort while delivering a host of new gameplay modes and features. The result is that this year's FIFA plays a substantially different game of football, thanks mostly to an increased difficulty level and a sense of decreased pace. The raft of new skill moves means the game rewards practice and perseverance, but it could be argued that this makes it the least accessible FIFA to date. Thankfully, though, FIFA 08 wraps its new simulation feel in a superbly presented and very well-rounded package.
EA Sports has made a lot of claims about FIFA's new game modes and features, and they've been flagged up in the game's menu system so series regulars know where to start. At the top of the list is the new Be-a-Pro mode, which puts you in the studded boots of a single footballer rather than an entire team. The default side-on aerial camera perspective shifts to an over-the-shoulder view, and you're awarded or deducted points based on how well you serve the team. This means keeping the player in position, passing the ball around, and--depending on your position--making tackles or scoring goals. While controlling one player in a team of 11 might seem strange, it's an interesting, compelling new take on gameplay. Although it's tempting to run up the field and shoot at goal regardless of your position, the only way to succeed in this mode is to play your part in the team. There can be long periods where you see little of the ball, particularly if you're a defender in a good team or an attacker in a poor one, but on the whole it's a successful experiment on the part of EA Sports.
The over-the-shoulder perspective of this mode shows off another of the big new features in FIFA 08, the trick system. By pulling on the left trigger and using the analog sticks, you can perform a variety of moves that, with enough practice, have the power to cut swathes through the opposition. Simple step-overs and flicks can be executed by flicking the right stick in one direction, while more complicated moves can be orchestrated with a series of movements. A turn can be pulled off by rotating the stick in a circular motion, while an overhead flick is a complicated three-move combo that's more dependent on timing. Faster and more skilful players can pull this move off better than slower ones, and top-class players such as Ronaldinho can even launch an accurate volley shot off the flick.
In addition to the Be-a-Pro mode, FIFA has a variety of other ways to play a game of football. The kick-off mode is the place for a quick practice match with up to three friends gathered round your TV, though there are online equivalents with both ranked and unranked matches. The long-term challenge of FIFA 08 comes from the numerous tournaments that have been packed into the game's offline and online modes. Pretty much every major competition from the major domestic leagues has been included, plus you can create a custom tournament to make things such as continental or world cups that may happen in future. Predictably, EA's seperate World Cup franchise means that this tournament isn't included in the game, but there's nothing stopping you from setting one up yourself.
Online, the interactive leagues let you take control of your favourite team and play real-life fixtures as they happen, or you can jump into custom leagues that have been set up for up to 31 other players. The final mode is the manager mode. Even though EA Sports has a separate FIFA Manager game, it continues to shoehorn an even simpler management sim into the main FIFA title as well. The main difference in this mode is that you'll be coaching players and ensuring they're given enough time on the pitch for professional development, but it doesn't really add anything to the experience.
While the sheer number of game modes is an important consideration in terms of value for money, they're only worth something if the game itself is compelling to play. Thankfully, this year's FIFA plays better than any that have gone before, and given that it's changed substantially over last year's game this is no mean feat. Whereas previous FIFA games were some of the most accessible football games on the market, this version will surprise anyone who expects to pick up the controller and win games from the start. On the default difficulty level, the new opponent artificial intelligence makes scoring goals difficult, let alone winning games. Apparently the result of a revised AI system that controls players individually, the new level of opponent difficulty is a potentially risky turn-off for fans of the series expecting arcade simplicity. While we think the difficulty is actually too high, it encourages players to up their game and experiment with the advanced moves.