The FIFA franchise from Electronic Arts is a mighty one. First appearing in 1993, since then it has appeared on pretty much every single gaming platform of note, including the original N-Gage system. Having it appear on the new N-Gage platform is a smart move from Nokia, lending an air of respectability to the system both to the gaming press ("ah, the Finns can attract developers") and to the end users ("cool! FIFA! I know this!").
And here comes the rub. I’m not a great football gamer. Truth be told I’m rubbish at football in real life as well (hey, I am from Scotland, what do you expect?), and FIFA 08 has consistently been the game that was left behind when we all lined up to choose titles to review. We weren’t devout fans of the franchise, we’re not sports fans (beyond Formula 1, but is that really a sport?)…
…but maybe that should work in the N-Gage’s favour. After all, we’re talking about a platform targeted at casual gamers here, not the rabid fan (even though I suspect this title will gather a lot of them). And it’s not as if most of Europe doesn’t know how to play football (we’ll leave the discussion of FIFA in North America for another time). You've just got to kick the ball about till you get it in the goal, and do that more times than your opponent. [Hey, what about the offside rule?! - Ed]
What does help this casual discovery of the game is that during your first match, the action will pause whenever a new option is available to you – such as your first ‘pass’ of the ball, the first opportunity to shoot the ball, the first tackle, and so on. These can be switched off from the ‘My FIFA 08’ menu (i.e. the options).
This is great and, as I soon discovered, the key combinations needed are quite small – the cursor, to move around the screen, the fire button to switch to the next nearest player to the ball, and the occasional press on the ‘5’ key for a main action and ‘0’ for the secondary (e.g. pass is '5' and shoot is '0'). Yes, there are more in-depth controls, but frankly this is enough to be going on with.
Probably the only control to flag up, and which is on by default as the game starts, is auto-run. This means that, rather than holding down a direction key, you can just tap it and your player will happily keep scooting off in that direction.
FIFA presents you with a number of types of game play, including a season long campaign or a number of tournaments, mostly regional cup games, or the International Cup – eagles eyed lawyers will spot that this avoids referencing properties such as the FA Cup or the World Cup, as this would probably drive up the licensing costs.
Team selection is well represented, with the major leagues of each country (although I’m disappointed the UK representation is only the English Premiership, when most other versions of FIFA 08 also carry the Scottish Leagues and I could play my beloved Cowdenbeath). For those of you not au fait with the teams of Europe, each has a star rating (out of five)… How the Scottish national team gets a big 4/5, I don’t know.
There are two other modes. First is the quick game, where you choose two teams and just go for it. I suspect that’s where most casual players will start before deciding to move into a longer League or Cup mode. And then there are the challenges, which are a lovely idea. You get presented with a scenario - Liverpool are 3 goals down after 20 minutes and went on to beat Milton Keynes by 5 goals. Can you do the same - and you're asked to play it through. It's a nice touch, and gives you a little slice of pick up and play if you don't want to commit to a series of matches.
Now, while the controls are pretty simple, the choices you have in the game are varied. You can do the classic kick the ball up the pitch and run after it, you can lob balls in the air between your players from opposite sides of the pitch, or you can pass the ball between your players who are close, slowly working it towards the goal. Those were the three basic strategies I used on novice level, with a little bit of success… by using just those, it made the game challenging but not overly difficult – which is good for me. More experienced FIFA players will appreciate the higher difficulty levels, and the gamer in me is glad that 'novice' doesn't translate to a ‘we’ll let you win to make you feel good’ level of skill… the five skill levels available significantly ramp up the difficulty.
You can also change the team formation – where players stand on the pitch and what areas are covered. This is the mystical number chant of 4-3-3, 4-2-2-2 or even 1-4-3-2 (see, we have silly numbers just as much as American Football), but luckily you get a graphical display of where your players would end up. This can be changed at any point in the game, so you can re-organise to defend, attack, or have lots of players in the middle for passing the ball around. You’ve also got the option to substitute out injured or tired players.
Where I found trouble is when the computer AI team has the ball and I’m trying to get the tackles in. There are no complicated key strokes, just your player next to the player with the ball, and the tackle is then made (success depends on the relevant simulated skill of the actual football player) – the problem is getting your player close enough. The switch to nearest player isn’t intelligent enough to snap to the closest, and the AI controlled players on your team are as dumb as… well... footballers. Maybe I’m missing something, but it’s rather hit and miss, and infuriating trying to muster the defense.
The look of the game is wonderful – all the players may be small, but they are crisp, you can make out where they’re going or trying to do – you can even watch them loose balance on a slipping pitch! And just to make it a bit more TV like, whenever something spectacular happens, you’ll get a replay of the action from a dramatic camera viewpoint, e.g. to relive the perfect goal into the top corner of the net.
I was expecting a multi-player option to be available on FIFA, either over local Bluetooth or through the N-Gage Arena. This would be the perfect game for that – unfortunately there’s no sign of it at all. I wish there had been, and I’d be intrigued to know why a local option isn’t in the design. Is this because of the focus that everything has to go through the N-Gage client (and server) model?
And while FIFA 08 is going to lose a few marks for that, the rest of the title holds up very well to this casual gamer. The menus are clear, the graphics are sharp and understandable, there’s little confusion in what’s happening in the game (even if how I’m playing is a bit inexplicable), and there is enough variety in the types of game, and in the changing nature of league and cup competitions to keep you playing FIFA 08 for a long time.
-- Ewan Spence, April 2008