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For: DS   Also on: Mobile, N-Gage, PSP

Man of the Match

Product: FIFA 09 | Developer: Exient | Publisher: Electronic Arts | Format: DS | Genre: Sports | Players: 1-4 | Version: Europe
FIFA 09 DS, thumbnail 1
In football, few matches cause the pulse to race as much as a tense local derby. These hotly contested encounters are given an additional degree of interest by fans purely for territorial reasons - as the name suggests, the proximity of the two teams involved means the fans of both sides are forced to spend the entire year eyeing each other up and waiting for the handful of times a season their respective clubs clash.

It's somewhat fitting then that the fans of EA's FIFA and Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer are engaged in a similar rivalry; both series have been running for well over a decade now (although PES used to ply its trade under the name International Superstar Soccer) and in that time they've succeeded in annexing the entire world soccer video game market, making rival franchises look like hopeless low-league minnows in the process.

However, despite some sterling performances on the home console formats, both FIFA and PES have struggled to make a significant impression on what is undoubtedly the world's most popular console right now: the Nintendo DS. Konami's last effort possessed all the flair and skill of an inexperienced bench-warmer fresh out of the youth academy, and while FIFA 08 was a step in the right direction for EA, it was still a far cry from the kind of brilliance we've become accustomed to on other systems.

And that brings us neatly to this year's update. Sporting a new graphics engine, updated statistics and the coveted 'Be A Pro' mode, FIFA 09 on the DS is serious about capturing the title, but does it possess the consistency required to become the ultimate champion?

First impressions would suggest so. Like a player proudly pulling on the season's latest kit design, FIFA 09 is resplendent in its shiny new graphics engine and although we're sceptical about the publisher's claims that it runs at sixty frames a second, there's no denying that it's as smooth as a baby's posterior. This increased fluidity hasn't come at the expense of detail, either; compared to last year's version FIFA 09 looks far more sophisticated, with complex player models and instantly recognizable kit detail. The kits themselves even possess a visible 'sheen' and appear to shimmer in the sunlight.

Diving straight into the game itself reveals that EA hasn't been idle when it comes to gameplay, either. The control setup is very similar to the one seen twelve months ago, but everything feels like it flows far more effectively - this could have something to do with the excellent frame rate but we're more inclined to put it down to tightened control and faster responsiveness. Passing, crossing and shooting all feel more natural and computer-controlled team mates are also smarter; generally the entire package seems to hang together more convincingly.

Within a few seconds of loading up a game (Leicester City against Nottingham Forest - a classic East Midlands derby match between two largely mediocre teams - what better way to put the game through its paces?) we found ourselves effortlessly skipping through the hapless Forest defence, popping off reaction-shots on goal with almost clinical precision.

Although it doesn't quite offer the same intuitive controls as the home console releases, FIFA 09 nevertheless overcomes the rather awkward control layout of the DS (which to be fair has never been the ideal machine to play football games on) to offer a fairly comprehensive degree of command. The execution of set-pieces is still a bit iffy but by and large EA has clearly listened to the criticism aimed at the 2008 instalment.

In terms of game modes, the usual suspects are joined by some entertaining newcomers. Naturally, being part of the FIFA stable, this offering features practically every world football league known to man (and possibly a few that aren't) so if you happen to support a team of some description, then chances are it's included here.

The usual Friendly and Tournament modes are here, but the aspect of the game that EA is especially keen to push is the 'Be a Pro' segment. Here you pick a player (or create one from scratch) and attempt to take him to the top of his game over a five year period. In this mode you relinquish complete control of your team, solely focusing your attention on your one player. This naturally results in a dramatic shift in the dynamic of the game - you have to handle positioning, calling for the ball, spotting opportunities and all other elements of play.

EA seems very smug with itself for coming up with this idea but it's nowhere near as original as the company would have you believe - Namco's PSone title Libero Grande was doing this sort of thing a decade ago - and for me at least it got dull astonishingly quickly. Football games are fun because you're in command of eleven men and essentially can be everywhere at once; robbing the player of that supreme control may grant a refreshing perspective on the beautiful game, but for some it will ultimately result in frustration and boredom.

Putting the disappointment of the much-hyped Be a Pro mode aside for a second, it doesn't take long to find something else positive to say about FIFA 09. Online play is included and despite the presence of some slight lag, matches using Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection are a joy to behold. There's also the return of the managerial mode to celebrate, although predictably it still falls well short of replicating the incredible detail boasted by the more dedicated football management simulations out there. Still, it's a worthy inclusion.

After years working its way through the ranks and getting vital first-team experience, FIFA on the DS has finally come of age and can confidently stride onto the pitch with its head held high. This year's edition definitely plays a better game than previous efforts, and although EA has stumbled recently with the likes of Tiger Woods and Madden, this title proves that sometimes practice does indeed make perfect.
Reviewer photo
Damien McFerran | 8 October 2008
It's been a long hard road but DS owners finally have a football game that they can be proud of – FIFA 09 is this season's most improved player
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