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

Here we go, here we go, here we go... again?

Product: FIFA 09 | Developer: Electronic Arts | Publisher: Electronic Arts | Format: PSP | Genre: Sports | Players: 1 | Version: Europe
FIFA 09 PSP, thumbnail 1
Envisage getting the job as director of EA's sports contract games. The initiation would be like the first day of a long vacation, with the head of HR slinging a hammock in your new place of work as he talked you through the particulars of your new position: 'You've got a couple of games to get out a year,' he'd articulate, 'and they're on the whole already done at the beginning of the development cycle, so just kick back and relax.'

Sound familiar? It should, because that, my friends, is the introduction to Pocket Gamer's review of FIFA 08, run through a thesaurus a bit so it looks a little better.

It was how I intended to open the review of FIFA 09, in a hilarious literal parody of what I was sure would be yet another EA battery-farmed sports game.

Well, how wrong I was. You see, far from replicating the pigeon-steps of recent FIFAs, 09 represents a significant step forward in the handheld simulation of football, expanding the boundaries of portable gaming so joyously you could probably play it non-stop forever. Or as long as your batteries last.

In the past week, I've let out audible gasps on the train, tutted on the tube and have punched the sofa in disgust, such is the way FIFA has emotionally engaged. Honestly, if FIFA continues evoking such passions, by the end of the week I fully expect to be involved in running pitched battles with PES supporters. And by next month I'll be giving anyone who bought the abominable World Tour Soccer a Chelsea smile.

This new-found loyalty's not because of FIFA's now-familiar Manager mode. Nor the excellent quizzes, or the online play and interactive leagues, which I'm convinced no-one uses anyway.

No, this new-found FIFA enthusiasm is thanks to the Be a Pro mode, which is easily the best addition to the footballing genre (on handheld, at least –the concept is familiar from Namco's PSone title Libero Grande) since whoever invented the through-ball invented the through-ball.

Be a Pro mode really shouldn't be as staggeringly brilliant as it is. On paper – or the Internet, in this case – it doesn't look like much: pick a player from any of the game's billion domestic and foreign leagues, and play matches controlling him and only him. For four seasons. That's it. If you're lucky, you'll control the ball about a tenth of the time you would in a standard game of FIFA. For the rest of the time, you're a sporting tourist.

A special camera offers a dynamically zoomed view of the pitch, and it's up to you to control your runs, call for passes, spot gaps in the defence, that sort of thing. At first, you simply concentrate on your own play and position but as your career progress, you earn more influence over the teamplay. You can call for your mates to shoot on your command, or demand pressure on goalies. Over time your player journeys from bit-part player to player-manager, effectively conducting most areas of play.

Between matches, you earn points for performing specific match-day tasks, with more added if the team as a whole meets certain criteria. Whilst it's clear that many of these objectives are randomly generated, they never cease to elevate each game from a goal-scoring competition to something entirely more tactical.

Once a specific number of points have been accrued, you're given the option to improve key footballing abilities. Wisely choosing which skills to improve is key to real player progression. If this is all sounds a bit RPG, that's because it is – you'll be leveling-up and increasing stats much like in a traditional role-player. But instead of then heading off to slay dragons in nerdy fetch quests, you'll be entering some of the world's greatest sporting arenas to score goals.

Actually, that's not strictly speaking true. Proof of the success of the Be a Pro mode is that it's not just about the goals any more. There's an equal amount of satisfaction to be gleaned from spotting a run and playing a defence-splitting through-ball, or knocking a dinky one-two en route to goal. In these virtual arenas, I've stood stationery having played a team-mate through, willing him to score. When he has, I've actually raised the PSP triumphantly, smiling when the two players embrace. Which is clearly bonkers. But an example of the game's brilliance.

Outside of the Be a Pro mode, FIFA 09 is as comprehensive, authentic and good-looking as always. The only major addition is a new casual mode, which in theory lets anyone play a decent game of football, albeit with most of the interactivity simplified. It's a nice touch, meaning absolutely everyone can pick up and play.

Which they should. Because FIFA 09 really is the new benchmark by which all handheld football games should be judged. Absolutely stunning.
Reviewer photo
Simon Byron | 10 October 2008
The best handheld football game by a country mile. A must for anyone who loves football
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