There was a time when the latest FIFA release would send most self-respecting football fans running for the hills in dismay. Although the series started brightly with a wonderful debut on the Sega Megadrive, it kind of lost its way in the late ‘90s, routinely humiliated by Konami’s superb International Superstar Soccer franchise – which would later evolve into the wonderful Pro Evolution Soccer that we all know and love.
However, the story has been rather different of late. EA has steadily improved FIFA over the past few years and as a result the gulf between it and PES - which was once so wide you could park a London bus in it, sideways – has closed significantly. This year is shaping up to be the most tightly contested yet, as Konami’s soccer series appears to be faltering slightly, while FIFA, buttressed by some excellent new gameplay features and stacks of official team and league licenses, is most definitely in the ascendancy.
This is no more apparent than when playing the new Wii edition of this long running sporting franchise. EA has taken to the Wii controls more than most developers, and FIFA is certainly no exception. Just as Madden NFL and Tiger Woods PGA Tour have been altered to incorporate the motion sensing Wiimote controller, FIFA has undergone a striking overhaul when it comes to commanding the action. Employing a method similar to that found in Nintendo’s Mario Strikers: Charged, players are moved using the Nunchuk and shots are executed via the Wiimote.
In some respects the capabilities of the controllers are used extremely effectively – for throw-ins, you push forward with both controllers, mimicking the actual act of chucking the ball back into play. Elsewhere, it’s less initiative. For shots, you have to swing the Wiimote upwards or downwards. Initially it takes a lot of getting used to but – as was the case with Mario Strikers: Charged - after a few matches you quickly get the hang of things.
Back when the first FIFA graced our screens the number of commands one was expected to memorize was small – a couple of buttons at most. Nowadays however, football games are packed with a plethora of different moves including sprinting, through-balls and other deft touches. Due to the limited number of buttons available in the Wii setup, EA has had to condense everything in terms of control. Sadly, this means several button combinations are required for some of the more impressive feats of skill, which can prove problematic when in the middle of a particularly heated contest. Things have been simplified slightly but it’s clear that with the multitude of control options present in the game FIFA is not entirely suited to such a unique control arrangement.
In order to make the game as accessible as possible, EA has also incorporated a ‘family’ control method, where the player only decides when they wish to shot or pass the ball: the computer handles all other movement. It’s a brave attempt at ensuring even the most humble participant can enjoy a fairly decent game of footy but, inconsistent control and error-prone AI will make even the worst player wish for more comprehensive command over proceedings and the mode will quickly be ditched in favour of the normal setup. Still, it’s the perfect way to ease ‘casual’ gamers into the world of FIFA before granting them full control.
Another aspect of the game that seems tailor-made to appeal to less serious gamers is the ‘Footii Party’ mode. As the name might suggest, this facet of FIFA 08 supports integration of Mii avatars. Two of the mini games present here are a little on the limited side, based around keeping the ball in the air and hitting a target respectively. However, the third, Table Football, really steals the show. As you might expect this is a virtual replication of everyone’s favourite tabletop pub entertainment, with the twisting of the Wiimote simulating the turning of the spinner handle. It all works very well indeed and is a perfect way to cool off after a particularly heated match in the game proper. Also, it’s encouraging to see a company other than Nintendo using the undervalued ‘Mii’ so effectively.
Visually FIFA 08 is obviously not quite up to the standard of the 360 and PS3 versions. But, it still manages to look half-decent; if you need an indication of quality then be comforted by the fact that it’s almost indentical to the PS2 edition in terms of graphical splendour, which is certainly no bad thing. The visuals in the ‘Footii Party’ section of the game are colourful and cartoon-like – it’s almost a shame that EA didn’t have the balls to apply this unique look to the rest of the game. However, it can rightly be assumed that the game wouldn't have sold nearly as well if this had been the case.
Not so long ago we would have laughed at the notion of recommending a FIFA title, but EA has clearly put plenty of effort into this product. The controls aren’t perfect – some gestures are a little too much alike and this can often causes moments of frustration – but like so many games on the Wii, when played in the company of others you simply won’t be bothered. FIFA 08 in multiplayer is a joy to behold. Add to this an encouraging online mode (complete with net play that doesn’t require those accursed Friend Codes thanks to it being hosted on EA’s own servers) and the light-hearted escapism of ‘Footii Party’ and you have an extremely successful representation of the beautiful game.