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Welcome Back. But Not Really.

Due to a recent bout of World Cup fever, I picked up myself a copy of FIFA Soccer 09 for my PSP. It had been a long time since I last spent any meaningful amount of time with a footie game. It goes something like this:

Five Aside Soccer (Commodore 64) – I’m actually not 100% sure whether this was the title, but that’s the name that came to mind. Whichever it was, all I really remember is just before opening kick-off, a digitized rendition of guys singing the “here we go; here we go; here we go…” song would play, which actually sounded more like “herrgghheeegooossshh herrgghheeegooossshh herrgghheeegooossshh sshhhh shhtt…”

FIFA International Soccer a.k.a. FIFA ’94 (DOS) – EA’s first soccer game. This one was so cute, you wouldn’t think it was the beginning of a menacing cash-cow franchise. Funnily enough, it was a bout of World Cup fever in 1994 that prompted me to hit the shops.

FIFA Soccer 96 (DOS) – Real player names, clubs, and leagues. Multiple camera angles in 3D stadiums. Lots of player animations (including limping!). This was head and shoulders above FIFA ’94.

International Superstar Soccer ’98 (Nintendo 64) – Allegedly the best at the time. I really loved this one, although I didn’t have the manual, so I couldn’t figure out what I should do about those animated smiley faces beside each player name.

FIFA 99 (Nintendo 64) – Yawn.

FIFA Soccer 09 (PSP) – I’m back in the club! All it took was last year’s edition, a bargain bin, and a $9.99 price sticker. ‘Nuff said.

Note that big fat ten-year gap. Given the yearly releases (even with incremental improvements), and an apparent re-invention to stack up more favourably to Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer, after a decade away I assumed I was going to be overwhelmed with the flurry of change and heaped-on complexity. I’d be just like good ol’ Brooks Hatlen in Shawshank Redemption. Minus the hanging myself part.

Odo admires FIFA 09's workmanship.
The allusions to Odo from Deep Space Nine are fitting: he tried to resemble the real thing, but couldn’t get it quite right. Just like this game.

I can’t say my prediction was wrong. Before (feigned) mastery comes learning, and I found there was plenty to learn (the perfect example being all the set-piece options, including some eight distinct actions for a free kick). And after a series of miserable attempts at scoring a goal, defending a lead, winning a freakin’ match… I’m now in the midst of a semi-respectable season with Chelsea in the Premiere League. It still has taken a while, and has been frustrating at times. But I know that given the extensive control set, time is all it takes to imprint many a button sequence to memory.

But you know, it sure would help if the manual were better. With its paltry 14 pages, about half of which consists of obligatory legal and introductory material, it doesn’t amount to much. Never mind not having proper explanations for the very cool Be A Pro mode, or information on setting up tournaments (I’m assuming I’m not permitted to set up a 32-team tournament with national squads because I’m supposed to buy 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa); when it comes to controls, a list of supposedly every control in the game is spat out over a few pages.

What’s irritating is realizing the manual only explains the core aspects of these controls. For example, it tells you which buttons to press on a free kick, but fails to tell you that pushing up on the stick applies top-spin to the ball. It explains how to have your keeper throw the ball, but not how to fake one. It explains that holding the shoot button “increases power”, but fails to specify that “power” actually means lift, not force. I’m of the opinion that mastering the subtleties of control, not learning what the controls are, is what should be putting demands on one’s time. (It makes the payoff sweeter.) And that leads to another beef: the absence of a training mode. Want to try out chip shots? Any of the four types of corner-kick shots? Dribble tricks? Tough shit. None are available to me outside of a game situation.

Before someone dials me a waaambulance, I’m pretty sure my reactions are similar to but a tiny subset of FIFA players. I’m betting the majority are those who have religiously played past iterations, and start each new title already equipped with the muscle memory and knowledge about the game’s feature set to hit the ground running. Considering this, it can’t be easy for a developer to have a hit franchise on its hands. In a world of sequels, how much does your next installment cater to the expertise of the existing, loyal playerbase that made the title a success, and how much attempts to broaden the audience and win over new potential devotees? EA Sports is the poster child for this cyclic dilemna.

Perhaps I should make the most of my slow start with FIFA Soccer 09, and treat it as a rock-solid foundation on which I can build a renewed relationship with the EA Sports soccer franchise, one that has me plying my ever-expanding skill-set on each subsequent offering!

OR, I could join a local rec league, and go outside in the fresh air, and play the real thing.

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