Written by: Rik

Date posted: December 31, 2012

Extras:

It may sound odd, but for a little while, I used to associate the FIFA series with Christmas. The demo would come out in October/November, I’d play the same three-minute half of a friendly about a thousand times, all the while convincing myself how thoroughly awesome the full game would be, before slapping said game on my Christmas list, and hoping I’d been a good enough boy that year to find it under the tree on the big day itself.

A player, playing football, for Liverpool, in a match that’s two minutes old. (Or, I took 10 million screenshots and I still have to use this one).

The excitement was heightened by the fact that FIFA did actually used to change quite a bit from year to year – from ’96 to 2000, particularly – and you wouldn’t always know exactly what to expect. Unfortunately, though, the series took a serious turn for the worse in the early part of the noughties, and as this also happened to coincide with my discovery of the venerable Pro Evolution Soccer series, my seasonal fix of FIFA became a thing of the past. The last one I paid full price for was FIFA 2002, a horrible mess of a game that was undermined by EA’s determination to fit everything around a through-ball gimmick, to the extent that the simple things, such as playing a short pass to a nearby team-mate, became a bothersome chore. The ball physics were awful, too, and when the ball was in the air it swirled around erratically, as if filled with iron filings and under the influence of several powerful magnets dotted around the stadium.

As a fan of football games, the thought occasionally strikes me that chronicling the history of the FIFA series in some detail might be both interesting and worthwhile, although I’ve never really managed to convince myself. The main stumbling block is that most of them are simply not very good, and none of them come close to touching the mighty PES. Indeed, the major selling point that FIFA has always had (and the one thing it had over PES) – all the official licenses that money can buy – becomes much less relevant when you’re looking back at things years later and everything is out of date anyway.

On the other side of things, though, it seems worth acknowledging one game as a representative of the series’ more recent history, and as a counterpoint to the coverage of PS2-era PES elsewhere on the site. And so, here we have FIFA 07, which went up against PES 6 in the final battle for superiority on the previous generation of consoles (the 360 did get versions of both games, but it was still relatively early days for the system – and it was the PS2 versions that were ported to PC, anyway), and is generally considered to be the point at which EA started to turn the series around.

If you’re at all familiar with what we’ll colloquially refer to as ‘modern FIFA’, then you’ll know that slick presentation is part of the package. So, instead of generic computer-game music composed by a middle-aged man in a studio, you can enjoy the modern pop hits of the day while you browse the game’s menu systems. As you might reasonably surmise from the fact that I just used the phrase ‘modern pop hits’, I’m totally out of touch when it comes to such things, and as such have little further comment to make, other than to say that I recognised roughly three songs: a song by Muse that I actually knew; another that was used as the theme tune for the TV show The Inbetweeners; and a drippy effort by The Feeling which stuck out because it was all sad and slow and didn’t seem to be appropriate accompaniment for the AWESOME NON-STOP EXCITEMENT that is THE FOOTBALL.

The titans of Leeds take on the behemoths of Wolverhampton.

Of course, licensed music is standard fare these days, but I remember that when EA licensed a single song – Blur’s Song 2 – for FIFA ’98, it seemed as if a magical and exciting event had occurred. To be honest, though, once you actually got the game you soon became rather fed up with listening to Song 2 all the time, and since then I’ve remained unconvinced of the wisdom of the investment, especially when it’s only to be heard on the menus and outside of the main game (though you can fill my ears with all the licensed pap you like if it accompanies a racing game; hell, I’ll probably go out and buy it, even if it’s terrible, or by someone terrible). It was a sad day indeed when PES abandoned its use of bonkers Japanese techno music in order to ape its rival – although there was an awesome in-between year where Konami produced some original pop-rock compositions, complete with football-related lyrics (it was PES 2008, and I think it’s likely I’ll get around to covering it, for this reason alone).

As we mentioned, the other main thing about FIFA is that you get all the official licences and whatnot. So, while in PES you have generic team names and kits, here you’ll have all the proper stuff. The range of teams available also extends to the lower leagues, so if you support a less-favoured side from a bleak northern outpost rather than any of those Premiership fancy-dans, then you’re in business here. Likenesses are limited to the better-known players, though.

FIFA 07‘s noughties predecessors were characterised by a seasonal ‘gimmick’ which would be heavily promoted in their propaganda and then ridiculed by the gaming press. By the time this game was released they seemed to have abandoned this ploy, although the slogan ‘THIS IS THE SEASON’ is emblazoned on the packaging, a reference to the delusional pre-season visions of glory held by fans and players alike, and represented in-game by a bizarre pre-match cut-scene in which a player waiting in the tunnel is shown to be visualising scoring the winning goal, accompanied by blurry soft-focus graphics (which, incidentally, are also applied to every slow-motion replay, in game). A bit strange and unnecessary, perhaps, but nothing that actually breaks the game itself.

Big-name commentators are also a hallmark of the series, and FIFA 07 is no exception, with Clive Tyldesley and Andy ‘Groper’ Gray on hand to loosely describe the on-pitch action. In real life, you’d never have heard such a pairing, of course (and you never will, barring a spectacular fall from grace for the former or a miraculous career rehabilitation for the latter) as they worked for rival broadcasters, which detracts slightly from the authenticity that, presumably, is what EA shell out for in the first place, but still – they are (or were) high-profile names. Tyldesley’s excitable bawling is authentically irritating, but Gray suffers from having to try and provide incisive detailed comment on the action which, obviously, he can’t do, instead trotting out a series of vague catch-all phrases that may or may not describe the most recent passage of play. So, he’ll berate someone for a bad miss when they shot from miles away and shaved the post, and congratulate a player for a good effort when they missed an open goal from three yards. FIFA 07 isn’t the first, or the last, game to suffer such problems, though, and commentary remains a difficult area to get right.

Get stuck in there, my son, uuuuuaaaarrggh! (Adopts cockney voice and continues in the same vein for 20 minutes or so).

The game itself is fairly playable, and adhering to fundamental principles of retaining possession and passing to the man in space to fashion chances does bear fruit. You might say that such things should be taken for granted, given how many football games have been released over the years, but – trust me – many previous FIFAs were lacking in this regard. Those familiar with PES will no longer find its rival a chore to play, with the control layout largely identical, and the same strategies for success applying to both games. In some areas, it’s superior to PES – the aerial pass, for example, seems more versatile here, and sees some practical use aside from just clearing or crossing the ball. Games are more end-to-end, too, and anyone familiar with the frustrations of overcoming countless 0-0 draws in order to succeed in single-player PES will find opponents that pose a genuine goal threat a pleasant surprise.

But, these areas aside, it still falls a long way short of its rival. The ball physics are much improved from the dark days of FIFA 2002 but still fail to convince when compared to PES. Shooting, in particular, still doesn’t seem quite right – as with PES, if you shoot off-balance, or at an inopportune moment, you’re more likely to miss, but you don’t miss in the way that you’d expect – the ball skews slightly but doesn’t balloon miles off-target. The path of the ball seems slightly ‘on a string’, manipulated by the computer, rather than an actual ball being kicked around by your on-pitch stars. It’s an issue that started to be a problem as far back as FIFAs ’99 and 2000, and you’d expect more progress to have been made in that time.

Also: memories can be fuzzy things, I know, but in other areas FIFA 07 does seem really similar to other, much earlier, iterations of the game. While the poly counts and textures on the players are more impressive, for example, they don’t seem that far removed from those in FIFA 2002. Don’t get me wrong, it looks a lot better (in fact, the game looks great generally), but you can see some material from older games underneath all the polish. For all that has changed, in both look and feel, you can also sense that much has stayed the same, or been tweaked rather than overhauled. One could make similar observations regarding the gentle evolution of the PES series, too, of course, except there’s little reason to radically change things that actually work well when they’ve made you the frontrunner. In FIFA’s case, though, EA would have been well advised to make more of a break with the past by ironing out echoes of previous, underwhelming efforts.

Aside from playing individual games or tournaments, you can embark on a career mode, referred to here as ‘Manager Mode’, in which you take control of a team over a number of seasons, signing and selling players, and hopefully leading them to glory. You’d think that the official licenses and leagues would give it an obvious advantage over PES’s idiosyncratic ‘Master League’, with its hotch-potch of made-up teams, a bizarre use of points instead of currency to trade players, and a never-ending cycle of matches against the same teams, but it’s undermined by a number of things.

For a start, there are several aspects of the management element that add nothing and only serve to irritate. The board give you some goals for the season – some of which are performance-based, and make sense, but others are slightly random, such as the order to secure a particular player (and not necessarily a star player) from your squad on a long-term contract. You’re also invited to sign contracts with sponsors, set ticket prices and make decisions regarding other off-pitch scenarios that a manager wouldn’t normally bother with – it’s a single step away from FIFA Soccer Manager‘s nightmarish obsession with the condition of the pitch, ground redevelopment and players getting injured after eating a dodgy kebab. Also, and this might just be a personal thing, but the use of first initials when mentioning players gives it an amateurish, dated feel – why bother paying to use The Sun newspaper in your game when the fake headlines say things like ‘J. Lehmann available for transfer’? Use both names or just the last name, like in real life.

GOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLL!!! (etc)

The biggest problem with manager mode, though, comes back to the fact that the on-pitch action just doesn’t really cut it for long enough to keep you interested. It has enough depth to sustain a few games, or a cup tournament, or even – at a push – a single season, but to keep playing for years and years, as intended, to build up a team, is going to be a slog. Your players don’t seem to have any attributes that make them stand out – or, they do, but it isn’t apparent when you play – and instead the impression is that you’re in charge of a team of robots who can more or less be changed about at random as long as their basic overall rating is good enough. In PES, you get a sense of where your team is lacking, what kind of players you need, who has something to offer and who doesn’t, and that’s part of what keeps you going, playing games to earn points and sign new players.

For me, FIFA 07 had outstayed its welcome towards the end of my first season in manager mode. It’s a competent enough game, but the absence of that basic compulsion to just play a few matches more is a fairly fundamental one. Once upon a time, I would play all of the major football releases, regardless of what was best, just to see what they were like and experience some variety. With FIFA 07 the novelty wore off fairly quickly. Perhaps the fact that I’m a PES die-hard means that I’m now unable to enjoy other titles in the way I once did, I don’t know, but there was a sense of going through the motions here that set in much earlier than I was expecting. So, for what it’s worth, from the class of 2006, PES 6, is still a game I play, and enjoy, on a regular basis; FIFA 07, on the other hand, I doubt I’ll play again. Don’t expect that series retrospective any time soon.