A Solid Foundation
"This is the season." That is what Electronic Arts (EA) is claiming with FIFA 07. This is the season our prayers are answered, that they get it right, that it finally happens. So let's take a look at FIFA 07 on the Xbox 360 and see if it really does finally have what it takes.
Two years. That is how long this game has been in development, according to EA. In that time they have been working on a whole new game engine, built from the ground up, to create what they believe to be the best football simulation on any format. This new engine incorporates advanced ball and player physics which now separates the ball completely from the animation of the players; a first for any football game.
So now the ball is its own entity, with its own weight, and therefore moves much more like a real football. The new player physics mean that players now have realistic momentum and move their feet to the ball; rather than the ball being moved to the players' feet. So far this all sounds very technical and boring, but what this all basically means as that passes, through balls, saves and, most importantly, goals look so much better than they ever have in a FIFA game or indeed any football game to date.
Unfortunately what this also means is that the game takes some getting used to. FIFA 07 on the Xbox 360 is a completely different game, not only to Pro Evolution Soccer 6 (PES6), but also to EA's very own FIFA 07 on the PS2 and Xbox.
At first players will seem clumsy and generally unresponsive to your movements with the left stick, even more so if you're used to playing PES. Many players may be put off by the drastic change in play-style and give up on the game after just one or two matches. Stick with it though, because once you get used to how the players move, how they react, and how the game as whole plays, you really can put together some great moves and play some fantastic football.
Build-up play is the key to FIFA 07 on the 360. Unless playing on amateur mode, attempting to waltz through the defence with the likes of Thierry Henry will result in the ball being taken off you almost straight away. You need to plan your attacks, hold on to the ball, and make that killer pass at the right time to send your striker clean through for a one-on-one with the keeper.
Through balls play a very big part in how FIFA 07 plays. Timing is of the utmost importance, as you not only have to time your pass, but also your team mate's run. When in control of the ball you can trigger a team mate to make a forward run into space by quickly pulling the left trigger; releasing a well timed through ball shortly after allows you to slice through the defence for a chance at goal. While it doesn't always work, as you'll get caught offside a few times; when it does work it's fantastic.
One-on-ones aren't the only way to score goals however. There are many options open to you, from long range screamers from Steven Gerrard, to simple tap-ins after going on a mazy run with Cristiano Ronaldo. Long throw-ins, as well as crosses from free kicks, can be deadly when played to a good player on the edge of the 18 yard box as your player controls it with his chest on the turn, and then hammers the ball at goal on the volley or half volley. Think of Drogba's outstanding goal against Liverpool earlier this season to get an idea.
Players Don't Head The Ball?
Passing for the most part works well in FIFA 07 with passes regularly going to the player you want; though some passes do go a bit wayward from time to time. For purists however, there is an adjustable pass-assist setting. Lowering this setting to the minimum will mean that passes go exactly where you aim them, allowing you to pretty much ping the ball around to wherever and whoever you want provided your aim with the left stick is accurate.
Defending in FIFA 07 has something of a learning curve. You absolutely can not go in making rash tackles left, right and centre; doing so will quickly reduce your team to 9 or even 8 men. The refs are very strict in this game, sometimes simply muscling a player off the ball will cause the ref to blow up for a foul. At first you will find the ref blowing up for almost everything, which can be very frustrating. But once you learn how to defend properly WITHOUT hammering the pressure button, you won't get too much attention from the referee.
Where the gameplay does fall down a bit however is crosses, particularly when taking corners. Don't get me wrong, you can score some great looking goals from crosses in FIFA 07, especially short crosses to the likes of Eto'o for a scissor kick at goal. But very rarely will you score headed goals as players will almost always chest the ball down first, or go straight for the volley. This can be infuriating when a player is in a great position to simply glance his head at the ball to force it in the net, but instead chests it down only for a defender to boot it out of play.
Corners in the game are very poor and this is one area where PES6 is far superior. You have two options when taking corners: a standard cross or a low driven cross. The standard cross from a corner is lobbed far too high, so even if a player can get his head to it, there's hardly enough power on the header to force it in the net. And don't even bother crossing anywhere near the six yard box from corners, the keeper will pluck the ball out of the air EVERY time.
Low driven crosses from a corner work a little better, but only if you manage to control the ball well with your first touch; first time shots will almost always result in the ball ending up in row z. Free kicks on the other hand are much better altogether. Get a free kick anywhere near the 18 yard box and you'll definitely have a goal scoring opportunity if you have the likes of Ronaldinho or Henry in your side.
The AI in FIFA 07 is, on the whole, rather good. The goalkeeper AI is very good, they will position themselves well and when holding the Y button, they will race out to meet the ball and also come out at the correct angle so as not to allow the oncoming attacker with an easy tap-in (a problem that has plagued previous FIFA's and PES's). Playing against a low rated team such as Watford for example can be difficult as Ben Foster will make some excellent saves because he is such a good keeper.
A nice touch with the goalkeepers is if and when they handle the ball outside of the area. If a keeper comes out and catches the ball, but his momentum takes him outside of the 18 yard box and he is still holding onto the ball, the ref will blow his whistle for a foul and give the offending keeper a yellow card. Attacking full backs such as Liverpool's John Arne Riise will make great overlapping runs and, if a defender is pulled out of position because he is following a runner with the ball, a midfielder will track back to cover the vacated area.
Sometimes central midfielders don't join the attack perhaps as much as they should, and sometimes the game relies too much on you pulling the left trigger to make player runs, but on the whole the AI works very well and your goals won't always be scored by your strikers (unlike previous FIFA's). EA are actually proud of their AI in FIFA 07 but let's be honest, PES has had great AI for a long while now; it's about time EA caught up in this department. Some might say they still haven't, but EA certainly have done a very good job with this effort.
Along with all new gameplay, comes all new graphics. At first glance a football game has never looked this good. The player models are great and the animation on the players is excellent. Married to the good gameplay, the graphics complete what is a very realistic looking, and quite realistic playing football game. But there's still something lacking with the visuals.
Up close, despite all the detail, player likenesses are shockingly poor. This is another area where PES6 beats FIFA 07 hands down as despite the very basic graphics in PES6, when you see for example Paul Scholes, you know it's Paul Scholes. In FIFA 07, they haven't even mapped Scholes' face! But even the faces that are mapped look almost nothing like their real life counterparts. Michael Owen's likeness for example is absolutely appalling. EA seem to have made no effort to make some players look even remotely like their real life counterparts; blonde Stewart Downing anyone?
The disappointment with the poor likenesses however is made up for with the excellent animation. Certain players have different styles of movement; it's easy to spot when the likes of Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo are on the ball for example by their short-stepped run; likewise with Wayne Rooney when he is powering forward on the attack and hammering a shot at goal. The animation of the goalkeepers is outstanding; from clutching the ball at their feet to stretching their whole body to make that fingertip save, the goalkeepers act and move very realistically.
But letting the visuals down again are the various grounds you play in. On a standard definition TV they actually look pretty impressive; a HDTV however shows them up for what they are: ports of the PS2 & Xbox grounds with some added shine. The size on some of the grounds is still impressive as they are accurately modelled, but they lack definition and look blurry, as do the crowd.
What is also poor about the grounds is that they all feel very similar, mainly because they are all white, with all white seating. Now if you are playing at St James' Park then this is quite fitting. But when playing at Old Trafford or the Emirates Stadium it doesn't feel quite right. Because of this FIFA 07 sometimes lacks a bit of atmosphere. When you are Liverpool at home for example, you don't feel like you are playing at Anfield.
Helping with the atmosphere though is the crowd. There are some great team-specific chants in the game as well as some generic ones that fit most teams. The crowds sound authentic but, curiously when scoring away from home you hear next to nothing. Perhaps this happens in Spanish and Italian football, but in the Premier League you should hear your fans roar no matter if you are home or away.
Martin Tyler and Andy Gray make up the commentary team. While there are some nice touches, with both of them discussing recent real life events such as Liverpool's great night in Istanbul and Arsenal's loss in the Champions League Final last year; both of them sometimes feel like they are just going through the motions, there's no real emotion from either Tyler or Gray, and sometimes the commentary lags quite badly behind the action on the pitch.
Taking the game online is probably the most pleasant surprise in FIFA 07. Previous FIFA games have been slated for the constant lag that ruined any enjoyment you could have from a game online. FIFA 07 however is close to flawless during online play. There is next to no lag and the game plays just like it does offline.
What spoils the online play a little though is the lack of online options. After a match you can't have a re-match or start a new match with the same player; you always have to quit o the main menu, start a new session, and then invite the player again. There are ranked and unranked matches, but sadly no interactive leagues like there are on the PS2 and Xbox versions.
Good But Not Great
In fact where FIFA 07 on the Xbox 360 really falls down is content and features, or more specifically, the sheer lack them. Unlike it's cousins on the PS2 and Xbox which have 27 leagues and a host of cool features; the Xbox 360 version has a paltry six leagues and a manager mode.
Anyone hoping to take Accrington Stanley to the Premier league will be sorely disappointed as none of the lower leagues in any country are available. EA say this is because of the new engine and that it would take too long to recreate all the teams, but surely if that was the case all the teams that ARE included would all have accurate player and face models as opposed to just a handful.
Despite the lack of leagues, the Manager Mode is still included; but it isn't very good. FIFA 07's Manager Mode has to be one of the poorest attempts at a management game I have ever seen. The teams likely to be fighting it out at the top are Blackburn and Portsmouth, with Everton lurking around there too. Chelsea usually end up mid table, and as for Man Utd, well let's just say you wouldn't normally associate the red devils with relegation.
Also poor is the transfer system. Instead of bidding real money and knowing exactly what your finances are, you have a confusing points system. Worse still is the fact that the transfers between teams are so unrealistic it is laughable.
Early on in my first season as Newcastle, Arsenal came in for one of my players. Now you'd think they'd come in for someone like Michael Owen, Shay Given, or maybe Damien Duff; but oh no, they only had eyes for Lee Clarke. There is no team in the world that would purchase Clarke as a player, least of all Arsenal.
Making matters worse is the fact that outside of the manager mode there is not much for you to do. Forget recreating the World Cup or starting a new European Championship; the facility to create custom leagues and tournaments is not in the game. There are 37 international teams in the game and all you can do with them is play friendlies. The distinct lack of offline features in this game is woeful, a serious own goal by EA.
After reading the last few paragraphs you may question if there is any point to purchasing this game at all. The answer is YES! The gameplay really IS that good if you just give it a chance. FIFA 07 may not have the instant pick-up-and-play that PES6 has, but it is a good football game with some great gameplay, and which also is superb online. It's just the dearth of features, farcical manager mode, and the few remaining quirks with some parts of the gameplay that make this game fall short of its true potential.
In FIFA 07, Electronic Arts have a very solid foundation to build on. It's just a shame that, yet again, Xbox 360 owners are left waiting for that truly great football game they can call their own.