FIFA Through The Ages – A Love/Hate Relationship

You can tell it’s nearly Christmas when the latest video games all have a number in their titles. Unfortunately I’m a sucker for a decent franchise and do buy into the possibility that sequels can sometimes overtake their predecessors. One odd one to this rule though is FIFA.

Over the years I’ve been all over the place with footy games. I started on the Spectrum with Football Manager, watching my 80s Liverpool side trounce Crewe Alexandra et al each week after some tactical dealings in the transfer market and watching the highlights of the match in 8-bit jerk-a-thon.

Next up came MatchDay 2 (I must have missed the first game) and finally I had full control over my team of stuttering melon-headed players. Not a classic, but I had a few decent rounds of the game which was probably more akin to rugby than football.

The mid-90s then saw a football revolution. FIFA 95 and 95, the isometric utopia of soccerball fun arrived and I was as happy as a pig in the proverbial. Wonder goals would go flying in, and I even created an all-black kit-wearing team that consisted entirely of Pat Nevin from one to 11. Don’t ask. But they were world beaters.

At the same time, my computer-owning friends weren’t left out with the genius of the Sensible Soccer games coming to their Amigas and Atari STs. I still have fond, fond memories of sticking a finger up at hayfever by taking my Sega Megadrive joypad to my friend’s house to play hours of Sensi World over the school summer holidays, pausing only for a quick Southern Comfort and Tango raided from his parent’s drinks cupboard (it felt like a summer-y concoction at the time).

But after these glory years, it all went a bit, well, wrong. FIFA 97 on the Sega Saturn (I had upgraded my Megadrive) introduced what can only be described as “ice-rink” physics, with David Ginola and Chris Sutton alike skidding all over the place like demented penguins. The five a side mode was still fun, but the game had lost its spark.

Then a new challenger emerged, World League Soccer. Initially tricksy controls and a tendency to crash very, very frequently (most games did on the Saturn) didn’t put me off this little gem. On going to University, we played quite a bit of WLS until other’s loans arrived and PlayStations were soon being snapped up, leading to the inevitable return of FIFA.

FIFA at University didn’t need to be a world-beater. It didn’t need to be an in-depth, hugely involving simulation. It needed to be quick to pick up and play and addictive enough to play all night with only Asda’s own Scotch and a few friends for company.

And sure enough, FIFA did just that. I think I still have the hand-scribbled league tables of Liverpool doing the business over Sheffield Wedneday, Bolton Wanderers and Man Utd on regular occasions. It didn’t matter that many of the games ended 8-7 after over-use of the through ball that was a dead cert every single time. It still brought about some amazing all-nighters and some shockingly poor essays written with bleary-eyed regret the next day.

When I left Higher Education, I didn’t really know where to turn video game-wise. I’d always stuck with Sega, but Sony, this new pretender to the throne, seemed to be making all the right noises. The Dreamcast was a thing of genius but expensive and liable to be obsolete in record time, so I sided with the newly-minted PlayStation 2 in all its black boxy beauty.

Soon after, the decision had to be made, which football game do I go for on my new console? I’d played ISS Pro on PSOne at University and found it a bit too simulation-y for my liking, so I didn’t really fancy Pro Evolution Soccer, its natural successor. But could FIFA hold a place in my heart after a few years away? I tried to love FIFA again, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I decided instead to see what all the fuss was about Pro Evo, and I was instantly hooked. Absolutely, this was the game I had waited ten years for (albeit full of made up player names and stadia, but I could painstakingly hand-alter them). Even after three or four sequels, the game held up strongly against the cheap and tiresome cash in of subsequent FIFAs (I kept on playing the demos just in case), and their ghetto-based “Street” series. I even tried the FIFA games out on PSP, but they were probably even worse.

Suddenly though, EA knew they’d dropped a major clanger and shipped development of FIFA off to Canada of all places, and the magic returned, just at a time when the lack of official licenses was really starting to grate on Pro Evo. I dipped back to the dark side and haven’t looked back since.

The options. The licences. The likenesses. The animations. The shots. The online multiplayer. The genius of little dinked through balls and chipped shots over the on-rushing keeper. Playing with work friends over the Internet is now like playing out those epic confrontations on Sensi World in a friend’s bedroom circa 1995, albeit with less of the Diner soundtrack and more of the responsibility of having to get up at a ridiculously early hour the next day.

But with each iteration comes that inevitability that EA will change something that could be a game-changer all over again. FIFAs 09, 10 and 11 made subtle changes, but despite that initial joy-pad throwing hissy fit, after a couple of games, it’s always been easy to get back into the swing of things.

But FIFA 12 has arrived. It’s scarily got a bit at the start which teaches you how to defend all over again, fighting against three years of experience and instinct of doing it completely differently. It’s less arcadey. It’s….not quite FIFA. It’s going to be a rough ride…

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Xbox 360 Vs PlayStation 3 – Part II

Well, it’s long overdue and by not-at-all popular demand, I thought I would update my views on the console wars circa 2009.

You may remember that nearly two years ago, I posted that Microsoft hit the ground running with some great exclusives, a great online facility and a real drive to corner the hardcore gamer market with their Xbox 360. On the flip side, Sony seemed to be too pre-occupied with the HD wars, weren’t really focused on a particular demographic, and the price point of PS3 was putting people off in droves.

So what’s new? The Wii seems to have had its five minutes of fame and been slightly exposed for the underpowered gimmick that it is. Conversely, both Microsoft and Sony have recently unveiled motion senor-based controlling mechanisms. There are far fewer console exclusives out there these days, even Metal Gear Solid has gone multi-format. HD-DVD is dead and gone. And Gran Turismo 5 STILL isn’t out.

Personally I continue to buy games across both console formats, but mainly on 360 for the still-better-than-Sony’s controller, especially for First Person Shooters, the online service they offer via Xbox Live, and the strangely competitive nature of the achievements system.

But, my patience with Microsoft has been stretched to breaking point at times. I, like many others got the dreaded Red Ring Of Death on my 360, originally after only having had it for about 18 months. To be fair though, MS managed to pick it up, repair it and admit that the faults were more widespread than first thought, having their hand forced into offering everyone an extended warranty on their console “just in case.” It wasn’t the first time I had to send a console off to get fixed either, my old PS2 once gave up the ghost and I had to send it off to Sony for repair, which ended up costing about £60 (from memory). Not the best customer experience when it was me that was the one out of pocket.

Unfortunately, despite updated chip-sets and increased storage capacity, the newer 360s on the market still sound like aircraft taking off, making them unusable for movie watching. The ability to install games to the hard drive quietens things down a bit, but this relies on you having available disk space, and actually wanting to wait for the thing to install rather than just plugging in and playing away. It was never a possibility on my Xbox 360 Premium edition as the 20GB harddrive soon got full with game saves and downloadable extra content for various games. So much so that I couldn’t even download demos anymore, so I was kind of relieved when I got my second Red Ring (!) and found myself with a good reason to upgrade to the black Xbox 360 Elite, complete with 120GB harddrive. This beast is a bit quieter than its predecessor, but compared to the PS3 it’s still a roaring lion next to a little squeaky mouse. Having said that, it is easy to set up, the new £199 price point is more than agreeable, and the free data transfer kit made getting all my old stuff off the Premium a doddle.

Microsoft’s relatively recent NXE (New Xbox Experience) has also made the menu system even simpler to use, although the use of avatars which the player can dress up and buy additional clothes/jewellery etc for seemed shoe-horned in for the younger market. Nevertheless, it’s mildly amusing playing around with the look of these little on-screen personas and they are being used in a more mainstream way now in games such as Guitar Hero 5 where your avatar will appear on stage as you play.

And what have Sony been up to? Well, they initially chucked a slew of differently memory-ed consoles at the consumer (sneakily removing PS2 backwards compatability without telling anyone at the same time). They then managed to release PlayStation Home for free, tart up their menu system and online store and introduce their trophies (their version of Microsoft’s achievements). Then, recently, they released the PS3 Slim, shaving some size off their behemoth of a machine.

The larger disk space consoles didn’t really do much to increase sales for Sony, but gradually, as the ridiculous £425 launch price came down, and rumble-enhanced controllers began to be included as standard, a few gamers started to take a punt. Helped hugely by Blu-ray winning the war over HD-DVD, tech-savvy consumers then saw the opportunity to pick up a relatively inexpensive media hub in the shape of a PS3 and sales grew.

Trophies seem to have made it easier for developers to use the same reward systems on both 360 and PS3 versions of all new releases, giving gamers something to compete over which in turn encourages people to replay games.

What continues to be an oddity though is the PlayStation Home game/facility/whatever the hell it is. Again, it features an avatar for you to dress up and you can trek around various zones which only seem to serve the purpose of advertising recent or upcoming games. There are a few very simple free games in there that you can have a crack at, but why buy a top of the range console and proceed to play oddities that you’d usually only consider if you had five minutes to kill and fancied an uninvolving flash-based game? It also seems that whenever you are bored enough to go and peek into Home, it forces you to download and install new areas or updates so frequently that you don’t end up spending much time actually DOING anything. And why is it that downloads from both Home and the PlayStation Store itself still take so long compared to the speed of Xbox Live content?

The base PS3 XMB (Cross Media Bar) menu system has benefitted from numerous updates however. There’s VidZone for those who fancy catching up on recent music videos. Even BBC iPlayer is there in all its glory. The Internet browser isn’t great but it’s functional. 360 has yet to even have one, the nearest they’ve come being the forthcoming Facebook and Twitter functionality. And let’s not forget that the PS3 online service is still free so gamers are more likely to accept that it isn’t as advanced yet as the 360’s flashy £40 a year interface.

In spite of its faults, the PS3 also remains more reliable, quieter, and the controller is still slightly more familiar for sports games. Having the weight of Sony behind it, who have been in the game far longer than Microsoft also helps, and the lure of Gran Turismo, Uncharted, Ratchet & Clank, InFamous, Resistance and Motorstorm exclusivity means that realistically I’m happy to still have both consoles nestled under my TV. Although I must say that I’m more than happy to have an older PS3 that looks far sleeker with touch-sensitive buttons and a glossy finish rather than the recent matt-look slim PS3, but presumably Sony had to cut costs somewhere in order to sell it at the new £250 price so making it LOOK cheaper must have seemed to be the easiest option.

And what of other videogamers and their behaviours? Of the 14 people (all of whom I still know personally) on my Xbox Live friends list, pretty much all of them have had to return their machines to Microsoft for repair at least once. Two of them don’t even have Xboxes anymore, the reason for one – they bought a PS3 instead. Of the other 12, not all of them play all that often at all, and when they do return to their machines, they may well find that their £40 a year Live subscription has expired anyway.

Funnily enough, my PS3 friends list has grown. Again, these are all people I know, not 13 year olds from New Jersey, but I now have a collection of people, some of whom, like me have both Xbox 360 and PS3. Some are converts to the PS3 phenomenon, others are old PS2 fans who have been waiting for the dust and the prices to settle before jumping into the next gen console wars.

One thing’s for sure – both Sony and Microsoft seem happy to co-exist for now, testing out bits and pieces of functionality, software, hardware and add-ons before even thinking about their next gambit. For once, it looks like the big boys are taking a considered approach to new console development, rather than continually rushing out new hardware before we truly need it, and that can only be good news for us consumers.

Xbox 360 Vs PlayStation 3

It is nearly a year since PlayStation 3 hit the UK and so I felt it was about the right time to sum up my feelings on the next-gen console wars.

 

I love a good console launch, lots of excitement, people importing foreign machines for silly amounts of money, simply because they have to have the latest kit before anyone else. Then there is the pre-ordering, the ebaying and the random stories about Yanks whooping at big midnight launch parties. What’s not to like?

 

During the PS2/Xbox days I was very much in the Sony camp – they had a better controller, a quieter, sleeker machine, far more games and some really good exclusives such as Tomb Raider, Pro Evolution Soccer & Grand Theft Auto (for a time), Gran Turismo, Ratchet & Clank, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, God of War, WWE Smackdown, Virtua Fighter  (I won’t include Metal Gear Solid as I’m not a huge fan of sneaking around and watching cut scenes for hours). Hell, I even liked Killzone.

 

Microsoft had tried going for grunt and raw processing power but in trying to steal into what was the PC-only territory of online First Person Shooters, they ignored the key PS2 younger audience and priced themselves out of the market. The depth and classy infrastructure of the first two Halo games (especially online) was very tempting but the original Xbox had little else to offer.

 

On the flip side, the only thing for Sony to improve after the success of PS2 was their online gaming service. But they got complacent. Bunging a Blu-ray player into PlayStation 3 is all well and good for those who have already upgraded their TVs, but for many others it wasn’t enough. In a reversal of fortunes, Microsoft focused on the fun and a community spirit with 360 whilst Sony meandered into multimedia hub territory.

 

I didn’t actually get a 360 on release day. I wasn’t intending to get one straight away anyway as I felt the PlayStation 2 still had plenty left to offer. I did pick up a core 360 system from johnlewis.com at 9am on launch day back in 2005 but I ebayed it to raise some funds.

 

After doing so, however, and having seen some of the early 360 games in action on HD televisions in Game, I decided to get a 360 for myself. Eventually, after lots of exciting chats with store employees over stock availability, I managed to snaffle one from argos.co.uk.

 

Upon firing it up and playing a bit of Call of Duty 2, Quake 4 and Perfect Dark Zero I was hooked. It didn’t matter that Microsoft were playing safe with sequels, these were all top drawer sequels and only scratched the surface of what the 360 could do.

 

Sony missed a trick again by delaying the European launch of PS3 until March 2007. The 360 had time to build its fan base and library of games. People got bored of waiting and so switched allegiances from Sony to Microsoft.

 

Suddenly Microsoft could do no wrong. The second wave of 360 games brought modern classics such as Lost Planet, Gears of War and Call of Duty 3 to the machine, then two years down the line we got real triple-A next-gen titles such as Bioshock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Halo 3. Even though some of these appeared on PS3 as well, it was too little too late.

 

When PS3 did launch, I dutifully picked one up from Virgin after pre-ordering but it was soon apparent that I didn’t need to do so as stock was plentiful. Whether this should mean kudos to Sony’s manufacturing plants or whether it is a worrying sign of people not having £400+ quite soon after Christmas to spend on another new console I am still not sure to this day.

PS3 launch games were okay but not great – Motorstorm is admittedly one of the most fun racing games of recent years and Resistance was a half-decent shooter, but there was no real excitement over the exclusive titles. Where was MGS? GTA? DMC? GT? What else could Sony offer the gamer? Motion sensing controls which felt like a tacked on, badly implemented, last minute idea? Less backwards compatibility than every other world territory? No controller rumble? All sadly present and correct.

 

Within a year of release, it is telling that Sony first bundled Motorstorm and Resistance: Fall of Man and an extra controller with the machine for the same £425 launch price, then cut the console price itself by nigh-on £100, then released a more basic model for £299.

 

It is also telling that Sony are in the process of releasing a rumble-enabled controller, and launching their online Sims/Myspace/Facebook hybrid interactive social “game” Home, complete with achievement-style “trophies” for nailing certain feats within games.

 

I cannot believe it has taken Sony this long to realise the impact that the achievement system has had on modern day gaming. Similar to the old-school arcade high-score battles of the eighties, achievements really force people to make the most of their games and add a sense of competition against friends and even unknown online acquaintances. I have (perhaps tragically) sold some PS3 games without playing them in order to get them on 360 simply because of the achievements adding a little something extra. I always used to get the majority of my games on PS2 and just get exclusive titles on Xbox but now this situation has completely reversed.

 

Also, the head start now really shows – I have 11 friends on Xbox Live, all of which I know personally. I have yet to encounter anyone else I know who has bought a PS3, therefore the online elements of many PS3 games are redundant to me.

 

I don’t usually bother with that much online gaming, apart from when friends are online anyway, but it is fascinating to get a snapshot via Xbox Live of what other people on my friends list are doing and how far they have gotten in their games compared to my own progress.

 

When I do venture online, Microsoft’s advantage is even more apparent. Through their long-standing relationship with Bungie, they have really nailed the very best in online gaming systems with Halo 3, including the ability to check stats on the Internet after marathon frag-fests. Shooting your friends has never been such fun, and by being backed up by third-party developers, Microsoft are riding the crest of the modern gaming wave.

 

To sum up, Sony will no doubt cope with all the PS3 uncertainty and produce some killer titles in the next couple of years. We can expect them to really start harnessing the processing power of PS3 and show us things we never thought possible and that the 360 simply can’t compete with – but do not forget, this is what Microsoft tried to do in the last generation and they fell well short of success.

 

Sony will probably consistently come second to Microsoft in Europe due to the ground already lost. It is important to note, however, that the videogaming landscape of 2008 is a very different place to that of a couple of years ago. Third-party developers will no longer produce so many exclusive titles as it simply isn’t cost effective to release a game on only one system. Similarly, we cannot expect first party titles to always blow us away, there will eventually be a limit to the technology – although with not even a rumour of any PS4s or Xbox 720s, the two big guns look to be in this current-gen war for a long while yet. Something has to give, but this particular war is far from over.