Going through the motions.
It’s ironic that the Wii has had such a spotty record when it comes to licensed sports games when its blockbuster system-selling game is a sports compilation. EA Sports has led the cavalcade of underperformers with a string of ports that have seen lots of fuss over motion controls but little attention to the guts of the game that those controls are interfacing with. From Madden to the just-released NBA Live, EA Sports has been spending lots of energy coming up with clever variants on simple gestures for Wii games, but they seem to have totally forgotten that the gestures really just activate a dusty old animation that’s only marginally evolved from older games. FIFA 08 is, arguably, one of the worst of the bunch, delivering a motion controlled slog that demonstrates the disconnect between the control interface and what’s happening in the game. The core of the game is quite similar to what you’ll find in this year’s PS2 version and is by no means a bad game. Even still, those expecting a revolutionary new way to experience the most exciting sport in the world will probably be disappointed.
From the outset, the most striking thing about FIFA 08 is the changed camera angle that shows the action from a zoomed out, bird's-eye view similar to the point of view in Madden. Instead of following the on-screen action from left to right, the game is now vertically oriented. The change is compelling and greatly helps the passing game, making it easier to see passing lanes and keep track of the defense’s ebb and flow across the field. Although it’s essentially a cosmetic change of the default camera setting to a view that’s always been available in FIFA, it is an essential switch that enables the motion-based passing system that has been implemented in this year’s game.
FIFA 08 allows players to pass in one of four general directions. Holding down the A button and swinging the Wii Remote left, right, up, or down will send the ball to the closest approximate player in any direction you choose. For a longer through pass, you hold down the B button and make the same motions. You can also forgo the gestures and just hit the D-pad to get the same results, or, for the regressively-inclined, hitting A or B with no motions will deliver the same old short pass and through pass to whomever the AI decides should get the ball. In theory, gesture based passing sounds great, but it ultimately frustrates the process because of FIFA’s detailed animation system. The controls are responsive enough, but it can often take a player sprinting with the ball a split second to reorient themselves and switch over to the passing animation, which makes a muck of trying to play on the fly. It’s a disappointing reminder that all the gesture controls in FIFA could just as easily be done with a button push and, frequently, would have been better-served by forgoing motion. There can be upwards of a full second delay between when you’ve made your motion and when your player goes through the appropriate animation to actually do what you told him to do. It might sound like a small concern in writing, but in the heat of a close match that delay can be maddening.
Shooting fares a little bit better, with players uncorking a driven shot by yanking up on the Remote, while a downward gesture lets loose a more controlled finesse shot. Holding down the C button and swinging the remote up will deliver a soft lob kick to arch over a rushing goaltender. It’s a more simple gesture to pull off in the heat of an intense game and feels a little more responsive than the gesture-based passing controls, but it’s a shallow interface that doesn’t really take advantage of the Wii Remote's sensitivity. Defensively, the controls are much simpler and more rewarding. The B button is used for standing tackles, and a quick downward swipe delivers a slide tackle. It’s a responsive and straight-forward approach that, unlike the basic offensive controls, actually streamlines defensive play and enhances the experience in an entertaining way.
Finally, there’s a whole fleet of gesture-based controls for jukes and more advanced player movement. These involve flipping the Remote or Nunchuk left, right, or downwards in conjunction with a push of the C button, in the hopes of pulling off dekes, slash moves, fakes, pull backs, and 360’s. The animations for each move are impressive, and stringing together a series of evasive moves can be key to driving the ball past defenders on higher difficulty settings. Even here, though, it’s painfully apparent that this system is a simple conversion of the PS2’s button-based design swapped out for waggle. With a quick series of button pushes, it's easy to see how this system could be timed out and effective against the defense, but with the added convolution of waggle it's a cumbersome drag that makes it prohibitively difficult to pull off more than one move at a time. That would be okay if the game had been rebalanced to compensate for the increased difficulty of stringing together evasive moves, but rarely will you be able to slip a defender with just one fake or 360. Only the most dogged players will ever break through and find a way to make the system usable.
FIFA 08 has a decent variety of gameplay modes, but isn’t quite as fully featured as either the PS2 of Xbox360/PS3 versions of the game. You’ll be able to hit the pitch in Quick Play, Tournament/Season modes, and Custom Tournament. Sadly, the Be A Pro mode that lets you play through a whole tournament/season as the same player is absent from the Wii version. You’ll still have an impressively robust set of team management options during a tournament to satisfy the hardcore fans of sporting strategy, and this can make playing through a whole tournament a really rewarding experience. For a hardcore soccer enthusiast willing to roll with the gesture controls, there is a very respectable amount of longevity to be had from the game’s variety of game modes, slightly incomplete though they may be.
From a visual standpoint, FIFA 08 is almost entirely a straight port from the PS2 version. Players have a decent amount of detail and the animations, as mentioned earlier, are convincing and lifelike. There’s a huge array of different stadiums for the voluminous number of teams available, but they’re mostly basic recreations of their real-life counterparts and are almost never featured during actual gameplay. EA Sports has, thankfully, added IR support for the menus, which is a big improvement over Madden. Even still, FIFA 08 does next to nothing to take advantage of the Wii’s extra processing power and delivers particularly underwhelming visuals.
FIFA 08 features online play on the proprietary EA Nation infrastructure, eschewing Nintendo’s Wi-Fi service and the inconvenient friend codes associated with it. When you select to play online you can simply log on if you have a pre-existing account, or create a new account linked to an e-mail address. It’s a quick and easy process that is a lot more intuitive than what Nintendo has managed so far with their own online service. Network performance is also significantly improved from EA’s earlier online forays for Wii. We experienced occasional hitches during gameplay but nothing that was uncommon or seriously detrimental to the pace of the game. In general, all of the games we played ran smoothly and loaded quickly. As an added bonus, FIFA 08 supports online leagues, so players hoping to do more than play a few quick pick-up matches will be able to delve into online play at length.
Family Play makes an appearance in FIFA 08 as well, offering less experienced gamers the option to control the game using only the Wii Remote. While the approach has worked adequately in other EA Sports titles, it fails to deliver anything remotely amusing in FIFA. Relying on the AI to move your player on the field in a soccer game is an exercise in frustration. Rather than running set plays, FIFA is based around players moving improvisationally in patterns that change on the fly, as well as stringing together multiple passes and long strings of juke moves. Almost all of that is stripped away in Family Play mode, and your granny or girlfriend will be left to ineffectually pass or shoot the ball while the more experienced player runs circles around them with his advanced abilities. Even against the AI, with the difficulty on the easiest setting, playing Family Play feels arbitrary and disjointed.
EA Sports has added a small collection of three mini-games specific to the Wii called Footii Party. Using your Mii’s, players will be able to compete with up to four players in foosball, juggling, and penalty shot mini-games. In the foosball mini-game, you control your players by spinning the Wii Remote while changing their position up or down with either the D-pad or analog stick on the Nunchuk. It’s a surprisingly simple and intuitive interface that works quite well and is easily the most satisfying mini-game in the bunch. If there were a few more features built around the foosball, like tournaments or specific skill challenges, it’s easy to imagine this mode becoming a fan favorite. The juggling mini-game is a simple rhythm game that has you pushing buttons or gesturing with the Remote in time with a shrinking circle icon pulled straight out of Elite Beat Agents/Ouendan. It’s also fairly satisfying, if shallow, but doesn’t have enough options to really become addictive. The final game has you swinging the remote to take penalty kicks at targets distributed around a goal box. Swinging the remote in different directions results in a kick to the corresponding location of the goalie box. It’s a nice idea in concept, but the gesture recognition is rather spotty, making the game a lot less fun that it might otherwise have been. The Footii Party games are an excellent idea to make the game more appealing to an audience less inclined to play a sports sim, but with only three games, and only one basic mode to play in each game, there just isn’t enough content here to keep someone interested for very long.
It’s nice to see EA Sports aggressively pursuing Wii owners with a solid slate of games, and not skimping with online play and Wii-specific bonus content. At the same time, it’s a thoroughly underwhelming experience to realize that the core game design in FIFA 08 is very much unchanged from what it has been in previous years, on older hardware. To be clear, that’s not a bad thing, it’s just disappointing, and doubly so when you realize that many of the gesture-based controls applied to the old game design are just stand-ins for button presses that unnecessarily complicate the experience. Wii Sports demonstrated just how much depth can be wrung out of the simplest of mechanics like swinging the Remote. FIFA 08’s approach is almost the opposite, offering a huge variety of gestures that only superficially interact with the game. FIFA is a solid game, but this Wii port makes it harder than it should be to enjoy the strengths of the core design. For those willing to put in the time and effort to fully master the motion controls, there’s some decent fun to be had here, but you have to wonder whether it’s worth the effort when playing this game on another console would provide just as much enjoyment without all the hassles.