Everything old is new again.
Handheld gaming has too often been a backwater of diluted versions of console games that zealous gamers could take on the road with them. Now that the technology of handhelds has advanced to the level of the PSP and DS, publishers have been able to make a pretty penny by reviving an even wider array of console games and shoehorning them onto portables with a few new features. FIFA 08 embodies this paradigm, providing a feature-rich but slightly dumbed-down version of FIFA from the PSX/N64 days. It's a fast-paced, arcade-style take on the game of soccer that long-time FIFA fans and younger players will appreciate. At the same time, it's based on a core gameplay design that, in its day, was far from perfect, and, by today's standards, retains all the flaws of the original.
The gameplay in FIFA is oriented horizontally in traditional television style with the goals at the far left and far right sides of the screen. All the action takes place on the top screen while the bottom screen is primarily used as a tactical map to show the positions of all the players on the field. Players can also call plays and change formations on the fly with some basic button prompts next to the map on the touch screen. If you've ever played an older FIFA game you'll know just what to expect: using tactics is generally less effective than sprinting up and down the field, randomly passing to the next open player and trying to get the ball close enough to the goal box to fire off a shot. There's a good range of juke moves and an array of more complex passing options, but you'll generally do just as well, if not better, holding down the sprint button and passing out of double teams to the next open player. While not the most immersive approach to soccer, it's definitely a generally entertaining version of the game that is ideally suited to the quick-hit sessions of portable gaming.
The AI is generally easy enough to beat with a few basic passes or changes of direction, while on offense they rarely seem to employ any more complex tactics than the basic run and pass approach. On higher difficulty levels the computer's shots and passes are faster and more accurate and its defenders more adept at creating turnovers, but that's as far as it goes. Having a map of the whole screen is a nice idea that has been a part of recent console soccer games, and it sounds good in theory. However, in practice it's pretty disorienting to check the bottom screen, figure out which blue or red dot is your player, analyze the soft spots in the defense, then glance back at the top screen to pull off a play. In most cases you'll have lost possession of the ball by the time you've figured it all out. Having the play calls on the touch screen is nice, but you rarely need to use set plays because basic passing and shooting is just as effective.
The D-Pad and face buttons are your main control mechanisms. While the controls are decently responsive, the button configuration is a little awkward and takes some gettting used to. Sprint has been mapped to the R button, the frequent use of which makes the physical process of holding the DS a little unwieldy. You'll be pressing and releasing the R button so much during a game that your DS will rock back and forth a bit each time. It's a subtle but irritating choice for such a central technique that really should have been mapped to a face button instead. Another finger-fumbling choice is mapping both the tackle command and shoot command to the A button. As you're feverishly mashing on the A button on defense to regain possession of the ball, you'll wind up inadvertently firing off a shot after having won possession without even realizing it. It's a minor irritation but it happens in almost every game. Considering how small the players and ball are on screen, it can be really difficult to make out who's actually in possession when a defender is aggressively contesting the ball handler.
The touch screen is used primarily for free kicks, penalty shots, and menu navigation. A stylus swipe is used to determine the speed and arch of a free kick and goalie kick, and you can pass the ball to a player during a throw-in by simply tapping on him. Touch screen controls are really satisfying; seeing the angle of your stylus stroke translate into a ball actually bending through the air is an especially entertaining mechanic, but it's unfortunately used very sparsely and doesn't impact gameplay that much.
FIFA 08 is the most fully-featured version of the sport on the DS, easily outstripping the feature set of the Wii version. Players wanting to jump into a basic season setup will be able to pick one of the hundreds of licensed teams available and set about dominating the pitch. Manager Mode is also available for players wanting to take their favorite teams from mediocrity to international dominance over the course of five years. "Scenarios" is a variation on the typical challenge mode that has you hopping into historic or invented games and completing a given task, such as overcoming a certain number of goals on high difficulty with only a few minutes left in a game. While the default mode is pretty simple, you can download new scenarios from EA as well as create custom scenarios and trade them with your friends online.
Online play is generally stable and mostly lag-free, though it took several minutes to actually find opponents. Once connected, the action was fun, fast-paced, and reliable, but not without the odd random disconnection. For local multiplayer, FIFA 08 supports both single and multi-cart play with either a quick match or penalty shootout. There's also a neat bit of audio customization as players can record their own crowd chants with the DS's mic and have it play back during an actual game. It doesn't fundamentally change the game, but it's always fun to hear your own personal phrases and slogans coming through the speakers during a big game.
FIFA 08 offers a basic amount of visual detail, but much of the 3D presentation is muddy and indistinct. Outside of hair color, it can be hard to tell players apart from one another and animations can be choppy and hard to differentiate (especially given the small character models with the default camera angle). Stadium models are greatly simplified and crowds are indistinct checkerboards that fill out the background. There is a nice replay system that plays with a controllable touchscreen interface after goals or big plays, but the close-up makes the character models look blocky and even more polygonal than they do in the overhead view. There are basic weather effects like rain and snow, but they tend to flicker in and out during play and didn't have much of an impact on the game outside of slowing the movement speed of the players.
FIFA 08 is a good rendition of a game design from a couple of generations ago that has been enhanced with a few modern tweaks, like online play and touchscreen controls. The gameplay might seem a little lacking in depth and strategy when compared to the 3D sports games most players are used to, but in terms of handheld gaming it provides a fun experience. There are some unfortunate choices in the button layout, and fans looking for gameplay that fully utilizes the DS' unique features might be disappointed. However, if you're looking for a 1997-style game of pass-and-shoot soccer, you'll find exactly what you're looking for in FIFA 08.