| FIFA 08

Imagine getting the job as director of EA's sports franchise games. The induction would be like the first day of a long holiday, with the head of HR slinging a hammock in your new office as he talked you through the particulars of your new role: "You've got a couple of games to get out a year," he'd say, "and they're basically already done at the beginning of the development cycle, so just kick back and relax."

Having faced the mighty Pro Evolution Soccer series as its major rival over the last few years, FIFA has retreated to a relative niche. Whereas Pro Evo is considered the staid and authoritative simulation, FIFA is its dynamic opposite: the Blair to Pro Evo's Brown.

This is most evident in the presentation, where FIFA 08 pulls away. The graphics are detailed on the PSP screen, the animation flows, and the menus all have EA's trademark cobalt sheen. The sound, meanwhile, is even more impressive, with a range contemporary music accompanying the menu-fiddling and, in-game, crowd noises and commentary that respond with eerie pertinence to what's happening on the pitch.

Ultimately, though, the action on the pitch is what really counts, and FIFA 08 acquits itself almost as well here. After years of refinement, EA has developed a control system that enables the beginner to jump straight in and play, whilst providing enough depth to hold the interest of more experienced players and give the developing gamer space to grow into.

At its most basic, FIFA 08 is simply a game of pass (X), cross (Square), through-ball (Triangle) and shoot (Circle). One rung up, there's sprint (R shoulder) which makes it possible to accelerate at the cost of your dribbling ability, and skill (L shoulder), which you can combine with a huge number of other commands to make finesse shots, flick up the ball, spin around, step over, and more.

At any point during the match you can employ new tactics by choosing from a range of eight (four each for defending and attacking) with the D-pad, including stratagems like the offside trap and the third man release.

Each player has his own energy bar, which indicates when he's flagging through injury or exhaustion, and beyond this there are systems of team chemistry and momentum – the latter being bolstered by the former in conjunction with factors such as how long you've spent in your opponent's half, who's had most possession, who's taken the most shots, and so on.

At the highest rung, FIFA 08 has something resembling the manual complexity of Tekken, and a great deal more tactical depth.

To examine the minutiae, through-balls aren't as devastating as in previous versions, although lofted balls that float into the opposing defence are curiously effective, and running at pace will cost you possession far more than before. FIFA 08 encourages a passing game, and the success of passing is intuitively poised on factors like the position and distance of the recipient in relation to the passer.

The dynamic is well-balanced, but a frustratingly sluggish auto-select keeps EA's latest from properly flowing.

The Manager mode is reassuringly comprehensive, with a plethora of settings to manipulate and factors to consider. This alone won't challenge Football Manager's place on the throne, but it's a generous addition to a game whose comfort zone is on the pitch rather than in the boardroom, and it benefits from this year's revisions with the inclusion of pre-season friendlies and training sessions.

The multi-player mode, however, is the one to have gained most obviously from the march of time, with the intriguing Interactive Leagues. This feature enables you to pick a team to represent and to then play against fans of other teams in correspondence with the real-life fixture list. Each victory you win counts as a vote for a team, and you can play as many times as you like in the days leading up to the real fixture. So even if your team is a dud, you can contribute to their success in the virtual world.

It's also possible to connect to the internet to update player information, and you can share info and points between your PSP and your PS2 using a data cable. Wireless multiplayer, meanwhile, is a given.

When enumerating FIFA 08's many features, it's impossible not to resort to simple list-making to get everything across. There are custom tournaments, keepy-up and wall-attack sub-games; there are game points with which you can buy balls, stadiums, strips, and custom teams; there are set-piece challenges; there's a media centre; there's even a football quiz.

There's everything.

Of course, if you've been seduced by Pro Evo's alchemy then everything is nothing. For all its comprehensive quality, FIFA 08 still doesn't have the flow or the realism of its great rival. Nevertheless, the distinction between them is fine-grained, and gamers new to the genre might find FIFA 08's feature-packed bonanza a better bet.


It still can't quite keep up with Pro Evo on the pitch in terms of purist authenticity, but FIFA 08 is a huge, glinting treasure trove of features and modes with accessible gameplay and solid presentation