Manual labour

Recently I’ve spent most Sundays talking about my adventures in FIFA08 land. It’s a peculiar thing for an ostensibly PES-oriented blogger to do, but there you go. We live in interesting times.

As we move towards the end of the current football game year, quite a few stories are nearing their ends. The story of the PS3 version of PES2008 ended for me a very long time ago. In years to come it’ll be as if that game never existed. I believe that there are still a lot of people playing it, online and offline. Good luck to them, I suppose.

The PSP/PS2 version of PES2008, on the other hand, is still going strong for me. It’s dominated most of this year on my blog, and the story demands proper closure (for just one thing: I picked up a 20-year-old Kaka’ in the 2022 pre-season negotiations). I’ll get to all of that next week, or the week after—definitely before the FIFA09 demo lands on 11/09, anyway.

My FIFA08 story also needs closure. As of right now, I’m playing it a lot. Playing catchup, in lots of ways. I really have neglected the game all year, and I didn’t mean to. I got distracted by the classic gameplay of last-gen PES2008 and, well, you know the rest.

I’m playing a very enjoyable second career in Manager Mode. I’m playing as the reputed worst team across all four English divisions—Dagenham & Redbridge.

I got my Dag & Red team promoted to the Premier League last season without much trouble. This was after I’d started mixing up the difficulty levels. I played home games on Professional and away games on World Class. I’d struggled to adapt to playing FIFA08 regularly again after several months of PES2008.

After a few games in the Premier League I started winning more easily (but never easily) on World Class again. Then I realised that it has been now almost a year since I tried playing FIFA08 with all-manual controls.

You can switch off all the computer assists in FIFA08. You can choose to be responsible for everything: passing, shooting, crossing. Everything except the physical acts of running and jumping. (Now that would be a truly hardcore football game…)

Every football game ever made has helped the human player carry out all of the basic actions of football. Passing, crossing, shooting—especially shooting—have all been done for us by the lines of programming code contained within the games. All we have ever done, really, is make suggestions to a pre-programmed AI, which then carries them out. Pointing the analogue stick (or directional buttons) at your team-mates and pressing pass makes the game magically transport the ball the intervening distance. Ditto for shooting and aerial passes and through-balls. There’s no actual precision aiming from the human player.

With manual settings on FIFA08, all of that changes. You are the one who must aim your passes. You aim the shots. You direct the aerial balls where you want them to go.

I tried it last year and I didn’t like it. It was too hard. I didn’t find it enjoyable. It was too realistic. After literally two games, I abandoned the (brief) experiment with manual controls. I felt that I needed assistance from a football game in order to enjoy it.

That’s actually a pretty strong argument against FIFA08 as a whole—from a PES point of view. A higher level of simulation of football does not necessarily make for an enjoyable football game. In this view, there has to be some element of ‘gameyness’—even, yes, of arcadiness—for a football game to be truly satisfying. We need to be fooled. We need the illusion of control, not actual control. I’m not saying I agree with this argument, necessarily. Just that it’s the strongest argument, in my opinion, on the anti-FIFA08 side of the debate.

And I didn’t find my latest experiment with all-manual controls any less frustrating at first. Most alienating was the apparent impossibility of scoring goals. I think that shooting is the main problem with manual controls—everything else can be adjusted to, and pleasure found in; but manual shooting is a nightmare.

From a position directly in front of the goal, it seems impossible to aim for the corners of the net. The ball will always fly ludicrously wide. There’s no middle ground—seemingly—between that and shooting straight at the keeper.

The only goals I scored using manual shooting were from tight angles. To aim diagonally was to aim for the corner of the net. When in front of goal, it should actually be easier to find the corners. More of the net is visible—but it isn’t easier. It actually seems impossible.

I had to abandon manual shooting after it got too much. I’m still looking for a solution, though. What have I missed? (Apart from lots of open goals…?)

I left everything else on full manual, but I put shooting back to semi-assisted. That’s still a step ‘up’ from the default auto setting. You still have to exercise a lot more care over aiming than on full assists. I was finding the corners again, which was a relief. It’s my routine on FIFA08 to spend loading times in the Arena curling balls into the postage stamp corners of the net using the finesse shot. (I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned who my Arena player is. It’s Eric Cantona.)

Generally, what I love about manual settings so far is that you are forced to play balls into space and let your players run onto them. The system lacks full sixteen-direction aiming. You’re limited to the eight cardinal points. It makes for an initially messy passing game, but I soon adjusted. Passes don’t zoom magically to other players’ feet. The game is weirdly more open, more natural-looking, with manual passing.

My form on these settings was pretty bad. I won a game or two, lost another few, and drew the rest. Fortunately for my Dag & Red team’s progress in the EPL, I wasn’t playing with them. For the manual experiment I resurrected my old Coventry City career. I’d abandoned it after assembling a squad of galacticos and winning the Quadruple. It did that team good, I think, to come back to life for a few sessions.

I’m still settling into using manual controls on FIFA08. It certainly is a whole new game with them. Will I persevere, and maybe even play FIFA09 on nothing but manual controls? At this stage I’d say that’s very likely. It would certainly be worthwhile. There’s a small but dedicated number of FIFA players who use manual controls. And this year they’ll be able to find and play each other online. So it could be the way forward. I’ll have to see how I get on.