Rumours of my newfound love for playing FIFA09 online would appear to have been exaggerated (by me). Yes, the game’s new Ultimate Team mode has finally tempted me to play other alleged ‘people’ online in several dizzying sessions just before and over the weekend. But the novelty has worn off more than a touch, as it was inevitably going to.
I’m still impressed with the overall feel of Ultimate Team, online and offline. As I’ve remarked before, it has the atmosphere of what Master League could and should have been like by now, here in space-year 2009. Tsk, tsk, Seabass. Look what FIFA went and did while you were looking the other way…
It’s not quite Master League and never will be, of course. But the core principle of Master League—a fantasy team that you build from scratch, contained within a fantasy league setting—is one of the most compelling gameplay ideas I have encountered in 30+ years of gaming. Ultimate Team kind of delivers that, albeit through a glass darkly.
Building up my squad is a slow, slow process. I don’t want to spend any real money on the Gold packs of cards (as EA plainly wants me to). So I’m trying to do it all within the mode’s out-of-the box constraints, which are pretty formidable. I have to buy a new Bronze pack of cards every few matches just to keep my best players. This restricts the amount of saving I can do towards getting a Silver pack. Gold packs might as well be located at the end of the rainbow for me right now.
My best players at the moment are all defenders and midfielders. Up front, there’s not much firepower. My best striker is one Peter Thorne, currently with Bradford City in real life. He’s a true journeyman striker whom I remember bursting onto the scene many years ago with Blackburn Rovers (yes, the Blackburn Rovers). In FIFA09 he’s a bit of a fox in the box, although there’s scant opportunity for him to be that online, where it seems goals are scored using supercharged strikers sprinting past your entire defence, or not at all.
It’s frustrating now that there’s nothing much to do with my team offline. I’d love for the timeless essence of Master League to be mixed with the good bits of Manager Mode, and then have the great bits of Ultimate Team added on top. They could package that as a separate game on its own—Ultimate Manager League Team—and I’d pay top price for it on release day.
I love Ultimate Team’s online trading cards system. I’m a sucker for card games and always have been. I can happily spend ages scrolling through the trading screens, which is a bloody good job really. At peak times the card lists take ages to load up, and then they move like treacle. And when you purchase a card, the game takes you to another screen where you decide what to do with it. Then it automatically takes you back to the screen you just left, which makes it load up afresh, which again takes ages… The process is frequently tortuous. Fortunately for me, I game at odd times—at off-peak times—and so the trading screens are usually quite zippy.
I’m still playing a few matches here and there online. There’s certainly no lag problems there. But the sheer sameyness of the matches is getting to me. Time and again it feels as if I’m playing the same person; an ADHD-afflicted 12-year-old who’s working his way through a bucket of espresso.
This ‘eternal champion’ of online football gaming just loves to play against me… He loves to play against everyone, from what I hear and read. You know the sort. When you’ve got the ball, he’s always got two players sprinting at you. When he’s got the ball, he’s always feeding it to his super-fast strikers and wingers, and running at your defence. When you’ve got the ball, he’s palpably annoyed with you if you manage to pass it around for longer than 10 seconds.
Maybe one day there’ll be a football game that is absolutely perfect online. One that balances deep strategic depth with pick-up-and-play action. One that’s like PES of old, in short.
Maybe PES2010 will be that game? It’s far more likely to be FIFA2010. I think Konami have left themselves too much to do. Can there really be any more debate? The crown—the Best Football Game crown that we feign not to believe in—is now EA’s to lose.