If you already own "FIFA 10," is there really a need to run out and buy "2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa" when it hits stores April 27? Is it really that much of an upgrade?
Surprisingly, the answers to both those questions look to be yes, as "World Cup" actually manages to improve on "FIFA 10's" already brilliant gameplay while also offering new challenges and gameplay modes not seen in EA's award-winning soccer game.
"The World Cup is simply the biggest sporting event in the world," explains Simon Humber, the game's line producer. "It's on a different scale to anything else out there, and the global interest is like no other. And because of this, it gives us the chance to do something different in the video game, as well.
"There were 199 teams that officially took part in qualifying, and we have each of them in the game. So you can play as powerhouses like Brazil, Spain, England and Germany, or you can travel the world and take a team from the Caribbean islands or some team that is way down on the FIFA rankings and see if you can challenge yourself to take a tiny nation all the way to the World Cup finals."
But the game isn't just about challenging yourself with a tiny nation while using the same old stick skills you learned in "FIFA 10." As I said, EA Sports has gone in and already made some significant upgrades to the gameplay, the graphics and the available modes.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Humber and get his thoughts on the five things every gamer needs to know about "2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa."
"One of the biggest differences between 'FIFA 10' and 'World Cup' is what we're trying to replicate in terms of authenticity," Humber explains. Not only does the game feature all 199 teams but it also adds ten 10 South Africa stadiums to the series, really helping bring to life every featured matchup as your country claws its way to the finals.
"'FIFA' has the English, Italian, Scottish and Mexican leagues, and to deliver something that feels authentic in all of these places is a hard job when you might have Tuesday night games in the middle of winter in some far-off outpost in England. But what the 'World Cup' game enables us to do is have multiple paths all building to the same point, the World Cup final. So it allows us to be more focused on our presentation, and it allows us to build to a climax, which you can't really do in the 'FIFA' product because there isn't just one single climax in 'FIFA.'
"But now, when you actually win the World Cup, you'll see a trophy presentation with the players, their manager, and there's absolute joy as they pick up the trophy and kiss the trophy as the fireworks go off in the background. That's your big payoff for all of your hard work. The fact that you actually get to see yourself lifting the World Cup trophy after you win.
"We have a 3-D crowd for the first time. So during the real World Cup broadcast on TV, during breaks in play, the director usually cuts to an attractive-looking lady who sticks out in the crowd, so they feature her on the big screen in the stadium and on the TV broadcast. Now we've done this in the game, showing fans from each team reacting to what's going on in the game from time to time. They'll either look very happy, totally fed up, or just have that look of anticipation as they wait to see what happens next. The whole broadcast element from South Africa is just so much better than anything we've ever done before."
And that "World Cup" authenticity extends beyond the broadcast right down to the pitch as one look at the players in "World Cup" and you know you're experiencing something that's already graphically far beyond what you've been playing in "FIFA 10." And it has only been five months.
"My art director called us all into a meeting one day and said, 'All right, I want this to be the best-looking sports game ever made,'" Humber says. "Nothing like setting yourself up for a big fall, but he was determined. So we got ahold of 'FIFA 10,' which was our starting point, and we saw improvements we could make with the lighting of players and the environments, then we stripped the game down to its basics while trying to implement some new tricks we learned from film and television and applying them to the game. When we put the game back together again, straight away, we noticed dramatic improvements.
"Load up the same stadium in 'FIFA 10' and 'World Cup' and put it on the same sunny day conditions, and when you see how the pitch looks, how the player faces look close up, and you'll see for yourself what great strides we've made with the visuals in our game. This is definitely the best-looking soccer game I've seen to date, but I'll leave that to everyone to judge."
2. Gameplay enhancements
"FIFA 10" is the best-playing soccer game I've ever played. But according to Humber, the gameplay in "World Cup" is superior in just about every way as the producers were able to make improvements to the engine that have gone a long way toward fine-tuning what was already an amazing virtual sports experience. "From 'FIFA 10,' we've already made over 100 enhancements to the gameplay engine," Humber says. "Some of those fix issues we noticed in 'FIFA 10,' like how easy it was to score from chip shots and how the goalkeepers used to rush off their line to make it too easy for you to score the chip shot that was already too easy to execute. We also didn't like how players were too passive before, and how they didn't attack the ball on crosses. Now if your striker thinks he needs to do a header on the ball, he really does charge the ball and strain every muscle in his neck as he tries to get there, and this really leads to some spectacular goals.
"We've also improved the momentum of the players in the game. If you've played a lot of 'FIFA,' you've probably noticed that often times, they take a long time to bring a ball down to control, especially when it's in the air. You'll often get stuck in an animation when you're trying to bring the ball down, before you get any moves off. We've managed to fix that system greatly, so now, when they receive the ball in the air, they can often chest it and move off in the same movement. They can execute clearances without taking the extra touch they might've taken in 'FIFA 10,' and that leads to a game that just has a much better pace than what we had previously."
3. Penalty kicks
One of the biggest improvements to "World Cup" comes in the form of testing a gamer's nerve. With the all-new penalty kicks system, it's no longer just about hitting a button. Now, it's about wiping the sweat from your brow as you try to come through in the clutch for your cyber team, and if you choke, it could cost you the Cup.
"In 'FIFA,' the penalty kick system was more like a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors," Humber says. "You would choose an outcome, the goalkeeper chooses an outcome, you add power to your penalty, and as long as he didn't select what you have chosen, you're going to score that goal. So there was never any test of nerve to see whether or not you had what it takes to put the penalty away when it counts most. So now we have a penalty kick system that uses full analog aiming, and it's really a test of a player's nerve.
"The first thing that happens, is each player has a test of their composure. This becomes harder based on the composure rating of the player and the context of the penalty. So if this is the World Cup final, it's a bit harder than if it's a game you were already winning by five. What you'll see is, along the bottom of the screen, there will be an oscillating needle, and you'll need to stop it in a composed zone. The size of that composed zone is set by those variables I just mentioned: how good the player is at staying composed and the context of the penalty. As you stop that needle, you're holding the button down to set your power, and as you're setting your power, on the left stick you get to aim your penalty. You're aiming your kick almost like you're playing a first-person shooter, aiming exactly where you want your kick to go. Then you hold your breath and hope your player can hit the spot you've chosen based on his skill at taking penalty kicks, how much power you've chosen (the more power, the more prone to error), and what the goalkeeper chooses. It leads to an amazingly tense play, especially since we also added the ability for players to stutter during their run-up, so if you see the goalkeeper diving too early in one direction, you have time to adjust your aim at the last second. But even then, if you're playing as the goalkeeper, you can still block the ball as we've added some new animations where the keeper dives past the ball but still manages to block the ball by reaching back with his arm or his legs.
"And the great thing about the system is that I've seen plenty of people who can make penalty kicks in practice, but as soon as some pressure comes down, they start making some mistakes. There is a guy on the production team, Luke, who is a great 'FIFA' gamer. I was watching him practice penalty kicks and he was nailing every one, but then we had a 'World Cup' online session in the office, and in one of the knockout games, his game came down to penalty kicks and he missed the first three. He put them wide, over the bar, and he ended up losing the match. He admitted afterwards that the pressure got to him and he just didn't hold his nerve properly. Having that pressure replicated now in a video game is fantastic."
4. Captain your country
EA Sports first introduced the Captain Your Country feature back in "Euro 2008," and it was an immediate hit. The mode makes its triumphant return in "World Cup." "When we were coming up with our list of features for 'World Cup,' this was a no-brainer," explains Humber. "It's a Be a Pro co-op game mode [offline only] where up to four gamers can each control one player. That player can be a real player or one who you create in our creation zone, or it can be your virtual pro from 'FIFA 10' imported into 'World Cup.'
"You start off as the worst players in your country's roster of players, and the manager isn't about to select you for his first team. At first, he wants you to play in some B internationals with the second-string team. And you play a variety of these games and the idea is -- through your performance and through your match rating, which is shown on screen throughout the game at all times -- you try to impress the manager and rise up the rankings. So if you're playing for England, you might start in 40th place, but if you're performing well and getting ratings of like 7 or 8 out of 10, you'll start to rise up this table and into the top 23, which is the number of players on an international football squad. Then the manager will select you for the first team and you can start playing in the World Cup qualifying matches. The ultimate idea here is you're trying to get to No. 1 on that ranking table so that, at that point, the manager makes you the captain of your country. You then have to keep your performance on high in order to protect your position as captain because if anyone else gets put at No. 1, the manager will then make them captain. So ultimately what you want to do is win matches in order to qualify your country for the World Cup finals, and then win the World Cup with you being the captain. If that happens, you'll be the guy holding the trophy in the big end sequence. So you get this whole competitive, collaborative mechanic if you're playing through this mode with friends because you're playing through this mode all trying be the No. 1 player, but you need to work together in order to win matches because if you lose matches, you won't even make it to the World Cup.
"It's a fun game mode that really teaches people how to play together. We have so many arguments in the office over this … it ends up as a car crash. People get greedy and end up shouting. It's great fun."
5. Online tournaments
For the first time, EA Sports has managed to put the entire World Cup tournament online. "We've got a tournament online that includes a round-robin group stage plus the knockout stage," Humber says. "Previously we had knockout, as we had in 'Euro,' but this time around we figured out how to do a group stage, and it's probably the most fun online mode I've played to date in terms of a pure tournament mode.
"And things can get a bit strategic because you don't have to win all your games, you're just trying to get more points than the three other teams in your group over three games. So generally, going into your third match, you see the state of the group and at that point you know if you win the match, you're going through to the next round, but if you draw, you still have to wait and see what happens in the other game going, and to add to the drama, we show you the score that's going on in the other game during the time you're playing your match so you can alter your tactics on the fly. You know [whether] you have to go for the win or if you can hold back and settle for the draw, depending on the score of the other game. It adds to the dependency of something happening elsewhere, and it makes the whole thing feel more realistic because at the World Cup, when you get down to a certain group game, teams are playing simultaneously in order to avoid any accusations of collusion.
"Then once you get through the group, you play four rounds of knockout football, and that's where it gets really tense and nervous. If it's a tie, you go to extra time, and if you're still drawing after extra time, then you move on to the penalty shootout with the new penalty kicks that make this a whole lot more scary/nervous/fun than it ever has been before. Then finally, win the trophy, lift the trophy, and we have leaderboards to show both individual players and nations. When you first go into this mode, we ask you what nation you support, and every point you earn in the tournament after that goes towards that nation's total on the leaderboard. So me, as a fan of England, I support England, but I can still play as any of the 199 countries with the knowledge that the weaker the country I choose, the more points I will earn for myself and for England. So if I play as Brazil, I will only get 10 points for winning a game in the group stage and 20 in the knockout stage, but if I'm playing as Comoros, I will get 100 points in the group stage and 200 in the knockout stage. It's a challenge to our hard-core gamers. They love to be high up on the leaderboards, and they're so good at the game, that this drives them to use the weaker nations. This way, even if you're new to the game, you can go online and play some of the best gamers in the world and still have a chance because your team will be so much more skilled than theirs. It really adds a lot to the game."