World Cup Woes
July 12, 2006 // 3:14 p.m.
Well, it's over, and we barely got started. With Zidane's parting shots still fresh in our minds, the World Cup is gone and for England, it's time to look at what on earth happened and what we can do better next time.
However, the Cup lives on in the myriad of football games out on the market at the moment. The mantra of what could be done better, however, is equally applicable. There are so many niggles in football games that I barely know where to start. Why is it so difficult to recreate the beautiful game in digital form? Allow me to present to you my favourite football foibles.
Let's start with the good stuff. My personal favourite football game is the latest world cup edition of FIFA. Yes, I know, many people say that Pro Evo is a better game, but I just don't play it as much.
"The problem with FIFA comentary is that it lacks context"
FIFA has great presentation, no doubt about it. The snazzy interstitials, the A-list commentators, it's got the best looks of any football game out there. The player likenesses are really rather good, and I do think that the control system is pretty divine. There's something so right about the layout, which FIFA pretty much invented - the trigger for sprinting, the four face buttons for the different moves, the right analogue stick for tricks and off the ball running. The latest version also ropes in the D-pad on the Xbox 360 to be a shortcut to different tactical formations. FIFA is a game that is incredibly easy to pick up and play.
So why has it been getting on my nerves?
Yes, the new FIFA has Clive Tyldsley and Andy Gray, both great commentators with unique voices. Yes, there are probably more phrases than ever before. The issue is that it is all so imperfect, so far away from being spot on. In fact, the commentary in the latest FIFA almost feels like it is going backwards - Tyldsley now actually makes mistakes in the game, which I haven't seen in previous versions. Bizarrely informing me that the game has stopped for a goal kick when there's a corner being taken isn't exactly awe-inspiring.
The problem with FIFA comentary is that it lacks context. There's no sense of the 'natural' flow that you get in real sportscasting, which context is a massive part of. Every commentary phrase in FIFA is its own, standalone thing, designed to describe the event currently happening. Why not add information from the rest of the game? For example, if Rooney gets a yellow card, we will be told, "Well that wasn't a great tackle, he deserved that yellow." If Rooney scores 10 minutes later, we'll be told "It's a goal! That puts them right back in it!" Or something similar. Why can't we have "Wayne Rooney has put it in the net! That puts them right back in the game, and more than makes up for that outrageous tackle 10 minutes ago."
If a goalkeeper lets in a goal early on, then spends the rest of the half stopping everything that comes at him, the comentator will inform us that "They just can't seem to put one past him, he's keeping his team in it." Wait a minute, they already have put one past him, so that doesn't make sense? Surely we should have "They're having difficulty putting shots past him, it's amazing that they managed to score that early goal."
I have to imagine that the game knows all these things and has some kind of record - the game will obviously collect certain statistics as it goes along. Why cant we use that in-game data to inform commentary as we play through the game, rather than just relying on the event from the last 10 seconds to make up the phrase? I can't believe that I'm the only person that thinks this. It would make the commentary seem a heck of a lot more natural.
That's without even getting into banter. Commentators in real life don't spend the entire game religiously relaying the name of everybody who passes and receives the ball - they chat to each other, throw out ideas about other teams and events. How hard is that to put together, really?
EA has really not handled the transition to high definition well. The Xbox 360 versions of the latest couple of FIFA games are really leaving quite a lot to be desired. High definition textures mean that the textures have to be really good to avoid looking rubbish, and EA hasn't stepped up to the mark.
The first X360 FIFA game, the Road to the World Cup, had all the players looking like trolls (not just Rooney). With puck-marked, greasy skin and incredibly stiff hair, Becks was far from his suave, usual self. Henry looked like a chunky chappy and the pitch looks almost fluorescent.
Oblivion works so well in HD because the PC was the main development platform, and the art assets could just be shifted across to the Xbox 360. FIFA, however, is designed for the PS2 and so has HD assets tacked on. This is not really a good thing.
"The Road to the World Cup had all the players looking like trolls (not just Rooney)"
I think that a lot more can be done to make the player likenesses better than they are, including better modeling of hair and better cloth simulation for the kids. The models and textures are under the glare of a crisp HDTV, and EA needs to up its game in this deparment.
Why is it that almost every player plays exactly the same? Yes, there are cosmetic differences between players in terms of their facial hair, skin colour and the like. But when the ball falls to Aaron Lennon on the right wing, do you really feel like your player is a bunch quicker than fat Frankie? When the ball falls to Rooney, do you get that sense that anything could happen? With Ricardo in goal, do you feel like you're more likely to save a penalty?
Whilst players have statistics, I don't usually find that they make much of a difference in a match. The power bar for shooting is the same, the moves you can perform are the same, the sprint speed is the same. Why aren't there differences in the abilities and characteristics of players that are obviously noticeable?
Related to the issue of individuality is the occurrence of random events. There's no character in games, nothing unexpected. In a match, how often does the ball hit the microphone? How often does someone fall over spectacularly after stuffing up a move, or completely slice a sitter? There is none of that randomness or eventfulness in games, just pass after pass after tackle after tackle. Sure, occasionally someone pulls off a trick move that works well, but it's hardly on the same scale. Bring in some randomness!
EA has had skill moves in FIFA for quite a while now, with the ability for players to perform nutmegs, overhead kicks, diving headers and rainbow kicks. But those are just little touches. How about utilising a player's talent for gorgeous long balls, quick flicks or blasting shots? Who remembers Cantona's sublime outside boot? How on earth would you recreate that in FIFA? Air balls are more luck than judgement in game. How do you go about using your talented winger to float the perfect ball onto the head of an attacker?
There is at least some passing skill involved in the latest version. The enhanced use of the offside trap means that through balls to fast attackers, played at the right time, can cut open defences as never before. This is definitely a cool thing and can make the game really interesting. However, it is just one thing that FIFA has gotten right in amongst a lot of things that are still lacking.
FIFA isn't a bad game, and it can be fun with a couple of mates. I just wish that the guys at EA could address some of the issues I've laid out, so that by the next time England is in a major tournament, we can have a great opportunity - on and off the pitch.