Here's a thing about FIFA games: they do get unfairly knocked at times. Yes, many gamers will argue that Konami's Pro Evolution Soccer titles offer a deeper, richer and more varied gameplay experience, and they'd be correct, if you ask us. But EA rarely churns out a bad FIFA game, and if you weigh up some of the other dross that's released in the footy sector of the games market (we're looking at you Club Football, Red Card Soccer, Virtua Pro Soccer, This is Football and new, cel-shaded Sensible Soccer), EA's interpretation of the Beautiful Game suddenly looks rather damn good. Naturally, that won't stop everybody taking aim at FIFA 07 with as much hatred and vitriol as they can muster.
Which would be wrong, because FIFA 07 - while hardly earth-shattering - is not a poor title. It's not a great one either, but it does do everything it says on the tin, providing a respectable game of football wrapped up in lots of lavish licensed loveliness. The menus are slick, the kits are authentic to the nth degree, and the player likenesses are accurate, with Rooney still looking like a bit of a munter. Like we said: accurate. In other words, as usual, the presentation is straight from the top-drawer. Infact, we'd go so far to say that it's the best-looking sports game on the PS2, barely ever drops a frame, and has the best animation we've seen in any title from the FIFA franchise to date. Bravo, EA. Take that, Konami.
But - and here you may wish to refer to our reviews of FIFA 06, FIFA 05, FIFA 04 and FIFA 03 - this beauty is largely skin-deep. For example, the players in FIFA 07 just doesn't have the same convincing sense of weight and inertia as their counterparts in Pro Evo. They can turn on a sixpence in a way that real footballers simply can't, while the ball physics still don't manage to be entirely convincing. In truth, this should serve as a reminder to EA that getting the basics right is what's earned Konami bucketloads of praise for its Pro Evo franchise. Instead, you get the feeling that, come October 2007, we'll be seeing the same things in FIFA 08: lots of gloss, but not quite enough in the way of substance (incidentally, feel free to prove us wrong next year, EA). It's the Cristiano Ronaldo of football games - good-looking, flashy, but not always possessing a good end product.
Gameplay variety is once again an issue as well. We've played Pro Evo 5 for a year now, and we're still learning and seeing new ways to score goals. Conversely, there's already a grinding sense of repetition creeping in to our FIFA 07 matches, and that's after just two weeks of play. When you start scoring goals that are Very Similar Indeed to the last five you bagged, the alarm bells should start ringing. To FIFA 07's credit, scoring is actually bloody tough, and the bad old days of every match in FIFA finishing 7-5 are now long gone.
Talking of things that are long gone, EA has finally ended its fixation with gimmicky flicks and tricks. A good thing in our book, and it's this decision, along with the difficulty in scoring and the Pro Evo-esque controls, that underlines one unavoidable fact: FIFA 07 would very much like to be Pro Evolution Soccer. Obviously, that's not a bad thing per se, but the illusion that this is a genuine alternative to Pro Evo is shattered by a lack of the organic, open-ended football that characterises Konami's annual titles. FIFA 07 is still a way from feeling quite as well-crafted.
With that said, there's still the odd lesson here for Konami's football franchise to take on board. FIFA's superb commentary is one, thanks to the formidable range of observations and chat that's supplied by Clive Tyldesley and Andy Gray. It's even more of an achievement when you consider that Tyldesley irritates the bezeejus out of this reviewer. FIFA 07's commentary is rapid, varied and excellent, displaying none of the hesitancy and delays of Pro Evo's pundits.
There's also the mature way in which FIFA 07 deals with set-pieces. Whereas gaining a goal-kick, free-kick or throw-in in Pro Evolution meant you often ran the risk of giving the ball straight back to the opposition, here a single button-press will call one of your players in close to receive the ball safely. A small, but sensible, touch. Meanwhile, the menus are still light years ahead of any other soccer title.
However, such trivial victories mean little in the grand scheme of things. Gameplay in FIFA 07 feels much the same as it has in previous FIFA titles; that is, strangely detached. In Pro Evo, the feeling of having control over your players is complete. At times in FIFA 07, you may as well be yelling at your players from the stands, your voice drowned out by the crowd. Is the franchise getting any closer to top spot? Not by a great deal. Like the gap between the haves and have-nots in real-life modern football, the chasm remains roughly the same.