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The beautiful game?

Earlier this week Felix, the head honcho around these parts, gave me a copy of FIFA 10 for the PC and challenged me to review it without using curse words. Frankly I remain unconvinced that it's possible to review a PC version of a FIFA game without using curse words, so I'm not going to attempt it.

Instead I'm going to use this here soapbox to talk about one of the games industry's greatest mysteries. If Electronic Arts are as fond of money as most gamers would have you believe then why do they annually publish a game that no-one in their right mind would want to buy? Why, when the console versions lead the way in their genre, is the PC version neglected to the point that it looks and plays like a cheap knock-off?

FIFA 10 on the consoles is excellent in the truest sense of the word. I've been avidly playing football games since the early 90s and I'd wager I've had a go at at least 80% of the titles released in that time, from multimillion selling blockbusters to indie cult classics. Still, even with the halcyon days of Sensi fresh in my memory, I've got to say that FIFA 10 is the best football game I've ever had the pleasure of playing. I say that as a man who was a Pro Evo devotee as recently as a couple of years ago!

EA have achieved this through unparalleled attention to detail. Well... unparalleled attention to detail and a bank vault that would make Scrooge McDuck jealous. We can't hold that against them though. After all, they've amassed their riches through making very competitive football simulations every year since 1993. Just like the real giants of football - the Manchester Uniteds, the Real Madrids – they have the funds to hire the best staff available, invest in and exploit cutting edge technologies and facilities, and of course they're in a position to barter over lucrative licensing deals. It all comes together in FIFA 10 to recreate the experience of being a part of a top class football match to an extent that no previous game has approached.

On the consoles FIFA 10 boasts player AI that will delight you with every perfect through ball and the animation looks and, more importantly, feels just right. On the PC FIFA 10 has none of this. Going from playing the former one day to the latter the next was nothing short of jarring. Gone was the fluidity, the accuracy, the very playability we expect from a football game released in 2010.

There is so little consistency between the two versions that they might as well be different series made by different developers. It's not that concessions have necessarily been made for a more limited PC version; it's as if each format was under separate creative direction for some unknown reason! Let me give you some examples:

  • The PC version defaults to the traditional four minute half length while the console version has the newer norm of five minute halves. There isn't even an option for five minute halves on the PC!

  • The PC “Be A Pro” mode lasts only one season compared to four on the consoles. Instead of working your way up from the reserves you have to select a first XI player to replace in the lineup.

  • The menus and entire front end appearances of the games bear no resemblance at all. Why take the time to design and develop two radically different GUIs?

  • Different commentary teams are used. The back and forth banter of Tyler and Gray on the consoles is replaced by Clive Tyldesley, flying solo if not for the one or two interjections from Andy Gray per game.

Whoever was in charge of the PC version also seemingly had some good ideas that didn't make it into the console version! Something I really liked was the addition of a tactical advice screen before every game. Though it's unlikely to significantly change the way you choose to play, it's nice to have a heads-up on the way your AI opponent is likely to approach the game tactically. On the PC you also have a wealth of statistics about your performances in far more readily available places than on the consoles.

It's not because of these oddities and dissimilarities that the PC version is so inferior; it's the areas that are similar that really show off the gulf in quality. Once you're on the pitch things get really grim. Graphically it falls a long way short of current gen standards but more surprisingly the sound quality is noticeably poor. Once you've kicked off it's apparent that the animations aren't as slick, the ball physics feel a little off, and the player AI seems a couple of iterations out of date.

After my first few of hours with FIFA 10 on the PC I did the natural thing for a modern 20-something and ranted about it on Facebook. I spent the remainder of the day arguing about why EA doesn't take its PC release seriously with a couple of former colleagues from my days in the industry, one of whom actually worked at EA once upon a time. As a PC loyalist I'm of the opinion that there's a market for a decently-funded genuine port of the console versions but my friends raised a number of reasonable suggestions as to why EA aren't interested.

First and foremost it is about money. If EA felt that they would make more in sales than they would expend on development costs for a triple-A FIFA game on the PC then FIFA 10 on the PC would be a triple-A game. As well as the obvious financial and human resource costs of developing earnestly on an extra platform every year, EA will certainly have considered the increased prevalence of pirating on the PC in comparison with the consoles.

Another obstacle is the nature of PC gaming. Unlike the consoles there is no single hardware specification to develop for and, although it is possible to offer scaling graphics and performance settings, compatibility issues can cause many a headache for developers. On top of this you've got the worry of how people are going to play the game. The FIFA series doesn't immediately lend itself to keyboard and mouse controls and not everyone has access to gamepads. With that said I have to point out that gamepad support didn't even feel as well-supported as it should have been in FIFA 10 with a number of menu screens unusable without a mouse and keyboard and others far too sensitive to analogue stick movements, even when using an official 360 pad.

We talked technicalities all day long but ultimately it was a very simple statement that summed it all up: “If you are going to play FIFA, you are going to play it on a console, innit.” That's about the shape of it really. Sports sims have set up shop in your living room rather than your office and, if given the choice, I imagine most people would still buy console FIFA over the PC variant even if the playing field were to be levelled.

I can only assume that it is