Football games are something of a guilty pleasure for us. Despite not being all that interested in football, there's something about the games that keeps us coming back - something about the simplicity of eleven guys kicking a ball around the pitch, and that "oh, just one more match factor" that makes it hard to put down.
At least, it was. Recently, football games have been getting more and more complex. Looking at the menu screen, you're greeted with a map of buttons that perform moves you've never even heard of - what the heck is "jockeying" in the context of football, anyway? Are there horses involved? And what's a set piece? A piece of what?
Luckily, for 2010 FIFA World Cup, EA are looking to change all that, by introducing what it's calling a "Two-button mode" on the 360, and a plethora of "New, accessible control scheme options" on the Wii, which should please novices, and people who yearn for the simplicity of older football games (like Sensible Soccer) alike.
We've had a chance to go hands-on with the 360's new Two-button mode, and we're pleased to say - it really does make things a lot easier. Taking a lot of the manual control out of the game, the game now does the thinking for you. If you want the ball to go to another player, you simply press A - the computer will work out whether it needs to kick it in the air, or on the ground, and perform a perfect pass for you. If you want to shoot, you press B, and the game will calculate the best shot for you - choosing whether to chip it, perform what's known as a "finesse" shot, (don't worry, we don't really understand what that means either), or simply blast it into the net.
When you don't have the ball, the controls are equally simple. If you want to tackle a player, you press A. If you want a sliding tackle, that's on B. And that's all there is to it.
What's brilliant is that it will work out what you're trying to do for you - and most of the time, it'll get it right. If you're in a position to cross, and you press A, the game will cross for you. You don't even have to worry as much about the force you're putting behind the shot, and how long you're holding the button for, as the game seems to compensate and choose the best for you. In other words, it takes a lot of the complexity out of a football game, and lets you focus more on what's important - the fun.
Unfortunately, there are a few teething problems with the new system - namely when it comes to actually scoring a goal. The problem is that while the game may think it knows how to take the best shot, in reality, it usually doesn't, so as you press B, dreaming of a screaming masterpiece, the game will instead decide in its infinite wisdom that you actually wanted to gently tap the ball with your foot, leaving it to roll safely into the goalie's waiting arms.
Conversely, however, there were a few occasions where we just haphazardly pressed B in the presence of a passing ball, knowing full well we're in an awful position, and the chances of scoring are minute, only for our player to flip around, do some sort of crazy spinning kick, and land the ball in the top corner of the net! Regularly, you'll find yourself pulling off all sorts of moves that on previous games were resigned to the minds of the elite - the kind who memorised the button presses required to make your footballers legs flail and twist like spaghetti, before popping the ball into the back of your net. If nothing else, it'll be good for impressing your siblings/children/other half.
Interestingly, although it may be called a "Two-button mode", it doesn't actually prevent you from using the other buttons whenever you want to. If you decide you'd like to perform a chip shot, you can hold the right bumper like normal - if you want to sprint, you can hold the right trigger like normal - but if you don't want to, and if you're just learning your way around the game, the computer will work out everything for you. By not locking out the more advanced controls (or the ability to perform the manually), the game leaves the door open for you to start to experiment with doing things manually whenever you want, so you can "upgrade" to the more complex control options, or at least take more control over your players, as you get the hang of the game.
So, while the system may have a few teething problems, it does achieve two key things. Firstly, it allows everyone, no matter how new they are, to pick up, and play a fairly competitive match. And secondly, it allows the game to start to focus on what's really important in a football game anyway - the fun. After so many years of focusing on "reality" and "simulation" aspect of football games, it's great to see EA finally trying to bring the focus back to the fun - or at least allow us the option of having a new mode.
And long may this new mindset continue. For anyone but the most hardcore football fan, a realistic football simulator isn't fun. If they can iron out the shooting flaws - this will be.
With a new commitment to fun, 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa is out on 360 and Wii at the end of this month. Make sure you check back for our full review, where we'll find out just how easy the new controls make it for a total novice.