Gaming behemoth EA Games has ported several of its popular gaming franchises to mobile platforms recently — most notably, releasing a trimmed down version of Spore for the iPhone and a Java version of Sims 2. Creating a mobile version of its FIFA 09 football simulator makes good business sense — the FIFA games have been huge hits on consoles for years — but does it make any sense to drop such a complex style of game onto a platform restricted by size, processing and limited controls?
Entering the game through the menus looks good, and the slick graphics are complemented by some sunny-sounding Latin pop music. FIFA 09 features five main game modes: exhibition matches are called Scenarios, pre-set mid-game challenges, a full season, custom made tournaments and penalty shoot-outs. Of course, all game modes lead to the pitch and to what we hoped would be some fast and furious football.
Stepping onto the park, the graphics look like PC game graphics from the mid-90s; all the characters are designed from a limited number of polygons, which makes the goalkeeper look like a hunchback from behind during goal kicks and the ref looks like a praying mantis as he hands out yellow cards with arms that end in pointy blades instead of hands. These aberrations aside, the graphics are definitely passable for a mobile phone game.
Playing FIFA 09 on a Nokia phone feels like playing a soccer game on the Sega Master System. Using a dual-sliding Nokia N96, we controlled the players with the five-way nav key and the two dedicated gaming keys under the top slide for passing and shooting. While new football games on the next-gen consoles use all eight buttons on the controllers, this two-button system is more than adequate.
Simple graphics and simple controls are ticked boxes, but this doesn't add up to a fun football game. Players' movements are sludgy and responds to controls slower than we'd have liked to see. At the bottom of the screen is a tiny map showing the location of players outside your field of vision, but it is a constant struggle to figure out if the pass you're planning to make will be successful. Overall, the gameplay feels sluggish, like a slow-motion dream of an actual soccer video game.
There are some nice touches though. FIFA 09 keeps replays of all the major events during a match that can be viewed post-match via the Highlights menu. You can fast forward and rewind replays that can be watched from a variety of camera modes, including a Free camera mode that rotates the view to best watch your stunning goals. Also, players can perform two different "skill moves" on offence; the Marseilles turn and a step-over move. Both features are common in the newer football games on the Xbox 360 and PS3, and we were impressed to see them in this pared down version.
Is it worth the money?
FIFA 09 is a deeper football experience than we'd have expected on N-Gage, but for all the game modes and replay camera angles, it isn't that much fun to play. Controlling the action using the N96 hurt our fingers after four or five matches and the layout of the keys was the cause of many in-game foibles, like passing the ball in the wrong direction. The game performance was smooth, but the game moves too slowly to be exciting — the virtual players look bored as they jog slowly across the pitch.
With the limited resources at hand, we'd have preferred a football game that focused on speed rather than trying to emulate reality in any way. Back in the days of the Master System and the Super Nintendo, football games like Sensible Soccer ruled with simple graphics and basic controls paired with lightning fast gameplay. FIFA 09 on the N-Gage would be a better game if it had been less like its next-gen big brother, but instead had been better designed for being played on a mobile phone.
We've seen a few third-party manufacturers looking to release a gaming joystick for mobile phones, and we think this is something Nokia should consider. A gamepad that plugs into your phone and a voucher for a few N-Gage games would make a very appealing sales pack.