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Electronic Arts have been expanding their catalogue of free-to-play PC titles over the last year, and after the relative success of Battlefield Heroes and Tiger Woods Online, EA Sports are ready to bring one of the world's biggest gaming franchises, the FIFA football series, into the online arena. Featuring over 30 of the world's biggest football leagues and some 500 clubs, as well as a new mouse-driven control scheme and experience system, will FIFA Online change how players approach PC online football games, or does it spell the end of serious sporting simulation on the platform?
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Online Graphics and Gameplay
An earlier version of FIFA Online, confusingly known as FIFA Online 2, has been available for the Asian gaming market for several years, and was derived from the FIFA 07 engine. The new iteration of the game, however, is a complete technical reboot. The FIFA 10 engine used for the console titles has been tweaked to allow a wide degree of scaling to match the technical limitations of even low-end laptops while still looking stunning on gaming PCs, and art assets from the Xbox 360 and PS3 games have been recycled for FIFA Online. As with Battlefield Heroes and Quake Live, FIFA Online launches from a web browser, but requires the game to have been previously downloaded.
The most notable change to the standard FIFA gameplay is the introduction of a new, entirely mouse-driven control system. This essentially allows the game to be played one-handed, and is derived from control ideas first explored in the Wii iterations of popular football franchises. The player moves an on-screen cursor in the direction in which they want the footballer to run. Pulling the cursor further ahead of the footballer makes the character break into a sprint. The left mouse button handles passing, with longer button presses resulting in lofted passes. The right mouse button is reserved for shooting on goal. While the new control method is surprisingly elegant and fluid, it lacks the traditional depth and wealth of control options found in the FIFA titles. Fortunately, EA have included keyboard-and-mouse and gamepad options for gamers in need of finer control over their players.
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Online Gameplay Modes and Microtransactions
FIFA Online sports three basic game modes: Tournament, Versus and World Cup, catering to both single player and multiplayer experiences. For this new title, EA have introduced a variation on the leveling system found in FIFA 10's online modes. Players will now be rewarded with experience points and in-game currency after winning matches, and this currency can be used to buy upgrades to their team's abilities.
Like the other free-to-play Electronic Arts titles, FIFA Online possesses an in-game store, where players can spend real-world cash or currency earned within the game on various items, outfits and ability boosts. These micro-transaction stores remain a subject of some controversy with PC gamers, and a delicate balancing act will have to be maintained to preserve the integrity of the gameplay for those without serious money to invest. EA Sports are promising that items bought through micro-transactions will not affect the core gameplay, but instead alleviate the grind of leveling up for those players who do splash out in the store. Whether this holds true as the game population grows remains to be seen.
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Electronic Arts are clearly investing a serious amount of time and money in the free-to-play PC market, and are banking on the micro-transaction model of payment to prove lucrative in the long term. FIFA Online's innovative control mechanism and new scaling graphics engine may prove a hit with casual gamers previously intimidated by the increasingly arcane demands of mastering the controls in the mainstream FIFA games. This new title does raise fears in the minds of PC sports enthusiasts though. Will FIFA Online essentially spell the end for fully-fledged FIFA titles on the platform? EA are making positive noises about the next game in the FIFA series having a PC version, but with the continued exodus of the big games developers from the PC to the Xbox 360 and PS3, many PC gamers are afraid that this new, casual-friendly browser-based game is a sign of things to come.