| Senior Sports Editor

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

(Courtesy of Electronic Arts)

(Courtesy of Electronic Arts)

Gone are the days of lobbing a ball into an open field and sprinting past your opponent for an easy one-on-one against the goalie.

The latest version of “FIFA” brings the most realistic and challenging play ever.  The crisp, clean crosses of old have been replaced by more interceptions and actual defense. Even the lowest difficulty setting can prove a challenge for the casual player, and the “legendary” level is beastly.

Although EA promises 360-degree dribbling, players still can’t turn on a dime, though they have made basic movement much smoother and added some dribbling tricks.

Heading the ball is aided by a yellow cross showing where balls should land, but you’ll need to time it right and aim in a specific direction for maximum effect. Sliding tackles seem more realistic, while standing tackles are less effective.

Weather has a real effect in “FIFA 10.” You can actually see the water spray as a character slides on a wet pitch, and rainy games will cover the game camera with condensation. Balls will bounce and roll further than usual on the slippery grass.

Scoring a goal in “FIFA 10” feels so much better than in any other soccer game, especially because you craft your own celebration. Meanwhile, the agony of a botched shot is reflected in the controller’s rumble, and scoring on your own goal leaves a red mark on the score sheet.

Ratings matter. Tottenham (4.5 stars) and the Colorado Rapid (2 stars) actually play like their ratings. An MLS game against a friend was much slower paced than a Premier League match or an international friendly match.

Many of the fun features from “FIFA 09” return, including the Lounge Session, in which players play soccer with a twist. In one challenge, Arsenal has a 5-0 lead while half of the team’s players have yellow cards at the start of a game against Tottenham. These sorts of modes add a lot of fun when playing against a friend.

The Be A Pro mode also returns, allowing players to control one character and play on their favorite teams in the stadiums they’ve dreamed about. “FIFA 10” promises the ability to load a 3-D likeness of your face into the game, but the Web site was down when I tried.

Your character’s attributes can improve offline in a multitude of modes and even in the Arena. The Arena allows you to work with just about any number of players and allows you to practice free kicks from anywhere on the field. One of the coolest additions is the ability to create set pieces in practice that can be used in a match. Even better, you can plot the routes for up to nine different players, which is pretty ridiculous.

Manager Mode continues to keep diehard fans entertained with dozens of options, even letting you set ticket prices, though the myriad of options can be overwhelming. Overall, managers get the best experience of running a team without doing so in real life by dealing with facilities, player negotiations, sponsorships and more.

“FIFA 10” promises more features, like Live Season 2.0, where you play for your favorite team in their real-life condition. If the real Wayne Rooney is injured or in a slump, his game character’s play will be affected. Unfortunately, those who want their player ratings affected by real-world action will also pay real-world dollars for this mode.

Final verdict: It’s not worth spending 60 bucks now if you already have “FIFA 09,” but if you’re a futbol fan or you’re new to soccer games, “FIFA 10” offers the most options and the most realistic experience you can find today.

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