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We are the Champions: UEFA Champions League Q&A

We huddle up for a team talk with the footballing brain behind EA's UEFA Champions League

You definitely couldn't accuse EA's FIFA Football series of lacking in bouncebackability. In fact, it continually bounces back with a new game quicker than a Cristian Ronaldo stepover.

Enter UEFA Champions League 2004-2005. Don't let the name throw you: the game is based on the tried-and-tested FIFA engine, but brings the glittering, fully-licensed glamour of the Champions League to PS2, Xbox, GameCube and PC in the way only EA can.

All the players, all the teams, all the countries are a given - there are over 239 officially licensed teams to play as or against. What's new is a Season Mode where you guide your team through the trials and tribulations of a domestic and Champions League season, all the while sweating under the watchful - and ruthless - eye of your Abramovitch-esque owner.

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We swung by the training pitch to have a team talk with Mat Prior, UEFA Champions League's assistant producer at the Canadian development team, to find out what the latest instalment in the FIFA franchise has in store for us.

How important is the Champions League license to the FIFA franchise?

Mat Prior: The competition itself has taken on such importance these days. It's really the premier tournament in the world and it's quite often said that some players would sooner win the Champions' League with their clubs than something with their nation. Of course, with that level of importance comes huge amounts of pressure. The Real Madrid manager Vicente Del Bosque famously won the Spanish league in 2003 but failed to bring the Champions League back to the Bernabeu - and got fired. We were very keen to try and translate that importance and pressure throughout the game.

On top of that, it's such a glamorous competition. We like to think of it as the Bang and Olufsen of football competitions - it really has that kind of black and chrome gloss. The prestige comes from having the best players in the world on display, and we wanted to be part of that.

What kind of things have you introduced to get across the pressure of the Champions League and how prestigious the whole event is?

Mat Prior: The pressure and prestige of the event is evident in the football itself, but we've also added something we call the Season Mode. This lets us emulate the pressure of owner interference and the influence of money, because obviously money is such a huge part of football and it's such a financial boon for clubs to get through the initial stage of the Champions League.

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With the Season Mode you choose your team and immediately you are under the influence of a new owner with pockets full of cash. Because of that, the pressure has just intensified, because if you don't succeed in the Champions League then you lose a massive payday for your club. Your owner sets you objectives to achieve as the season progresses and depending on how well you achieve them the storyline will branch in several different ways.

You aren't necessarily given a 'game over' just for losing one game, but the Season Mode offers the same pressures football managers face in the real world. Claudio Ranieri did pretty well for a first season with a new team, did well in the league, but unfortunately didn't get through in the Champions League and was axed. Again, it's that pressure we wanted to portray.

You've talked about the Season Mode as a kind of story mode. Can you tell us more about that?

Mat Prior: Doing a story-driven, event-based Season Mode is something that's never really been done before. It would be easy just to take the UEFA Champions League and just present it as a straightforward tournament. That's something that the consumer will expect and want, but we would also like to give them a little bit more than that. There's more to the competition than that.

We wanted to present the Season in such a way that it's a cinematic experience and emphasise the progression of the story. There are 50 individual events to play through and they'll change depending on your performance. It's never been done before with a football title - they're normally pretty cut and drag with very little expanding on the genre. You just set up your team and go out and win, lose or draw.

We wanted to try and take it that step further and move into unchartered territory and see how it's received. Involvement with the football beyond just what happens on the pitch is the key. It's not a football management game. You've got the fun of actually playing it but with a management theme, but at the same time you don't need a lot of soccer knowledge to enjoy the game.

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Do you think in a way that you might alienate hardcore football fans by leading them through the season in that way?

Mat Prior: Yeah, that's one of the dangers, you can never please everyone all of the time. If you don't fancy the Season Mode you can still go in and play the Champions League tournament without the interference or just dip in and out and play single matches against the computer or your mates. Some people definitely might find the Season Mode a little strange because it's not what a lot of people will be expecting.

In last year's UEFA Euro 2004 players took a more managerial role in picking their squad and leading their team through qualification before the actual tournament, and you've told us about UEFA Champions League story mode. Is this kind of narrative-driven gameplay something you're concentrating on for future FIFA games?

Mat Prior: Yeah, for sure. The actual competitions themselves are pretty small in a videogame sense once you get to the final stages and to emulate the competition properly you've got to have the qualifying stages in there. The European Championship is a perfect example because there's a lot more to it than the bit you see on the TV over the three week period - there's all the build up and that's definitely part and parcel of the event, regardless of what footballing competition it is.

One of the major criticisms of the UEFA Euro 2004 is that it didn't really offer that much in addition to the FIFA 2004. What else have you added to UEFA Champions League to give players who've already bought FIFA 2005 more than they've already got?

Mat Prior: Well, again we've got the Season Mode, which is unique and revolutionary and with over 50 events there's a lot of gameplay there. Of course, you've also got all the unlockables as an incentive to keep playing. In addition to that we've also got the Home and Away mode which is in the spirit of the Champions League since away goals are important.

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Situation Mode is a new feature that lets you set up whatever situation you want anywhere on the field, so you can recreate those legendary moments and see if you can do better. Then the Tournament Creator gives you the freedom to create whatever tournament you want with any of the teams. You can mix and match any of the teams and create an elite league if you want.

In terms of the gameplay itself, what new features have you added?

Mat Prior: There are new skills to discover using the right analogue stick, there's an all new set-piece system that is far more flowing than before, there's all new AI code in the background keeping your teammates and opponents tighter than ever before.

All the formations have been tweaked and the momentum is something we wanted to build on because previously if your team was winning 2-0 in the 85 minute the AI didn't really react to that. Now there's logic for opposing managers to try and catch up by replacing defenders with attackers, or if they're in the lead they'll start to time waste and run to the corner flag. UEFA Champions League a lot more realistic in terms of reacting to what's happening on the pitch.

Can you tell us about the online mode?

Mat Prior: UEFA Champions League is online on PC, Xbox, and Playstation 2. The online mode works in a tournament breakdown, similar to FIFA with the match mode and quick match. Unfortunately the entire competition is not available online because we'd encounter too many problems trying to create it at the moment.

There are problems with people who quit out of the whole thing if they are losing. If everyone was a fair sport it would be easy but at the moment we'd have to put so many anti-cheating measures in it's not actually feasible at this stage, but its something were looking at for the future.

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How does the FIFA development team view the old Pro Evo/FIFA debate?

Mat Prior: Well, we know Pro Evo is a very good product, but it's also a very different product. There are pros and cons for each one but we think we're getting as good as it. FIFA's got all the licences and we don't want to just emulate Pro Evo, we want to get beyond it. We're not playing catch-up with Pro Evo, we're improving on it.

We know exactly what we have to improve on and we're doing it in a step-by-step process. Over the last few years we've seen FIFA skyrocket compared to how it used to be, so we're definitely on the right track to creating our perfect game and then we'll see how people compare that to Pro Evo.

Is it worrying that Pro Evo has gone multiformat and online?

Mat Prior: It'd be a sad world if there was no competition. Competition means you've got to keep improving and you can't get complacent, so that's a good thing. We're competing with them, they're competing with us, so its great for gamers to have both these titles vying with each other and not being allowed to rest on their laurels.

UEFA Champions League kicks off on PS2, Xbox, GameCube and PC in early February.

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