The latest installment of the popular soccer series is a step in the right direction, albeit a small one.
In Europe, the FIFA franchise has become a huge cash cow for EA. At least once every year a new game is released, which immediately jumps to the top of the sales charts. Personally, I have never been a big fan of these games. I usually find that up against Konami’s International Superstar Soccer series they’re far inferior in terms of AI and the depth of the controls. Furthermore, they have evolved so little over the years that it’s hard to even distinguish between them.
Enter FIFA Soccer 2003 (FIFA Football 2003 in Europe), and all this might just be about to change. At least that’s what you think initially.
At first glance, EA seem to have done almost everything right. The presentation is as slick as ever, and the amount of options offered is really amazing. In addition to a wealth of National teams, all the teams from the American, English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Norwegian, Scottish, Swiss, Korean, Austrian, and Swedish leagues are included, complete with all the correct player names, sponsors, and logos. Special attention has been given to a number of the leading club teams in Europe, including — but not limited to — Liverpool, Real Madrid, Valencia, Inter Milan, and Bayern München. EA have re-created the stadiums of these teams beautifully, and the fans’ trademark songs and chants are included as well. It really adds to the atmosphere hearing thousands of fans singing ”Glory, glory Man. United”. What’s more, the high-profile players resemble their real-life counterparts very well, even sporting different facial expressions, depending on the situation they’re in.
Generally, the graphics are very accomplished. The animations are detailed and look cool. Even though some of them are a bit exaggerated, they’re still credible enough. Player textures are sharp and defined, but the crowds still consist of jerky 2D sprites. There is some strange slowdown too. Even at times when there isn’t much going on in terms of on-screen action, the frame rate will drop significantly for a few seconds. It isn’t a huge problem, but it’s really weird. I’ve also played the X-box version, and it doesn’t seem to suffer from this. Overall, the graphics still do an amazing job of giving you a sense of ”being there”.
The commentary provided by John Motson and Ally McCoist also pulls you into the game. They have a lot to say — even after weeks of play, you’ll hear new stuff. Their comments are actually relevant to what’s happening on the field and sometimes even insightful and worth paying attention to. It’s the best commentary I’ve ever heard in a sports game, and it’s a another example of just how much work that has been put into the presentation of this game.
Delving deeper into the game, you’ll start noticing its flaws, though. The controls, while improved over its predecessors, are still sluggish and unresponsive. At times you get the impression that the players simply refuse to react to your commands. For example, when wanting to head the ball forwards, you’ll often find that your player ”decides” to bring the ball under control, before using his foot to pass the ball. This takes time and can really mess up an important counterattack. This doesn’t happen all the time, so you never quite know how your player is going to respond, which is irritating.
Fortunately, a couple of interesting control features have been implemented. The ball no longer sticks to your feet when sprinting. This means you’re more likely to lose it, which adds a nice strategic element to the gameplay. There is also a brilliant Dead Ball System used when taking offensive free kicks. First, you must place an impact cursor, then add ballspin and finally press the B-button at just the right time to make an accurate shot. It works a bit like a golf game and seems somewhat quirky, but you can really make some outstanding shots on goal. Then there is the much-touted Freestyle control system. Flicking the C-stick allows you to do a variety of special moves. It doesn’t seem to work all the time, though, and the only special move I’ve been able to do is a dribble feint which isn’t particularly effective. The system seems to be a great idea on paper, but it’s not executed to it’s full potential. If only it had been a more integral part of the gameplay...
Another problem is the ridiculous ”catch up” system. As soon as you are in the lead the difficulty will be increased immensely. The defenders of the opposing team become far more aggressive, while the attackers are transformed into some sort of superhuman scoring machines that practically don’t make any mistakes at all. Obviously, the idea is to create some challenging and exciting matches, but I just find it extremely annoying and unrealistic. It’s amazing that my Wavebird controller still works considering how many time I’ve thrown it across my room in sheer frustration. Aargh!
The AI could have used a bit more work, but it has improved some. You can no longer just dribble your way through the opposing defense. You have to pass the ball around a lot before finding an opening, which is much more rewarding. Also, the computer-controlled players follow your attackers when they make a run and are very good at finding open players and passing the ball quickly to open up your defense.
However, after having played a few matches you’ll start to notice how predictable they become. Players tend to stand still even though the ball is right in front them. They almost never shoot from outside the penalty area, and in free kick situations they’re even more incompetant, mostly just kicking the ball directly to your goalkeeper. Often, one of the best ways to get the ball is simply to commit a foul.
The predictable AI affects the longevity of the game too. It becomes too repetetive, playing against the computer when you know exactly how it will react in certain situations. However, given the incredible amount of leagues and teams available, you’ll most likely play through an entire season at least once. If not, the multiplayer is a blast and will last for ages.
All things considered, yes, this is the best FIFA game yet. It’s immediately apparent that EA have done a lot of things right this time around. Besides having created a game that looks and sounds great, they’ve revamped a lot the gameplay mechanics and added a few interesting and innovative features as well. However, the game is still haunted by many of the problems of its predecessors: predictable AI, unresponsive controls, and limited variation in the gameplay. Overall, the developers seem to have put more emphasis on the presentation than on creating a deep and immersive gameplay experience. Oh well, maybe next year...