Like many EA Sports games, FIFA once held a Microsoft-like monopoly on the soccer gaming market. Few games challenged the EA Sports behemoth that has especially shined in its PC versions. Recently, the series has watched as other competitors began to infiltrate the market. While World Tour Soccer and RedCard 2003 doesn't strike fear into FIFA fans, Konami's Winning Eleven series surely does. Playing as Apple Computers to FIFA's Microsoft, Winning Eleven has a smaller, cult-like following but outshines the more popular soccer game in quality and performance. The FIFA series has spurned some fans in previous years by releasing two separate versions of the game during World Cup (1998, 2002). Usually the normal FIFA game doesn't have a World Cup feature. The World Cup version, reciprocally, doesn't have any other game mode but the event that happens once every four years.
Bad marketing aside, one can always be assured of certain things with FIFA and EA Sports: great graphics; quick and easy scoring; and solid game options. The newest version of Winning Eleven hasn't yet been released (ETA early to mid February), so FIFA, like it used to do so commonly in the late 1990s, had the market to itself, albeit it a short few months.
Presentation/Graphics : 94
Since no helmet or hat hides the face of players like in football or baseball, the facial graphics are seen more often. In this area, EA comes through once again, as the models have great facial detail. They look similar to the NBA Live basketball game. For me, the camera was panned far out to maximize view of passing lanes and the field, but still, during close ups, the visuals looked great. In lesser games the faces become jaded or look stretched. EA Sports places great emphasis on this area and it shows. I'll echo the same compliment for the stadiums and the other visual pleasantries.
Unfortunately, I do not have the great top-to-bottom knowledge of international league soccer as I do with the MLS, but I don't see any glaring errors. Players are matched on the right teams and uniforms are accurate, this mainly based on previous games. Maybe a remote Division 3 team removed the small logo on the right sleeve of their away games. If they did, I apologize. All I know is that the big stars look realistic as do the main teams stadiums and uniforms. The game looks great even if an inaccuracy exists. There's enough eye candy here to cause a root canal.
The player animations show off the great motion capturing. Players glide through the defense. In other soccer games, special moves, like a deke or hesitation, look out of place and clunky. Here, you can tell a human was mo-capped as things are more streamlined.
Presentation/Audio : 85
The game says more than 300 new crowd chants, and I believe it. The chants border "a little too much to drink" at times, but that's soccer: passionate fans in a win-win-win environment. This is the one area where I noted a marked improvement over Winning Eleven 6. The crowd has the emotion of another EA Sports, NCAA Football. John Motson and Ally McCoist add a level of eloquence to this futbol game. A diverse track of more than 30 songs makes navigating throughout the game a joy.
Interface/Options : 78
The standards game modes are there, but for the first time, a Career Mode has been added to the FIFA series. I'm sure the easy comparison to make is to liken it to Madden, but the pace feels more like NBA Live because of the smaller roster size. You are given a certain amount of prestige points to woo transfer players or train your team. I still prefer Winning Eleven's Master Cup mode where you take a sort of 989 Sports game adventure from a lower team attempting for the top. In FIFA, you can start with whatever team you'd like. An online mode is available, obviously, and about 30 players were online when I logged on during a Wednesday night over the holiday break.
Gameplay : 68
As in many EA Sports games, scoring comes more easily than other games. A more forgiving shooting meter comes with FIFA than Winning Eleven, where many shots rocket over the net like a field goal kicker does with a football through the goalposts. The special moves, although risky, have a great fluidity to them. They can be likened to the Freestyle moves in NBA Live. When I played soccer, I mainly relied on the deke or a simple push of the ball past slower defenders, so it's nice to at least virtually pull off some complex, fake out moves.
The defense is rough, especially inside its own 18-yard box, frequently stealing the ball as soon as you dribble in. What results are many shots launched from as far as 40 or 50 yards out that ... go in. It seems remarkable that such long-distance shots can be made with enough accuracy to keep going to the well, but I'd say 3/5 of the goals I scored came from far away. My skill never progressed enough to dribble close and dish or shoot for the easier, higher percentage goal.
EA added a new off-the-ball mode for this 2004 version. I think it's a great idea, but it involves a lot of tapping. Think the old NFL Quarterback Club games and its long throw competition where you had to essentially mash the Y and X buttons on the Super Nintendo controller to throw a football 50 yards. I think it's a good idea to be able to start a run by a CPU opponent, but it's too manual at this point of the game. It does take a while to get used to, as you have to juggle dribbling the ball, starting the off-the-ball run, and finally pass the ball. Because of the multi-tasking needed, it does need some time to develop, sort of like the slap shot in Mighty Ducks 2.
But, really, where the gameplay lags is in the strategy. The Xs and Os. Like its NBA Live game, you can rarely differentiate playing styles between teams. A team like Germany traditionally scores a goal then plays conservatively, using a great defense to thwart any scoring opportunities. Conversely, a team like Brazil has more of a run-and-gun style of play, running up the scoreboard. In FIFA, no distinct difference was observed, even in the early segments of a game. What results is a misnomer almost. Everything seems to suggest two separate teams, from the players' faces, names and uniforms, but when you look at the game deeper, you understand the two teams play very similarly. That's depressing. Would NCAA Football be the same if Nebraska threw the ball as much as Florida or vice versa? The lack of a true distinction kills the continuity and feel some times. As I said above, I'm no international soccer expert, but the few teams I've seen from the last World Cup and on ESPN2, those trends do not hold place.
The A.I. is also lacking. Although the off-the-ball feature does increase movement, the soccer players still stand around too much when they should make a run. There should be a constant sprint by all players all the time, but a happy medium should be implemented. Also, I've never been a fan of the momentum-based running. Soccer, more than basketball or football, relies on quick cutting and turning. Too often, I'd get the six- or seven-step animation while trying to change direction. Some players, not all, can turn on a dime and that wasn't portrayed.
Another plus, however, is the feel of free and corner kicks. I have played Winning Eleven for almost a year and I still can't get a solid touch on those kicks, but with FIFA I was able to learn fairly quickly. The main difference is a more intuitive and functional kicking meter that allows for more control of spin, power and location, as opposed to Winning Eleven's vertical powerbar and mini-arrow for direction.
Replay Value : 81
I have had a lot of fun playing this with friends and online because, then, you get a clear distinction in the playing styles. The open-ended controls and gameplay allow for higher scoring games that award an aggressive player. Generally, I like to methodically think out a game, but I take exception with soccer. As a single-player game, I doubt you would get much gameplay longer than a month or two. The career mode helps though.
Overall : 87
The game isn't the NBA Jam of soccer, but the propensity for high-scoring games gives it a different feel from Winning Eleven. I think it's a nice change of pace, but gameplay issues hinder the long-term appeal. Among hardcore soccer gaming fans, FIFA has long played a second fiddle to Winning Eleven (or Pro Evolution Soccer as it was called in some non-North American versions) and I doubt that mentality will change, especially once WE7 comes out. For casual sports gamers looking for a impatient soccer fix, FIFA could whet that appetite.