November 20, 2003

The Beautiful Game

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A disclaimer: If you plan on reading an unbiased, impartial review of FIFA Soccer 2004 full of journalistic integrity, look elsewhere. It would have taken a catastrophe on the level of the 2003 Pittsburgh Steelers for me to not love this game.

With that being said, the Playstation 2 version of FIFA 2004 really is a significant upgrade from its 2003 predecessor. Almost every new aspect of the game is an improvement, except, of course, that David Beckham plays for Real Madrid now instead of Manchester United. But I suppose EA Sports can’t be blamed for this.

Right away, progress is evident, as the graphics are vastly superior to 2003’s. The thing that has always sold me on the FIFA series over others such as Konami’s Winning Eleven, which is universally praised for its superior gameplay, is the sheer amount of club teams there are to choose from. 2003 featured almost every major European league, along with MLS, the Brazilian league and the Korean K-League. FIFA 2004 added the Portuguese and Dutch leagues, as well as the minor leagues for the English, German, Italian, French and Spanish. You can choose from almost 100 teams in England alone.

The career mode is noticeably altered. It’s actually pretty confusing. The whole system revolves around “prestige points,” with the goal being to collect as many as you can over the span of several years. The way to earn them is clear: there are concrete objectives like scoring 70 goals in a season and having 15 clean sheets. But there are ways you lose prestige points. For example, you must pay for your team to practice each week, and if you don’t your players become terribly out of shape. But with a finite number of points, supply runs out fast. I have yet to figure out a way around this. Let’s just say that if you watched my team play, you’d think that Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs smoked a carton of cigarettes before each game.

The most advertised feature of the game is the new Off the Ball Control, where by pressing L2, you can control a second player with the right analog stick in addition to the one with the ball. I thought this was a terrific idea, adding desperately needed realism to EA Sports’ traditional arcade style of gameplay. Most goals in real soccer are scored on crosses and headers, which was nearly impossible to do in FIFA 2003. Off the Ball Control allows you to take the ball down the wing with one man while positioning a striker in the middle to head the ball in.

If this sounds extremely difficult, that’s because it is. At first, every time I tried this I almost immediately lost the ball, because I focused only on the man making the run. (In 2004, the defenders are far more intelligent and aggressive. Doing a 180 when dribbling no longer causes them to back off — they come after you. Also, a second defender almost always comes over to help in one-on-one situations. This makes things more difficult, but it also adds to the aforementioned realism.) Now I have difficulty making runs without going offside. The opposing defense almost always has a strong back wall set up, and the officials are quick to raise the flag at even the slightest violation. While I am far from mastering the Off the Ball Control, it is nonetheless an extremely fun challenge.

The best improvement by far, however, is the new corner kick method. Instead of controlling the kicker and aimlessly tapping triangle for a header like in 2003, you are now in control of a field player making a run on net. You line up against a defender and try to fake him out while timing your run to meet the ball at its predetermined destination. With practice, I got my timing down, and quickly became unstoppable at corner kicks, striking fear in the hearts of my housemates whenever they knock the ball across their back line.

Still, the game is not perfect, and I have some small complaints. The sixth ranked Dutch national team is still missing. This is almost as frustrating as the fact that Michael Jordan never showed up in video games until he was on the Wizards. Also, the US national team’s rating did not improve enough. Two of my housemates play each other almost daily as the US vs. Ireland, with the games often devolving into fits of screaming and violence. The staunch nationalist that I am, I always root for the home team, and was disappointed that their video rating wasn’t adjusted to match their continually rising world ranking in real life.

But this is mere nitpicking. This latest installment takes the FIFA series to a new level, placing it alongside Tecmo Bowl for original Nintendo and NHL Hockey for Sega Genesis as one of the great video sports franchises of all time.

Archived article by Ross Mcgowan