FIFA Football 2004
In the world of football videogames there are two dominant species. EA Sports and Konami have been battling it out for supremacy for as long as I can remember. Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer games have taken the top spot in the last few years just as EA’s series met an all time low with 2002 FIFA World Cup. You could be laughed at openly if you mentioned that you had a slight inclination towards the lesser series. However, FIFA 2003 was different. EA really put some effort into turning the whole series around. It looked like football, it sounded like football, but last year it also played like football. The players’ feet connected with the ball, the animations flowed together and the passes didn’t look like they were laser-guided. It just played like FIFA should have done all along.
FIFA Football 2004 is the natural progression from its predecessor, a tweaked and refined version of 2003. The first and slightly bewildering alteration makes you choose a home team when you first start up the game. Like Codemasters’ Club Football, it then displays the team’s kit and emblems across the interface and sets that team as your default club. A useful feature for hardcore fans, but for someone like me who only casually follows the sport, it seems a tad intrusive. An option in Settings which defines the default team would have been more appropriate, but I guess that’s something for next year.
The licenses are back of course, this year with even more than usual. The game includes over 500 such licenses, including 23 leagues, 350 teams and 10,000 players. Lower divisions are now available, so that clash of the titans, Brazil vs Kidderminster Town is now a possibility. Names are all correct, kits are accurate down to the creases, lineups are up to date and tactics are as they should be. Hell, even the fonts on the back of the players’ shirts are as they are in reality. If we scored on attention to detail regarding source material, then we’d have to give it top marks. But alas, we don’t so FIFA‘s got to do more than just reproduce shirts to win our approval.
Apart from the obligatory Play Now mode which lets you play a friendly match, the game features Career Mode, Tournament, Practice Mode and Football Fusion. Career sees you taking a club on a five year quest for glory, dipping into the transfer market, training players and accumulating trophies as you go. It’s obviously not up to the standards of LMA or Championship Manager, but it’s perfectly adequate for the hands-on game that it is, giving its replay value a boost. The Tournament mode is self-explanatory, giving you a selection of cups to play in, but notably not the World Cup or Champions League. Do not be fooled at first though, they are there, but as unlockables. More on those later though. Sadly, the option to create a custom tournament has been removed for no apparent reason. This seems to be something EA do – put in a feature and then remove it in a later game. I’m sure I’m not the only one who still wishes for the return of the indoor 5-a-side matches. Those were the days…
Football Fusion is an interesting addition to the series, allowing FIFA 2004 to interact with EA’s Total Club Manager 2004. Instead of letting the A.I. play your matches, you save the match as a Football Fusion fixture and then swap over to FIFA. You then load up the match, play it and save the result. Load up Total Club Manager and then continue. It’s an evil marketing ploy and all terribly fiddly, but gives us a taste of things to come.
Enough of the features! What is it like to play? Since last year’s outing the gameplay has matured even more, making it more realistic, believable and enjoyable than ever before. Corners are now directed from the target area instead of from the kicker. Gone is the giant red arrow of past, the new viewpoint allowing jostling movement onto the ball. Free kicks have been changed again, but this time they’ve got it just right with an aiming mark, ballspin controller, and combined power and accuracy gauge. It takes a while to get used to, but the end result makes it possible to score from free kicks (unlike some games) and satisfying when you do so. Subtle improvements have been introduced and the controls refined to give freedom and flexibility. The left and right triggers work together with the face buttons to modify actions e.g. L trigger + B produces a low and driven shot instead of a normal high one.
Like its predecessor, passing is more fluid and natural than in previous games, with the option of a normal pass, a trough ball, a one-two or an Off The Ball Pass. The Off The Ball feature is a much touted feature new to the series which allows you control two players at once in order to link a pass. When your player has possession, you press the white button and up pops a set of numbers above neighboring players. Using the left trigger, you can cycle through the available players, move the selected player with the right stick and then execute the pass. It sounds fine on paper, but in practice it’s extremely fiddly and not really worth the effort. Most people – including myself – simply can’t handle controlling the player in possession, the target player and keeping track of other team members and the opposition all at the same time. You’ll try it once and then just ignore it. What a waste of time. To be fair though, Off The Ball is the only aspect of the gameplay that falters. The A.I. is sound and the difficulty is balanced with no outrageous 10-6 results. FIFA 2004 is enjoyable and plays like any football game should.
It comes as no surprise that FIFA 2004 excels in the audio and visual departments. The animation is superb, created from motion capture data collected from Thierry Henry, Alessandro Del Piero and Ronaldinho. Stadium and crowd detail is impressive with every element picked out and reproduced accurately. It runs at a healthy framerate constantly, with no noticeable slowdown at all. Sound effects are top-notch, as is the commentary from Ally McCoist and John Motson, which is intelligent and doesn’t repeat itself too often. The soundtrack contains songs from Radiohead, Junior Senior and Underworld amongst others, but it doesn’t seem as strong or as appropriate as previous years. Sadly, there’s no option to use a custom soundtrack, but you can edit the game’s playlist to remove any annoying tunes.
For fans of the sport, there’s plenty of replay value on offer, with countless tournaments as well as the enhanced career mode. Shirts and cups can be unlocked through winning championships and playing for a certain amount of time. Multiplayer is also included, but only for up to 4 players on one system, with no system link or Xbox Live support. PC and PS2 owners will get to taste online play while Xbox gamers – who know that the infrastructure is there, waiting to be used – have none of this. It’s a real shame EA and Microsoft can’t sort out their differences and let us play online. How are we meant to Challenge Everything when we can’t challenge each other?
In the last few years FIFA has come a long way and it shows. The latest installment is graphically superb, has a decent lifespan and plays like any football game should. With the less than satisfactory manual and confusing interface, there’s still work to be done, but I commend EA for the work they’ve done. FIFA 2003‘s game engine has been taken and tweaked, producing one of the finest football games around. For Xbox owners who are fans of the sport, this is the best game money can buy.