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FIFA Soccer 2003 - PS2 - Review

As a result of a brand new, highly refined game engine, this year's release of FIFA Soccer has received a total makeover from the last edition.  For the most part, it has been a very positive one too, especially in the visual department.  Physics are also more realistic and as a result gameplay more closely resembles the game that the (rest of the) world lives for.  Speaking of the rest of the world, EA Sports has put an even larger focus on the worldwide audience for 2003 by including more international teams than ever and placing a major emphasis on the European club teams.  Additionally, a new control scheme has been put into place that greatly affects how FIFA is played, but it doesn't quite deliver.

FIFA 2003 offers hundreds of different teams to play with, including MLS squads, national squads, and many teams that are less known to the casual soccer fan.  If you want visual realism, FIFA has it.  The teams feature accurate player models, jerseys, and more.  The result is soccer matches that closely resemble those on TV, especially with the awesome in-game graphics and camera cuts.  When it comes to club teams the realism is taken to another level and the outcome is scary-realistic soccer.  These 18 teams have received the most attention of the developers and it shows during gameplay.  Think 18 perfectly modeled stadiums, team specific chants, and commentary that highlights rivalries between the clubs as well as general team history.  Simply awesome!

While both the friendly and season club championship modes deliver big time, the other game modes found within the game still are enjoyable to play; they just aren't quite as unique.  It's possible to play a friendly match or start a season with any team in the game.  Additionally, there are a variety of tournaments that can be played from the get go, including the European Champion's Cup, EFA Trophy and more.  Not surprisingly, no world cup mode has been included in the game as there will probably be another release specifically for this tournament.

So what's the scoop on the physics?  Well, to begin with, the ball behaves more like we'd expect it to at all times.  Whether it contacts a player or any other object in the field environment, its direction and velocity always change as they should.  This allows for more realistic goals, such as deflections, and thus better gameplay in general.  Also, the players interact with the ball totally differently than before as they are no longer connected to it.  Their feet actually have to touch the ball for it to move - imagine that!  It sounds obvious, but in past games the ball rolled on its own without regards to the players' touch.

The AI has also been refined in FIFA 2003.  Players more often try to get open, make runs, apply pressure when it's needed, and generally respond more realistically to each particular game state.  So instead of having a team that gives the same amount of effort no matter what, their effort is dynamic and varies with the score, time left, etc.  The crowd behaves in a similar fashion too, as their chants will make it obvious what the game state is at any given time.

As mentioned, the player models are very impressive in this game.  While some teams have received more attention than others in this respect; all players seem, for the most part, unique.  Hairstyles, skin tones, and facial features all vary quite a bit, but all the players seem to share a common body type.  However, this time around there are no body-builders on the field, as the players are finally not too muscular looking.  Key players within the game have noticeably different skill-oriented attributes too; so different players can run faster, shoot harder, or pull off dribbling moves that no defender can touch.  The player animations are awesome and always fluid.  Replays especially exhibit their quality as it's possible to see, for example, a player's feet getting tangled up after being illegally tackled.  If a player gets hit by the ball when they're not ready, you'll see them getting knocked over, instead of automatically gathering the ball as they probably would have in the past.

This game looks great, it's now physically accurate, and the players are more realistic in ever, but what about the controls?  The control setup itself is nothing short of ideal.  The x button performs a ground pass to the nearest teammate, which is a maneuver that's used a great deal to work the ball up the field.  Pressing circle shoots the ball and the amount of time it's held down affects how hard and how accurate the shot will be.  Unfortunately, this meter fills a little too quickly to allow for optimal shot control.  The square button is for lob passes, while triangle is used for through balls (open passes).  When used in conjunction with L1, which triggers players to make a run, open passes are very effective; specifically because they allow for a lot of breakaways and other great opportunities.    However, there is no way to actually call out plays on the field, which is disappointing.  Additionally, holding down (not tapping, for once) the R1 button sprints and the right analog stick is used for the brand new freestyle ball control.  Using either of these controls results in a decrease in the selected player's energy meter; the latter takes quite a bit more energy though.

Conceptually, the freestyle ball control is great, as its purpose is to provide a means of controlling the ball beyond what the left analog stick allows for (changing directions).  This opens us many new possibilities, such as crossover dribbles and knock-ons, which propel the ball out in front of a player so he can essentially break away from the defenseman guarding him.    It is similar to the dynamic deke control in EA Sports' NHL 2003, but it proves to be not nearly as worthy.  The problem is that the responsiveness of this control is not as good as it could be.  Indeed, much of the time it's used, nothing seems to happen, or at least not when you want it to.  The result is a control that has a less than favorable feel, which is in need of much refinement.

Another downside to the controls is the general delay that too often occurs when doing simple things such as changing direction, passing or shooting.  It's understood that the ball must be at a player's feet to perform one of these actions, so a very short delay might be realistic, but in FIFA 2003 the delay is far from realistic.  If, for example, you're headed toward the sideline and you press the left analog stick in the opposite direction (so you don't go out of bounds), the player frequently won't turn in time all you'll lose the possession.  This makes the game a bit harder to play, since you must adjust to the overall strange feel of the controls.

The ability to pull off bicycle / scissor kicks has be drastically decreased in for FIFA 2003 and you're lucky if you can get it to happen at all.  In FIFA 2001, it was almost impossible to not to do bicycle kicks after crossing the ball, while in FIFA 2002 it was noticeably more difficult to pull off these advanced moves and now it's virtually impossible.

FIFA 2003 has also introduced a new dead ball system used for free kicks and corner kicks, which is based off of a circular meter that's similar to a punt/kickoff meter in football games.  It allows you to choose where to shoot the ball as well as determine the spin on it.  It's effective, however, for some reason it's not possible to put any spin on corner kicks!  How are we supposed to bend these in goal with no spin?

Most of EA Sports' games offer an incredible amount of customization as well as the ability to create players and teams, but this game is an exception.  It's not possible to create your own players or teams at all and there are noticeably less options for 2003.  Also, the number of unlockable components within the game is disappointing, unless a couple of new stadiums satisfies you.

The FIFA franchise is really on the right track with this release, as the new engine brings a lot of great things to the game; specifically in the way of physics and visuals.  However, there are still some issues that need to be worked out, especially with the controls.  Even so, the result is still one of the best soccer games to date and one that many soccer fans won't want to miss.

FIFA 2003 is rated E for everyone and requires 487 KB of memory.


Gameplay: 7
FIFA 2003's physics are very impressive and the overall quality of the game has greatly improved because of this.  The new control setup is as logical as one could be, but the feel just isn't there due to the sluggish responsiveness of the various buttons/movements.  The freestyle ball control is promising, but it needs to be radically tweaked in order to be effective.  Currently, being context sensitive, it's too limited as it cannot often enough be effectively taken advantage of.

Graphics: 9.5
The graphics have been significantly improved in a variety of ways for 2003.  A higher frame-rate keeps the game smooth at just about all times, while increased detail makes FIFA 2003 look astoundingly realistic.  Player animations now look better too and the transitions between them are completely seamless.  The stadiums all look incredible and make the experience even more genuine.

Sound: 9
EA Sports did a great job with the audio in this game.  The in-game sounds, from the general sound effects to the dynamic crowd chants, are appropriate and realistic.  Additionally, the play-by-play and color commentary are thoughtful and free from any delay.  Also, a great mix of songs (EA Sports Trax) greatly adds to the excitement.

Difficulty: Medium
The learning curve is a little steeper than the average sports title, but the basics of the game can be picked up by anyone.  Many of the more advanced tactics and controls are somewhat more difficult to master though.  If the control issue were fixed, the game would definitely be easier overall.

Concept: 8.5
The concept of FIFA 2003, while not incredibly innovative, does have a lot of promise.  With realistic physics, players, and 24 different stadiums (18 of which are team specific, 4 are generic, and 2 unlockable); these are the makings of a great soccer title.  Additionally, the freestyle ball control is a great idea...too bad it didn't pan out as it could have.

Multiplayer: 8
In FIFA 2003 it's possible to play customizable competitions, leagues, etc, with up to eight players using a multi-tap, which can be a lot of fun.  It's disappointing that there's no online support in this PS2 version though.

Overall: 8.2

Great

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