It’s currently in vogue to put down EA. From inside the industry they’re the very epitome of what’s wrong with publishers – endless sequels with very little improvements; lazy film tie-ins and cheap multiplatform ports. Unfortunately, though, they’re not alone – there are other companies doing exactly the same thing, and although the Pro Evo fanboys might like to think otherwise, Konami are as guilty as anyone for just throwing out another lazy semi-sequel of their football game a month back.
Which is ultimately academic, of course, because Pro Evolution 2 isn’t available on the Xbox, and as such FIFA 2003 becomes the best football game on the machine, by default. However, don’t think that it’s not a viable game in it’s own rights, though, because the latest version of EA’s long-running franchise is certainly a playable, good looking rendition of the beautiful game, and the Xbox port is question is definately the best of the versions available.
See, FIFA has always been about superb presentation, realistic graphics, believable commentary and the all-important official license, and the 2003 iteration is no different. In fact, it’s improved in every single one of these areas. On the Xbox the presentation really shines – the game loads quickly, the menus are slick and the licensed music is current and fashionable. The graphics are gorgeous – smooth animation, realistic renders of the best players, convincingly huge stadiums and all flowing at 60 frames a second. The sound is great too – there’s not a football game in existance that can hold a candle to FIFA 2003’s atmosphere – and even the often-flawed commentary is impressive, if not a little repetitive after a few matches.
The licenses are present and correct: there’s no Lake District team here, there’s no Backhem or Schools running up and down the pitch. This, as you’d imagine, does make a huge difference to the immersion whilst playing the game, regardless of what Konami would have you believe. There are several authentic stadia too, all modelled well and convey a real feeling of awe when you first run onto the pitch with the crowd screaming all around you in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound.
But football games are all about the gameplay, right? Panic not, because FIFA delivers in this area too – the passing is much improved and requires much more thought and foresight; the through-ball plays a larger roll but again cannot be relied on alone. Sprinting has been toned down (and each player has varying levels of stamina in this respect) and best of all, shooting has been tweaked practically to perfection – you won’t be scoring the usually high number of goals often found in past FIFA games, and it’s not just a cheap tactic of upping the keeper AI – you need to think about shots, aim and choose the kicking power very carefully.
Tackling, however, doesn’t quite work as well as it might, although it’s much better than ISS’s automatic tackling that ruining that particular game for me. The shoulder barge doesn’t produce entirely useful results, yet the sliding tackle is often judged unfairly, on both sides of the coin. This means, ultimately, that against better skilled teams (and players) the defense can often be split apart with a well placed pass purely because defending is so difficult. In addition to this FIFA have implemented a brand new Freestyle Control method which is activated via the right stick. Brilliantly, the results of tapping in a direction on the control stick is different for each player depending on their dribbling skill, but for the most part a quick flick in the direction you’re heading will produce a small burst of speed with you pushing the ball slightly ahead. There’s plenty of scope for mastering this new control scheme, which will please those prepared to invest considerable time in the game.
FIFA 2003, though, comes into it’s own in 4 player games – whether it’s 2 on each side or all 4 of you versus the computer the passing engine really starts to shine and you’ll be pulling off impressive set pieces and hopefully scoring some goals. It’s all great fun and a superb way of showing off the power of the Xbox to some mates. If there’s any other niggles, the dead ball controls need some practise before you start to use them successfully, and the keepers can often be too unpredicable, but it wouldn’t be a FIFA game if there wasn’t something to improve on in the next game. It’s good – very good – and well worth spending the cash on if you’re looking for a football game.