There was a time, not so long ago, when EA simply ruled the football roost - at least in sales terms. But after years of chipping away quietly, Konami finally broke through commercially with last year's ecstatically well received Pro Evolution Soccer. For the first time EA found its lynchpin brand outsold, outsmarted, and out of favour - and all this despite huge marketing support, slick presentation, high profile endorsements and all the official stadia, player faces et al.
But how had one of gaming's most popular brands been usurped so dramatically? Well, even the most casual gamer could spot that Konami's effort was in a different league in terms of gameplay. FIFA was all style over substance and had very little in common with real life football, while Pro Evo simply oozed gameplay subtlety, class and depth - the very antithesis of FIFA's air headed, bubblegum chewing bimbo approach.
Clearly EA, the world's number one publisher, had to go back to the drawing board - and fast, and the result is the best FIFA since, ooh, FIFA '98. But how does it fare against the mighty Pro Evolution Soccer 2? With both having just hit the shelves, we put both to the test to see which one is worthy of the crown of Best Footy Game Of The Season...
FIFA 2003: In a word, stunning. Never before has a football game been lavished with so much attention to detail, and the end result is one of the most beautiful looking sports games ever. Around 400 of the game's top stars have had their mugs recreated in the game, and with a few dodgy exceptions, most of the game's big names are instantly recognisable, complete with facial expressions to complement the effect. Even the shape of their heads has been mapped, although the effect is marred thanks to the slightly chunky bodies, even if the animation is fantastic. At this rate, FIFA's on course to be photorealistic within three years, which is a fairly scary prospect. To add even further gloss to the on field action, the world's top stadia have also been given the treatment, and again, they're superbly recreated. Meanwhile the action replays are typically dramatic and up to the usual TV-esque standard that EA has perfected over the years. Throw in countless camera options, and you've got a game which is almost faultless to look at.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2: Konami's footy titles have always lagged a few years behind in the visuals department, and this year's effort is no exception. Although certain players bear a vague resemblance to their real life counterparts (Beckham has an, um, Mohican), the game's players generally look pretty generic next to FIFA, but by no means ugly. They're certainly a big improvement over last year, and it's noticeable how much extra effort has been made in the animation department - which was already excellent. The stadia are very impressive, although entirely made up, while the replay system is the same at last years - which is as intuitive and slick as ever.
FIFA 2003: EA has been perfecting this system ever since the PC version released way back in '94, and the John Motson/Ally McCoist dream team again deliver a flawless and constantly varied selection of soundbites that give the package a great deal of atmosphere. This begins to repeat after a while, obviously, but this is the benchmark every sports game should be trying to attain. The crowd chants also reflect who you're playing as, so for example if you're playing Chelsea you'll actually hear the "Chelsea! Chelsea!" chants echoing in the background, while the more generic crowd noises are superb throughout. Soundtrack wise, EA has once more pulled out all the stops with an extensive array of top-notch licensed tunes - all recently released.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2: Last year's commentary effort was pretty terrible, and despite employing a new pairing of Trevor Brooking and Peter Brackley, the results are just as lame, if not lamer than ever, we're sorry to report. (The "I tell a lie, he's put it wide" line will have you reaching for the volume control within a few games, we guarantee you). In fact, we made more sense of the commentary by switching it to Italian! The crowd noise and ambiance is pretty decent, but not especially impressive. You'll probably hardly notice it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Meanwhile, last year's edition had some of the most uniformly terrible music we've heard in a modern videogame, and while the opening "We Will Rock You" video is superbly promising, the same one man and his Casio drivel accompanies every menu thereafter. One day Konami will get it right, one day.
FIFA 2003: Having played every FIFA since the first PC attempt in '94, we can safely say that this is by far the most accomplished effort yet. For a start, unlike every other FIFA ever, you won't be racking up huge scores from your very first game.
The whole game engine appears to have been ripped out and built from scratch, and it's all the better for it. Gone is the pinball gameplay, and the ancient 'ball stuck to the foot' system, as is the stupid number of 'special move' controls that made every player some kind of footballing god, and in comes intuitive, Pro Evo-inspired gameplay that actually takes time to learn. Yes, for the first time in years, you'll actually find yourself playing out goalless draws while you adapt to the new system. Scoring is no longer a formality, and instead you're forced to craft and scrap for goal chances, which is thanks to a combination of a more realistic tacking system and a delayed shooting mechanic which relates to your player momentum - very similar to how PES works, in fact.
However, practise and persistence reaps rewards, and FIFA displays a maturity and depth we'd long since assumed we'd never associate with EA's franchise. The mechanics for taking set plays have also been simplified and simultaneously improved, and allow players to direct their throws, corners or free kicks with precision. For free kicks and corners a rapidly moving needle swings left to right and back, with a small green zone denoting an accurate kick. Hit the button at the right point and the ball will go where you want it to - hit the red zone and you fluff it. Tackling has been improved a notch too, with the so-called 'soft' tackle enabling you to nudge players off the ball in yet another nod to the superb system pioneered in PES. The sliding tackle isn't as mental as before, and timed right can get you out of serious scrapes, and thankfully you can still foul the keeper, if you get really frustrated.
But FIFA doesn't get it right all the time, and its PES inspirations may frustrate those who actually prefer the more instantly accessible gameplay of older FIFAs. Almost every goal scored across the 30 odd matches played seemed to result from pass and move forays and a shot just inside the box. Screamers from outside now nearly always result in a convincing save, while crossing into the area seems to be a relatively fruitless way of setting up scoring opportunities. We're assuming that the variations in ways to score will open up with practise, but as it stands, running into the box and steering the ball past the on rushing keeper seems to be the main route to success, resulting in a rather one dimensional experience at times.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2: PES was in a league of its own last year, and the sequel somehow improves upon the gameplay of last year. Last year's effort took an age to get to grips with, but with persistence the game's many charms became apparent. You really did feel that every goal was down to the player's skill, with build up play, intelligence and timing the key factors in gaining any success. It says something that a novice would have had to play PES several times before they even got close to scoring. It's a steep learning curve, but once you suss out the timing of your shots, players can soon carve out some truly impressive, and hugely satisfying moves.
Version 2 is very much an Evolution of this approach, and veterans will slip straight into it. Over double the number of animations allow for a far slicker experience, and minor irritations such as players running off into touch happen far less frequently than before, thanks to this. Also, the game now allows you to nick the ball off opponents in a far more convincing fashion (normally through use of the all-important soft tackle), although in a packed midfield the ball can swap possession multiple times as the ball pings between legs and players tumble around frantically. It can look a little like pinball at times, but can result in some superbly realistic comedy goals as the ball ricochets around - and lends an even more authentic feel to the package.
Where PES2 really scores over its rivals is this sense of almost everything feeling right. The double tap shot system, while initially confusing, does give the player a huge amount of control over the power and trajectory of the ball. The same applies to crosses, which after a while will be heading just where you want them to. We wish the same could be said for the set piece/throw in system that gives you an odd perspective on the proceedings, and an unsatisfying 'trial and error' means of delivery, thanks to a lack of any directional cursor or guide bar for you to aim at. This is a small point, but detracts from an otherwise almost flawless gameplay experience.
FIFA 2003: All the top clubs are present and correct, complete with proper player names, and all the numerous variations on their strips. We only wish EA had gone to Sony lengths on the number of clubs featured, but you can't have everything. Competition wise, there's the standard FIFA approach, with leagues, cup and friendly matches to enter, with up to four players able to compete simultaneously. Speed can be altered from the default Normal, down to Slow, and up to Fast or Fastest. However, it was pretty nippy on Fast, so we can't imagine many will wish to up the ante too much. Of course, every option you can imagine is present in terms of match time, weather, day/night, camera and formation settings. It's hard to think of many things they haven't included.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2: Although the menu system still lacks the gloss of its rivals, you can't fault PES2 for the sheer number of modes and options available. Most of us will be content with playing this game purely in two player mode, but for the lone player, the Master League's revamped transfer system makes it far more realistic than previously, while an important new addition for the real fans is the ability to completely customise and edit all 40 of the game's Master League teams. To be honest, though, it's a bit of a faff having to go through and edit all the made up teams that Konami doesn't appear to have the license to.
The brand new Umbro Player Training Challenge is a very welcome addition, especially for newbies frustrated with their initial ineptitude. Option wise, you're spoilt for choice - if only Konami could revamp the general layout and presentation of its front end, it would be so much nicer to navigate.
FIFA 2003: Once you've experienced the lavish presentation and got to grips with the vastly improved gameplay, you sense there is more to come, but the depth is still not quite up to the level of its illustrious rival. But it's not far off. Will we be playing this in a few weeks? Sure. In a year? Very unlikely.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2: There's so much to learn and discover about this game it's almost scary. Reviewing this over the past week has barely scratched the surface, and it's one we'll be coming back to for the next 12 months at least - with the god-awful commentary turned off, at any rate!
Whatever your thoughts of previous FIFAs, the latest is a marvellous achievement that with a little more gameplay depth would have reclaimed its throne. The improvements to every area of the package make it the best football game EA has released by some margin. But is it a better than Pro Evolution Soccer 2? Of course the answer to that is more complicated than a simple yes/no. Pro Evo is still the better game, and will last you longer, but FIFA is arguably the sweeter experience in the short term. FIFA's presentation, style and gameplay are all great, but Pro Evolution Soccer 2 gives the hardcore footy fan the chance to really live out their footy fantasies. It's a question of priorities: are you a casual gamer looking for a slightly less in depth but infinitely more gorgeous experience or a hardcore footy fan looking for the ultimate in depth and subtlety? Brains or looks - the choice is yours, and it's never been a harder choice to make.