Version tested: PlayStation 2
Gimmicks in games, as with most things in general, are as welcome as Osama bin Laden at chez Dubya Bush's annual Thanksgiving ho-down. Take food gimmicks. Take cheesy strings. Everyone sees the advert and sits in embarrassed silence, squirming in the knowledge that even though it's going to taste revolting, you want to buy it because you can pull it to pieces. It's the hideous, compelling world of capitalism thrown into grimly sharp relief by processed milk products. The same applies to football games. Without the cheese.
FIFA. Sunny FIFA, the promoter of arguments, the sealer of friends, the knife in the heart of the Pro Evolution addict. FIFA, home of the football gimmick. Sorry, but there it is. Off-the-ball control, a bewildering online mode, management bolt-ons, and just about everything else you could possibly want from a console football game. The truth, unfortunately, is that you'll never use most of it. And the online mode, for want of a better phrase, sucks arse (to give it a Eurogamer flavour). Gimmicks. You don't need them.
Which is ironically the reason why This is Football 2004, the latest in the much maligned Sony series, actually waltzes into Europe's most hotly contested sports category with much to recommend it due to its economy and focus. There are no gimmicks. Nothing is half-baked, misconstrued, malformed or ostensibly specifically designed to add an extra bullet point to a PR PowerPoint presentation. Even the 900 teams and more than 18,000 players feel necessary. This is slim line, heavyweight football for the masses. And yes, before you ask: This is Football 2004 is better than FIFA Football 2004.
A little bit of politics
The latest TIF is by far the best game in the series. The single-player game bears nothing of the genius depth of the latest round of Pro Evolution Soccer classics, but, and it's a huge 'but', TIF 2004 is fun to play. Seriously. It honestly is. You can pick it up and play it. You can give it to anyone you like, tell them the controls, and they can score goals. The competitive urge is in no way blighted by the relative simplicity of the control method. And the onerous task of committing huge amounts of tactics and combinations to memory is practically removed, meaning you can spend time enjoying yourself instead of attempting to convince the friend you just crushed 5-0 that it really is a good game and even though they can't get the ball out of their own half it's worth sticking with it for another 50 hours because they're sure to improve. If you like playing complex simulations, this isn't your baby. If you want polished, swift arcade football with enough depth to reward the player without causing his brain to suppurate, you're in the right place.
There are some obvious problems with player positioning and the odd defender vanishing into the ether at that crucial moment, but unless you revel in the pursuit of footballing realism, it's unlikely you'll care to any real degree. The presentation is excellent, and while play responsiveness suffers from the spectre of players having to finish full animations before enacting your commands, it's a blip. A smear. A chocolate stain on the cherubim's bib.
And, obviously, there's the online mode. It works. It works really well. Broadband adapter owners looking for multiplayer football in Europe finally have a place to worship. Players can join private or public rooms and set challenges to other users, who then have 30 seconds to accept. Brilliantly, you can join matches to eventually include up to eight players on any combination of PS2s. If you can tolerate a minor smidgen of lag, these are fun in a bucket [I'm trying hard to imagine fun in a bucket, I really am -Ed].
A Hall of Fame tracks all games and every player is constantly ranked. The biggest gripe of the entire online side of the game is that slow connections or games against those in other countries can prevent players from playing properly responsive matches and limit the amount of moves available. Spectacular goals become extremely hard in this situation, so your Henry fantasies of diving headers and molten 20-yard volleys become impossible. That's fairly rubbish. But considering how well engineered the online component is in general and how easy it is to set up games and start playing, it's genuinely not a crippling blow.
Voice communication and instant messaging also feature. These don't quite get up to the functionality supplied by Xbox Live (but then what does?), but they're still there and they still work. The whole online experience with TIF 2004 is as painless as modern dentistry: it's designed for comfort but the peculiarities of the situation stipulate that there's bound to be the odd twinge. TIF online is the root canal that goes without a hitch and the nurse is fantastically attractive. It's all injections and breasts. And footballs.
It's not over yet...
Should you buy it? If you want an online football game for PlayStation 2, this is it. The score reflects it. If you want utter genius in the gameplay department and are about as interested in PS2 network play as vegans are in a trip to TGI Fridays, buy Pro Evolution Soccer 3. Again. If you want the cheesy string of football console games, buy FIFA. If that's what you wanted, you already have. If FIFA 2004's online mode didn't work for you, buy TIF.
In short, buy it if you want to play a game of football with your younger brother and actually enjoy it first time round. Buy it if you've got a broadband adaptor. Buy it because you can score goals without resorting to Steven Hawkins levels of concentration. Does this paragraph sound good? Then buy it.
8 / 10