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World Cup Play-offs

Article - to kick off World Cup week, Mugwum takes a look at eight of the footy titles you could be playing right now

European gamers rarely have reason to bicker amongst themselves. Well, unless you count this ongoing procession of aggressive tirades packed full of blinkered gibberish about whichever format the individual purchased which we're being forced to endure. But on the whole we're all a friendly, sociable bunch, with common problems - inexplicable release dates, PAL conversion problems, and publisher decisions which mean fantastic games never make it farther than Japan and the USA.

Tournamental

However, give us a World Cup and it's like putting the cat amongst the pigeons. We're all scrambling to be the last team in it, and with a major European team already champions of the world and almost half the finalists from our precious continent, it's only natural that the blinds are closed and we're ignoring one another in the street. As a (literally) stout supporter of the England team since I first knew how to kick a ball, I'm particularly anxious to see you all lose over and over again.

On the other hand, given our continuing inability to beat the Swedish national team (this is our 34th successive year without a win), and perhaps an impending demolition at the hands of Argentina, English fans are going to need something to assuage those feelings of irritation. For those of you licking the wounds of an unfortunate demise in the first few days of the World Cup, what better way to help vanquish those footballing demons than by doing it yourself?

It's not just EA clamouring to take advantage of the seasonal tournament this time. With three consoles on the market there have been a lot of releases from heavyweights like Konami, Sega and Midway as well as the great bastion of the seasonal update, Electronic Arts. There are no less than eight games in our round-up; four recent releases, a timeless classic, a measured re-issue, and American and Japanese imports, and they all want to get their hands on the trophy. Don't they? They do now!

Picking the Englishman's wallet, he said. Twat, we said.

2002 FIFA World Cup

Formats: PC, PS2, Cube, Xbox, PSOne

With the game only recently displaced from the top of the charts after a four-week spell as sales king, it's perhaps a little late to start warning people off it, but 2002 FIFA World Cup is a weak and tawdry update to a once-crap-then-proud series. Fans looking for a simulation will need to head elsewhere, and if the idea of incongruous motion capture, bizarre player models, poor sound and cheap 'arcade' touch-ups like fancy special effects makes you cringe, then you will want to pass on this.

On the field your AI opposition does a pretty feeble job until you raise the difficulty level, at which point is becomes quite competitive, but as with the other games in the series, the whole thing feels like it's taking place on rails, and although you can put the ball in the net often enough, it always looks ostensibly the same. Add to that the issues of slowdown and the sluggish new power bar system and you have an oft-frustrating, overly simple game of footer.

As the official FIFA game, World Cup is the closest approximation in terms of presentation at least to the actual events in Japan and South Korea, with all the correct groupings, commentary from John Motson (woot) and Andy Gray (bah), and an interface which could quite happily replace the boring visuals of ITV and Channel 5, but only casual football fans will accept EA's latest interpretation of the beautiful game. Others should take their custom elsewhere.

It looks good until you enlarge it

ISS2

Formats: PS2, Cube, Xbox

With the advent of the PlayStation 2, ISS branched off from Pro Evolution Soccer for real, with KCET working on the simulation side of the game for the PS2-exclusive Pro Evo series (known as Winning Eleven in Japan) and Major A handling the arcade-centric ISS series. Unfortunately, the two no longer compare. Although it improves upon the player models of Pro Evo, ISS2's pitch has been so actively textured that it's hard to pick the ball from the grass at times, and the camera has a tendency to bobble back and forth with the progress of the ball in all but the most zoomed out of camera views.

Despite using the same control system, the gameplay is like Pro Evo without the subtlety and whether this was intentional or not it falls short. Although in Pro Evo team and player skills make noticeable differences to the AI, here the computer-controlled players are just stupid, ignoring the ball as it rolls slowly past them, and the game never really flows as it does in Pro Evo. Attacking moves almost always end in a generic diving save and corner, and strategy is virtually absent, although the system for taking free kicks and corners is excellent. The game interface is nice and the replay system is extensive, but the commentary is by John Champion (sneer) and Mark Lawrenceson, whose lines are repeated again and again to comic effect.

Lacking official association with the cup, and with only a handful of actual player names at their disposal, Major A has done its best with an international cup option, but we can't really understand why they didn't swipe the official groupings for it. Has FIFA trademarked the line-ups? Can it really do that? If that's forgivable though, the lack of a custom cup option and a limit of eight teams to a custom league is completely incomprehensible. A nice, simple arcade football game this may be, but one has to wonder why certain things weren't done.

Picking the ball out from the pitch at the pace this game moves can be a challenge

Pro Evolution Soccer

Format: PlayStation 2

If you'll excuse the pun, Pro Evolution Soccer has been kicking about since the end of last year, when it was resoundingly endorsed by yours truly. It deserved it, and still does, and despite the recent influx of wannabe contenders it retains its crown as the king of the simulations. Nothing else available in Europe at the moment comes closer to the actual game of football than Pro Evolution Soccer.

In order to really appreciate that though you have to put the hours in, and not just a handful, but many. This is a game of real depth, where team and player attributes, formations, squad choices, the pitch conditions, and the level of refereeing make a real difference. Moreover, injuries and suspensions can cripple a team during the single player game, which can turn games into tense spectacles rather than gilt-edged certainties. The graphics, and player models in particular, already look a little dated, and the interface is a shambles, but the control system and the fundamental gameplay at the heart of Pro Evo is unmatched. If you're prepared to stick at it, this game will grab you by the balls. Footballs, I mean.

As I've already mentioned, from a presentation standpoint Pro Evo is a bit lacking, and it has absolutely no ties to the current competition, but it is the best football simulation on any platform, even if the commentary is substandard and you play in a "Europian Cup". If, after watching the world's best players take centre-stage for the best part of a month, you want to emulate their heroics without fighting to keep the score down, and if you know a thing or two about the game, this is the perfect solution to all your troubles.

Ah, a nicer pitch to look at, and the most refined gameplay on offer, but those player models...

Virtua Striker 3 ver.2002

Format: GameCube

And so we go straight from the pinnacle of football gaming professionalism to scraping the very bottom of the barrel. Virtua Striker 3 is, to be fair, a reasonably enjoyable arcade game without much padding. You can pass short, you can pass long, you can slide tackle and you can shoot. This is about the extent of things though, with no sprint button, no subtle nuances of control and virtually no strategy.

In terms of its composition, Dreamcast owners may demand a double take, with the game more than just eerily reminiscent of its predecessors; for all intents and purposes it's the same game. Players have been awarded more polygons, with the likes of Owen and Beckham easily recognised, but the camera perspective, the player animation, the behaviour of the ball, the replay system and even the game interface are patches, not updates. The sound effects are virtually the same, the commentary is generic and often inappropriate, and the system of control is unchanged (although mercifully you can now use the analogue stick - how very twentieth century).

The Road to the International Cup option has nothing to do with the World Cup officially (in fact, the game lacks any official ties - all of the player names are fictitious and slightly annoying, like "W. Churchill" in the England side), but it gives you a goodly number of games to play and because slide tackling is the mainstay of the game, creating scoring opportunities and beating some of the best teams is virtually impossible. VS3 makes a nice arcade distraction, but ISS2 is a better game for the same price, and if you've played Virtua Striker 2 you have already played this…

Virtua Striker 2. I mean 3.

This Is Football 2002

Format: PlayStation 2

This is football. It's not the delicate, dazzling spectacle of the World Cup, but Sony's football series made serious inroads into the genre last year when it was launched without much warning a month prior to EA's FIFA 2002. Recently re-released on the Platinum budget label for the frankly ridiculous price of £20, it exists as a nice middle ground between listless arcade has-beens FIFA and Virtua, and Konami's heavyweight duo of ISS and Pro Evolution Soccer.

Featuring licensed team and player data, competitions aplenty (although not the World Cup, obviously), a fast and fluid gameplay dynamic and a nice, friendly interface, it does a good job of pandering to casual football fans. Player models and camera behaviour can be a bit erratic, and there are some quirks of the control and physics systems, but on the whole it's end-to-end edge of the seat stuff, although this does mean that results are often unpredictable. The graphics aren't up to the PS2's current standards, but they make a good impression, certainly outdoing Pro Evo's, and most of the players resemble their real-life counterparts (although Michael Owen is a notable exception to this rule).

Commentary is a bit lacking, and the simplistic gameplay could leave you wanting, but on the whole at this price it could happily fill the gaps between matches and give you something to do in the evening when the highlight programmes have all finished. If you're after something to complement the World Cup but don't want to spend £40 this could be just what you're after, and if the developer is to be believed then the design brief for the next version reads like the wish list we compiled after a few hours of play. Maybe it's worth boning up if it's about to take a leading role in the genre...

A bit dated perhaps, but cheap and cheerful

Sega Soccer Slam (import)

Format: GameCube, PS2, Xbox

If you harbour a seasonal interest in football but don't fancy getting bogged down by the offside rule, stoppages and dramatic build-ups, then this feast of arcade purity might be just the game you're looking for. It has nothing to do with the World Cup, and very little to do with organised football at all in fact, but it does offer a lot of single and multiplayer fun. Teams are made up of three 'characters' and a robotic goalkeeper, and each team has a theme, be it water, ice, fire, toxic waste or what-have-you. This theme loosely defines the different special kicks each character can perform, and the sort of accessories you can buy to beef up their statistics.

The graphics look very nice. Each character is wonderfully animated with superb collision detection - a must for a game with no stoppages, a tiny pitch and an emphasis on violent challenges - and the playing surface varies from the usual Astroturf to real grass, bamboo sticks and much more. Outside the clamour of the game itself, spectators frolick in the stands and the pitch surroundings can be anything from a Hawaiian cove to a bustling metropolis.

Heavy-handed tackles are the order of the day, and scoring is generally achieved by outpacing your opposition, taking advantage of your team's best attribute - be it speed, strength, passing etc - and cuing up impressive volleys. With each successful challenge, pass and shot your team's power up bar fills up, and apart from powering your players up to improve their speed and finesse, with a full power bar you can perform Killer Kicks which see players leaping twenty feet into the air to perform some acrobatic insanity. With co-operative and versus multiplayer, eight teams and lots of stadia and playing accessories (which actually show up on your players) to unlock in the single player game, not to mention groovy commentary from a cockney stereotype, this is football the way the Japanese would have it. It's worth an import if you want something different.

Importing isn't everyone's cup of tea, but Soccer Slam almost makes it worth it

Red Card Soccer

Formats: PS2, Cube, Xbox

Red Card Soccer is an oddity. It's a sort of halfway house between the irreverence and occasional insanity of Sega Soccer Slam and the arcade fancies of ISS2. As a football game it's jolly good fun for the most part, and although you could mistakenly assume that the players were members of a passing American Football team, fully dressed to play and hauled into the motion-capture studio at the last minute, it's a fairly good looking one to boot. It's got plenty of features too - although no direct World Cup affiliation - and once you realise just how many buttons there are in the control system dedicated to venomously debilitating the opposition, you start to play it like a big game of hockey. Without the sticks.

It won't please everyone, and because of our running addictions to the products of Konami and Sega, played alternately, there was no real gap into which it could slot. For this writer, it's trying too hard to be both things in the hope of carving out a niche for itself, when instead it should concentrate on one or other. It also loses out in the context of this roundup because it's only out on the PlayStation 2 at the moment, with the Cube version allegedly out on the 28th of the month (just in time for the end of the tournament) and the Xbox version simply out sometime this month. Yes that is a bit vague, but then we told them that and they claimed it was all they knew.

On the other hand, it is the only game where you can take on the role of David Beckham and chase Diego Simeone around punching and kicking him without fear of repercussions. That makes it a darned good companion for any England supporter.

Footballers with padding - what a stupid idea! Er, oh, hang on...

Winning Eleven 6

Format: PlayStation 2

Normally when releases are staggered, Europe complains about the wait, but with Konami's Pro Evolution series - now in its sixth iteration in Japan - you know those extra six months will be well spent. Winning Eleven 6 is an update to Pro Evolution Soccer, which was in turn an update to Winning Eleven 5, and in keeping with tradition, Pro Evolution Soccer 2 will be a measured update to WE6.

Hiding behind reams of Japanese text is a game with a lot more strategy and customisation than Pro Evo. Casual observers will argue that it looks identical, but player stats are more important than ever, affecting everything from the way players move for the ball to their abilities with the outside of the boot, and refinements have been made to the refereeing, which can now be tweaked, and to virtually every other aspect of the game. The grass looks greener, the models are slightly more impressive than before and the kits are based on more recent designs. Free kicks are easier, you can walk the ball round the keeper if you have quick enough fingers, and when you score, you still have the satisfaction of knowing that it was pure skill and not rampant button-bashing.

The only problem for budding importers, apart from the obvious point of having to own a Japanese PS2, is that so much of the game's depth hides behind menus that even replaying a goal saved onto your memory card is virtually impossible, and adjusting the strictness of the refereeing so that a slight brush doesn't send a player tumbling is harder to find than a bit of hay in a huge stack of needles. If you buy this and can fight off the shackles holding you on the wrong side of the language barrier, you'll be in footy nirvana for months, after which you can pick up PES2 and enjoy another speed bump. And it has Japanese commentary - how cool is that?!

The best of the bunch? Yep. Worth waiting for it to become Pro Evo 2? Not if you can speak Japanese!

The Final Whistle

As must be clear by now, the contenders don't all fall neatly under one header. Realistically there are three main stables from which to pick. Simulation fans will want to go for Pro Evolution Soccer or Winning Eleven 6, although the latter is for the most part quite impenetrable unless you speak Japanese. It might be worth going with Pro Evolution and waiting for the follow-up this Christmas, which will be an improved version of WE6.

If you want football but don't know much about it, and the idea of something which doesn't fall under the traditional heading of arcade football is appealing, then you might want to engage in Sega Soccer Slam or, in the absence of an import Cube, Midway's half-and-half Red Card Soccer, which combines arcade footy with Soccer Slam-style heavy hitting.

Those of you after a care-free arcade footballing experience though - which is probably most of you - will want to go for either Konami's ISS2 or Sony's TIF 2002. Although TIF is perhaps inferior to ISS2, it is only half the price of it, and if this is a seasonal purchase then the less expensive the better! However, if you've merely been putting off that vital footy purchase in the hope of finding a gem amongst the cash-ins, then ISS2 is it. It's simple to get into with a certain amount of depth, and although it doesn't have the razzmatazz of FIFA or the simplicity of Virtua, it strikes a nice balance. Now, is anybody taking bets on a French World Cup win? I feel a big spending spree coming on…

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About the Author

Tom Bramwell avatar

Tom Bramwell

Contributor

Tom worked at Eurogamer from early 2000 to late 2014, including seven years as Editor-in-Chief.

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