When we posted our review of ISS Advance the other day, pointing out it was the best footy games we'd played on the GBA, an intriguing thing happened. Exient, the Oxford based developer of FIFA 2003 GBA got in touch and asked: "ah, but have you played our rather lovely game?" to which we replied "No! EA never got around to sending us that", and two days later - as if by some kind of strange devil magic - said game was winging its way through our letterbox with a £50 note attached to the box*. Nice touch.
* Not really.
Yes, we know FIFA's been out for a couple of months now, but we're quite sure that very few of you know whether it's any good. And the reason we're so sure is that the normally noisy EA slipped out its first ever FIFA GBA title with absolutely no fanfare at all, and as of a month ago, it had sold a meagre 15,000 copies, which when you consider there are 1.5 million GBA owners in the UK is precisely sod all. However, this is hardly surprising while Nintendo insists on charging up to £35 for the games, when the "real thing" is often standing on a shelf three feet away for roughly the same price. Or often less, as in this case.
It's no turkey
Even so, you can understand Exient's slight indignation that its labour of love isn't even being presented for review - especially a title as big as this. The more cynically minded might perceive this as a "turkey tactic", but after countless hours in the company of FIFA, we're scratching our flea ridden heads in confusion. It's not bad at all - but first a quick run down of what you get for your shekels: all the major European leagues, all the major national teams (except Holland, as usual), and all the correct player names - which is a very welcome addition after the rather rubbish made up national teams you get with ISS GBA. In typical EA style, the front end and general presentation is as slick as oil, and the graphics are equally impressive, featuring fast, flowing, well animated players that are taller and skinnier than the more chunky equivalents found in the very first 16-bit versions ten or so years ago. Technically, FIFA 2003 is very impressive, will lots of nice features that have passers-by going "ooh" when they see it, (if they can see it from that angle), such as the ability to pull off instant replays by merely tapping select during the action. A sideline viewpoint is adopted during the match, so don't expect the isometric approach of the original - this is an all-new version that has little in common with the "good old days".
What it does have in common with every FIFA title is the ease in which you can score goals. Lots of them. In fact, on beginner and amateur levels, it was hard not to score, and four minute games regularly ended 10-1, with upwards of 25 shots possible per game. The CPU may have only had two or three shots, but the tendency is for your keeper to pretend he's having a nap, and thus any penetration of your defence almost always leads to a goal. To give you a clue, on our very first go, we were 3-0 down within about one minute - from the CPU's first three shots. Damn and, indeed, blast. But practise very quickly makes perfect - at least on Beginner and Amateur levels. If you want any semblance of challenge, the best thing is to up both the difficulty and Goalkeeper levels to Professional - at which point FIFA then becomes similar to ISS in terms of a challenge. Knock down the 'keeper difficulty lower than Pro and it's hardly worth playing - it's just too easy.
FIFA = lots of goals
Part of the reason such high scores are possible is the fact that the men seem too big for the pitch - or the pitch is too small; one or the other. The time it takes to get from one end to the other feels way to small. Something's amiss. Also of slight concern is the ease in which it's possible to pass to one another. Just tap the B button in the vague direction of one of your team mates, and it almost always goes straight to their feet, allowing the player to build up some mightily impressive moves. Trouble is, it once again errs far too much towards the arcade style of play, and is not only unrealistic, but makes the game feel too easy. Likewise, dispossessing players is unnaturally easy too, with rarely any need to resort to tapping L for a sliding tackle. A quick few taps of the A button almost always does the trick - and seems to double up as a sprint button if you keep tapping away - while the actual Sprint button (R trigger) turns your player into Linford Christie, with no loss of stamina, unlike the more strategic ISS.
In its favour, if you ban yourself from ever playing the game on anything less than Professional level, and maybe with a lesser team, you'll find FIFA 2003 a rewarding, slick and very playable footy attempt, with all the nice "real team" elements and Club Championship/EFA Trophy competitions that the poverty stricken ISS lacks (although there's no commentary, sadly - we do hanker after a bit of Motty). It just suffers from the same FIFA syndrome that winds every discerning footy fan about the franchise - i.e it's pinball football, with too many goals/not even a hint of realism, and it'll take you no time at all to master it. We suspect this may not be Exient's fault, though - after all, EA has demanded the same brief for almost every FIFA ever made. Oh well, there's always this year's version. In summary, then, ISS - still the best footy game we've played on the GBA. Sorry Exient.