Surely someone at EA had their tongue firmly in their cheek when they chose to include The Streets' 'Fit But You Know It' in the FIFA 2005 soundtrack...?
"See I reckon you're about an eight or a nine,
Maybe even nine and a half in four beers time.
Those facial likenesses you've got in there are nice,
Bit too much like last year's though - but yeah you score high.
But there's just one little thing that really really,
Really really annoying me about you you see,
Yeah yeah like I said you are really fit
But my gosh don't you just know it..."
Doesn't that just sum up most people's objections to FIFA? [Yes, albeit with a bit of artistic licence.] A prancing, preening stallion of a game that doesn't have to try because it's the star of the show?
Some of you out there are probably wondering who this young pop combo are, but that's probably because, like this reviewer, you've been around the block a few times, but being old is cool. There are a number of ways to tell you're old. Checking around the eyes is always a good one; how are your crow's feet doing? Can you still get into your favourite jeans, or is that beer and pies paunch beginning to overhang disgracefully? Do you find yourself whinging that footballers weren't overpaid prima donnas in your day (but they weren't!), or recall when Posh meant well-to-do and Becks was just another generic Lager? Well, if that isn't proof of advancing age, then being old enough to recall the hassles of spending hours setting up the required Autoexec.bat and Config.sys files to get the very first version of FIFA with commentary working is a sign that you're definitely a decade closer to your bus pass. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time of year again, a time when the nation's gamers empty their wallets and critics sharpen their knives in preparation for another FIFA roasting.
Except (whisper it), some of us on the team at Eurogamer actually like FIFA a lot. Sure, the Euro 2004 edition was the sort of pointless, lazy, blatant cash-in souvenir that makes EA such a popular target for some of the more bloodthirsty critics, but on balance, over the last 10 years for every slightly dodgy version, there have been some excellent efforts to look back on. Yet, selective memory kicks in, and every year you hear the same basic complaints "It's not PES". Yep, paragraph three and we're talking about PES already, but there's a valid point to address here. PES is a fine fine game, but lining up a PES-stalwart to review FIFA is about as valid and useful as giving a coffee fan a cup of tea to review and being surprised when they spit it over your shoe and snort "Well, it's not Coffee is it?"
It seems to our frazzled brain, bored with having to argue the toss every year, that you either like one or the other, and very rarely get on with both. A few of us like both and appreciate what each have to offer (yes, it is possible you know), but the truth is most PES fans want very different things to what your average FIFA fans look for in a footy game, and often both camps are just as infuriatingly closed minded as the other. Nil Nil after extra time, eh, with FIFA winning on penalties by virtue of always selling more.
Match of the Day
The perception has long been ingrained that FIFA is the game that's easy to score in, easy to rack up stupid scorelines, lacks depth and is therefore a pile of crowd-pleasing nonsense full of exploits and sweet spots, which, once you find them, make it a bit of a pointless game to play for very long. Now, finding the 'sweet spot' has been basically true of every football game ever made as far as this reviewer is aware, and often the fun is working out how to stop them, but so far as FIFA 2005 is concerned it's very tough to level that accusation at it any more than its rivals.
As a pick up and play kind of game, FIFA just isn't an easy game to score in as a novice anymore; it wasn't last year, and it isn't now, and the proliferation of low scoring games online is concrete proof of that. Even against one of the best PES players around, a handful of games produced no goals for Mr. PES, and, in truth, even though one of us had been practising all day, the games were tight in every case and settled by a single goal - not what you'd possibly expect given the years of anti-hype.
But when all is said and done, compared to last year's respectable effort, FIFA 2005 is very much along the same lines, with the exact same free kick and corner routines, the same basic controls with just a few simple tweaks to make things a little more unpredictable and interesting.
The most obvious change is the vaunted First Touch feature, which involves pushing the right thumbstick in the direction of your choice just before you receive the ball to control it in that direction. It's often a bad decision, putting the ball straight back into enemy possession, but judge it correctly and you might be able to drag back or pull off a sneaky dink ahead to give your player a crucial yard advantage on your opponent. It feels quite unnatural to use two sticks at once in a footy game at first, and in many respects you're often put off by the fact that your primary concern is directing the pass, while holding the right stick in another direction. Often you'll find yourself miscuing the pass in the first instance as you're busy considering which direction to push the right stick in after you've released the button.
A similar principle operates while you're on the ball, with the right stick again available to pull off a number of skilful moves, but as with First Touch, it's a hit and miss affair, with the ball being lost more often than not. Any manoeuvre which involves taking your thumb off the face buttons is asking for trouble, and that's exactly the same issue we've always had with the Off The Ball control, which (on the Xbox at least) involves pushing the white button first, then controlling a second player with the right stick and then passing the ball. It's a great idea, and you can see where EA are going with it, but the simple concept of controlling two players at once just isn't as fluid or intuitive as you want it to be. You make mistakes, and quite often you'll revert back to not using it at all because it sometimes costs you dearly - and the principle reason appears to be that it's not easy to hold onto the ball when a rival player is near. You're mostly better off fooling your rivals with quick passing into space than attempting to dribble.
Another of the recent FIFA bugbears is that scoring in certain situations appears to be unnaturally difficult. The most obvious of these is penalty box shots, which so rarely go in without complete mastery of the controls it's as if the keeper has some magical force field around him. So what do you do? In our experience at least, we started shooting from the edge of the box before anyone had a chance to close us down, but even that is treated with a large amount of disdain by the game, with your well timed, well struck efforts from the world's best players nearly always shaving the post or bar - as if there's some kind of arbitrary routine built in to calculate whether it's on target or not.
You could literally pull off the same move 100 times, but find only about 25 per cent of those ever go on target (and if they do they mostly go in), no matter whether the player taking the shot is Thierry Henry or a journeyman clogger. It certainly helps keep the score down, but in a way that appears to have very little bearing on the skill of the player. It's almost like the game's way of saying "you should score from there most of the time, but to make it feel more realistic we're going to make you fail more often than not". Bah. Sometimes you just want those stupid scorelines after all.
Attack of the Clones
Our other bugbear is the way the defence sits so deep, even when tactically a defensive game isn't selected. Whether you're breaking out from a corner or splitting the defence with an excellent build up, rather than have the defence around the halfway line and be able to enjoy those two on two situations as you might do in real life, FIFA almost always forces you to face a line of four defenders placed near the penalty box. There's rarely, if ever, an opportunity to use your pacy front men to go out on sprinting forays, and, likewise, there's still no real sense that height or physical power plays a truly significant part in the game at all.
Granted, some players evidently have a better aerial ability, and indeed pace and fitness play a crucial part, but you'd imagine that after all these years that players' physical traits and playing styles would be much more visually evident by now. The fact that all the players still have much the same graphics and animation models makes so much of it guesswork when it shouldn't be - the same could be said for FIFA's rivals too, it should be noted, but it's an area EA could have so easily led the field in. Maybe they're plotting all this for the next gen?
Nevertheless, like any other decent footy game down the years, you gradually carve out your own tactics, find out the weaknesses and exploits and begin to play the game in your own way. Once you accept the limitations, there's no doubt that FIFA 2005 is very enjoyable whether played alone or with your mates. The addition of Live play is without doubt a major bonus for those of us fed up with having to wrestle with PS2 Online. The truth is, despite there being online play in last year's version, we hardly touched it. This time, however, you can hardly get us off it, and it has already become this reviewer's big online kick.
The problems evident in Burnout 3 have all but completely been erased, with a much saner approach that simply lets you get on and play the bloody thing rather than be forced into regional lobbies. Quick match just gets you straight off the mark against anyone looking for a game. You choose your team, four minutes per half and that's that. All Quick Matches go towards the Leader Board and very quickly you'll be casting an anxious eye at where you are in the world. 24 online games later, ranked 120th, we were pleased with a respectable start, and can quite believe that tally will go into the hundreds before the year is out.
There are issues, though. Two games out of the 24 were laggy to the point of being slideshows, and yet if you quit any game for whatever reason, it counts as an automatic 3-0 loss, with a black mark against your Did Not Finish tally. All EA needed to do was show the connection speed of the player before you accept the game, but, alas, you can't tell until it's too late. You can, of course, configure an Optimatch to weed out the ringers or the newbies, and up the game time to your desired level, but again, lag issues aren't specifically addressed.
A number of tournament options are also included, which gives enormous potential for all night sessions; some are public, some aren't, and we can imagine this will be a huge draw once everyone's got their eye in and the competitive edge truly starts kicking in. It's definitely true that thanks to a decent online mode we're motivated to play FIFA far more than we have been since FIFA 96 on the PC had modem link up play. Great news for EA, and definitely good news for Microsoft - goodness only knows how many people will sign up for this forthcoming World Cup, and the inclusion of a two-month free Live trial is a genius move.
Even offline, though, there are an absolute wealth of things to do that kept us hooked before we could get online, with the usual league creation, allowing you to play in practically any world league of any interest complete with all the team and player names, more cup competitions than you could ever comprehend, and - new to FIFA 2005 - the Career mode, a sort of cut down Player Manager role that you can 'fuse' with Total Club Manager (if that sort of thing appeals to you), allowing you to take charge of a limited selection of rubbish teams and gradually build your way up to taking charge of one of the big guns.
Given that Hearts from the Scottish Premier were about the best team on offer, we decided to cut our teeth there, and found it a challenging and absorbing way to play it. Rather than just playing as Arsenal and ripping into everyone, like we all do, this at least forced us to get our hands dirty with really very average players, and after getting a little fed up with their poor pace, attempted to bolster things with some new signings.
Delving into management
Now, don't expect CM-style negotiations, or any of that, as players can be bought if you can afford them, but in the long run if you keep winning and scoring, you'll earn more and more management points to spend on improving your staff set up in eight key areas (split into playing and non-playing areas), which in turn will generate the results and hence the cash you need to fund your dream team. In truth it's as basic and unrealistic a system around, but strangely compelling in the way that all Player Manager games tend to be (remember Anco's Amiga effort?).
You can't really knock them for including it, although we expect this side of FIFA will start to expand in future editions to the point where the likes of LMA and Total Club Manager will be a little redundant. The fact that you can import your entire TCM team and play individual matches in FIFA is a great idea (even to the extent of lower division teams not currently included in FIFA), with the match result exportable back into TCM is a great example of how EA likes to link products up. If only Sports Interactive and Konami could strike a similar alliance...
It kind of goes without saying that everything on the presentation side has been truly nailed again. It's fit and doesn't it know it? The stadiums look wonderful whatever the weather, with the sun peeping through the grand architecture of all the big stadia (although we'd appreciate more real life stadiums being modelled, as opposed to the usual big guns), the kit's are perfectly represented, the surround sound and crowd chanting is hugely atmospheric, the commentary as eccentric and inappropriate as ever (we can't resist doing Ally McCoist impersonations, sadly), the soundtrack as disconnected but welcome as it always is (with a few blinding selections amongst some total dross), and the replays as spectacular and realistic as we've come to expect - with even the pause menu used as an opportunity to run through the highlights so far.
The one area that is still a bit hit and miss is the player likenesses - some are truly outstanding, and many of the big names look superbly lifelike. But take a look at the likes of current boy wonder boy superstar Wayne Rooney and he just looks even more like a Toby Jug than he does in real life. Cast your gaze to the lesser lights, such as the entire Norwich squad. and there appears to have been a rushed two-tier approach to their physical approximations. Occasionally you can just about see the likeness, but other times it's so far away from reality you have to laugh. It's a small point, ultimately, and one you'll soon forget, but for a game that sells itself on such things, you really do expect more. In truth, on a visual level it's hard to spot any major differences at all to last year's version, which in FIFA terms is virtually unprecedented.
Widen the goals
To bring all these stands together for a moment, what we have here essentially is an exceptionally polished product with a smattering of new additions that, Xbox Live aside, don't make an especially significant leap forward after last year's return to form. First Touch isn't as useful or intuitive as it could be (although maybe a few more weeks of practice will prove us wrong on that score), and Career mode basically bolts on a new way of playing a drawn out tournament. Live, though, is a whole new ball game. This - more than anything - will be the new addition to make things very interesting indeed, with the Leaderboard alone making it as compelling a game as we've played all year, and we haven't even had a chance to play people we know yet.
But in harsh, critical terms, while it's a game that we'll be playing a lot in the weeks and months to come thanks to Live, the bigger picture is that we're talking about another product featuring very minor tweaks. EA may have the best seller by a mile, but it's still not setting the agenda for gameplay and raising the standard to unassailable heights. You'll be happy with it, but there are so many areas that could be improved that some will rightfully balk at shelling out for it at full price - unless you're online of course, in which case it's definitely worth the money, PESphillia notwithstanding...
So, an eight or a nine? Maybe nine and a half in four pints time? As ever, let the beer be your guide...