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FIFA Football 2004

Another balls-up or a real threat to PES' crown?

Year after year we hear the familiar cry from friends and colleagues that Konami's Pro Evolution is king, yet Johnny Punter still shells out for FIFA regardless. After a few consecutive years of Konami breathing down EA's neck, last year EA simply turned up the heat, made the best FIFA ever and tripled its marketing spend. Result? Over double the sales and a game that to this day still sits proudly in the top 10.

But this year, the staunch Pro Evo-philes (and that includes the majority of the specialist games press on the evidence of last night's Pro Evolution Cup) are crowing that Pro Evo 3 has tanked EA's FIFA yet again, almost shocked if anyone dares to suggest that EA might actually be closing the gap once and for all.

Smart move, Konami

Certainly the decision to release PES3 a week ahead of FIFA was a smart move, mopping up a footy hungry audience and securing the sixth fastest-selling game in the UK ever. But that won't bother EA one little bit, as today it unleashes another scorching volley that will once again outsell the competition by a margin.

But, as we all know, sales mean very little in the process of critical appraisal. While it's no secret that we're all in love with PES here at EG, we're also open minded enough to give FIFA a fair trial, rather than bleat and wail that it doesn't play the same as PES.

The first point to acknowledge is that FIFA 2004 is most definitely the best football simulation EA has ever come up with. It's a quality package on every level, with the usual gloss and presentation that no-one ever gets near to - albeit even better than ever. But does that make it fun? Yes and no, confusingly. This is without doubt the hardest FIFA to properly review, because - for once - there's much more to it than initially meets the eye.

I'll raise you 10 million

EA has really upped the ante this year, with an entirely different approach to the game. Last year's was a step in the right direction, but it inevitably became so easy to just blast in goals left, right and centre that the appeal wore off after a couple of months. It still crept out of the cupboard once in a while, post-pub, but it was more the game you played with your mates who hadn't mastered Pro Evo 2 yet. Undoubtedly this is the appeal of FIFA for many; that they don't really have to put the hours in to be able to score spectacular goals, and on many levels this is a perfectly worthy aim. Not everyone's a gaming god, and FIFA kind of succeeds on the basis that it makes you feel like one. Pro Evo fans also really really despise the fact that they can get absolutely tonked on FIFA by a relative novice. It's a great leveller like that.

Anyway, I digress. This year, EA has done the unthinkable and made a FIFA that actually requires a degree of skill. No longer can you charge untested up the field with your finger on the sprint button and belt another 25-yarder past the despairing keeper. Try that against the CPU on even semi-pro skill level against the very lamest opposition and they'll just snuff you out around the edge of the box, or nick it off your toes as you attempt another sortie down the flanks. That's not to say it's not possible to score spectacular goals anymore, it's just not the formality it used to be. FIFA 2004 makes you work for your rewards, and after over 10 hours of studious single and multiplayer action we're still only really just getting to grips with it. Shades of Pro Evo? Indeed.

Every year brings some kind of alleged innovation which ends up being confusing and superfluous for most players, but this year's is possibly the best yet if you bother to put the practice in. Using a Madden-inspired off the ball system, tapping L2 while in possession highlights three players you can toggle between with a further tap of L2, and it's a case of deciding whether to pass, lob, shoot or play a through ball to them. You can also move the off the ball player manually by using the right stick, but this actually proved quite disorientating, so we tended to wait for the right moment to release the ball.

The skill will out

Providing it doesn't get intercepted first (and depending on the skill of the player, and your positioning) you can then instantly queue up a trap and volley, or any another variations of shots, lay offs and headers to score some fairly smug looking goals or split the defence in an instant. It sounds, in typical style, like FIFA is just trying to make things too easy, but in practice it's harder than you might imagine to pull off, forcing you to adapt the long-ingrained principle of merely just pinging the ball around in an often hopeful fashion. It works similarly to how the over-accurate through ball move used to function, albeit requiring significantly more skill to pull off, and feeling genuinely satisfying when you do.

Without the Off The Ball function, FIFA can feel a strangely hollow, sluggish experience. At the default semi-pro level it feels a good few notches slower than PES and in Tom's words "like playing in treacle". At such a lethargic pace it's quite easy to build up some attractive short passing moves, but players always seem to lack the pace to charge down the wings effectively and playing defence splitting balls by default can seem elusive to say the least - even when playing as the best teams in the entire game. Part of the problem seems to be the AI of your players, who rarely make intelligent runs toward an incoming pass, just standing there gormless.

As Tom also observed, the art of scoring goals against the computer seems to be a matter of adopting an NHL-style approach to the game, firing in as many shots from the edge of the area as you can - either scoring direct, or following up the rebounds. Actually getting into the penalty area itself seems bizarrely tricky compared to previous FIFAs, kind of forcing you into this approach. The weird thing is, on the lowest skill level, the CPU opponents back off you almost entirely right up until you're on the edge of the area. Even if you stop running they rarely try and take the ball off you, which looks a bit odd to say the least, although this naturally ceases to be an issue on the higher settings. All-round, unless you're playing against a human opponent as clueless as you, getting to grips with the new system can seem unusually frustrating and not especially rewarding for a while.

But, in the manner of PES, a little persistence goes a long way, and it starts feeling like a game with its own identity, rather than some desperate facsimile of Konami's now-legendary approach, or the charmless bimbo brained pinball simulator of former editions. Whether you prefer FIFA over PES depends on a lot of things - and we'll come to those in a moment - but purely in gameplay terms, where it really matters we'd have to firmly admit that PES still has the edge thanks to its unending flexibility, oceanic depth and the simple fact that it just feels like you're actually playing the beautiful game. Having a tussle with FIFA is still an immensely enjoyable experience, make no mistake, but you come away feeling like you're just playing by its rules rather than actually playing footy.

Get shirty

The argument that you can just 'pick up and play' FIFA isn't even there for apologists to trawl out these days. Sure, you can try, but the chances are you'll be growling at your inability to find the onion sack rather than doing Ravanelli impersonations around the living room like the old days.

What FIFA does have firmly over PES is some of the best presentation and attention to detail we've ever seen in a videogame. While PES sticks maddeningly to its low budget approach of terrible music, confusing, cluttered menus, hopeless commentary, questionable player likenesses and baffling licensing issues (such as Man City as Lloyd, being one hilarious example) FIFA just continues to set the benchmark for how it should be done.

First off, the soundtrack is absolutely inspired, featuring some excellent up and coming talent, such as Caesars, flavour of the month Kings Of Leon, Dandy Warhols, an old Jam classic to keep the Dads happy and plenty of World music to give it an international flavour. The sound elsewhere is similarly inspired with the usual commentary team of John Motson and Ally McCoist doing a sterling job behind the mic, although they still come out with some howlers now and then after a few hours. One of the most inspired additions is the crowd chants, which - for the bigger teams - will actually chant the team name, while the ambient effects give the game an atmosphere that PES simply cannot match.

Slicker than your average

The next and most obvious point is the visuals, which take the series to almost unbelievable heights. Even on a massive pin sharp TV, the PS2 version (Xbox looks functionally identical, the PC a bit sharper) looks genuinely astounding, with some eerily realistic player likenesses that make PES look horribly out of touch (although some, like Ole Gunnar Solskajaer, just look plain eery!). But the detail's not just in the face; the skeletal animation system is incredibly advanced these days, giving EA Canada the license to create stupendously realistic incidental moments that you many only notice happening once in a while. Tired players slump onto their haunches, stretch their calf muscles, and slip moments before shooting - things you see in real life all the time. The celebrations and replays are now at such a stunningly high level that it's not just TV-style - it bloody looks like TV! If you're familiar with the Premiership stadiums, then seeing a game played out in that exact environment is an awe-inspiring experience when it pans behind one of the goals to give you a panoramic view. And as we all know by now, EA has all the official rights to everything ever, and so everything down to the socks has been properly represented.

Perhaps the masterstroke this year is the inclusion of the Nationwide League teams, meaning all those poor bastards like me can finally play as their chosen struggling rag bag losers. Naturally they're all rubbish, but that's not the point - thousands of people will buy this game purely because of this, whether they prefer PES or not. Add to that all the major leagues from around the world and all the national teams and you're never going to be short of possible permutations of who to play as.

In response to PES' Master League, FIFA fans can finally indulge in some pseudo player-manager antics, taking a team of your choice through a tournament or league, training up players and dabbling in the transfer market if you're unhappy with the fact that your local team has been rated so poorly. Working on a points target system, you're given basic challenges for the season and it's up to you to meet them. We're doing pretty hopelessly as Norwich right now, but it's a sweet addition that'll have us hooked to FIFA for far longer than we would have been otherwise, and is especially good news for those of you who don't have a ready supply of human challengers.

Beat me online, I dare ya!

Talking of which, another massive plus is the PS2's online mode, which basically allows for one on one action, and supports the use of the USB headset in the lobby, making it a breeze to set up one on one games and taunt them afterwards. Sadly our review copy failed to authenticate through the servers, so we haven't been able to properly test this side of things, but the set up process is a breeze, so anyone who was considering PS2 Online has another decent reason to get involved.

Basic quickmatch facilities are there, as well as instant messaging to your online buddies, password protected game rooms, user blocking and even the ability to play one off or games or ladder tournaments against ranked or unranked opponent via a Leaderboard system. This could get messy. Downloadable content is promised, allowing you to keep your teams fully up to date, thus eliminating the need to tediously manually update everything.

Taking every facet of the package into account, FIFA completely kicks PES' arse all over the park, and it's obvious that EA has worked impressively hard on all aspects to drag the game up to the kind of high standards that it needs to be to tempt away the growing band of PES-philes. But however much positive energy we lavish on FIFA all the areas that EA beats Konami on - bar online - are simply gloss. In a straight tussle between the games, we just don't enjoy playing FIFA as much as we do PES3, and, for most of you, that's what matters.

8 / 10