Last year's TIF instalment was the most celebrated to date, enjoying critical acclaim in light of subsequently limp ISS and FIFA outings, and to this day it remains an outside contender for best arcade footy title on the PS2. This Is Football 2003 is a big step forward for Sony's London studio, ramping up the realism and tweaking the gameplay, but does it have the legs to outpace and challenge relentless attacks from Konami, EA and others?
It's in the stats
With the exception of Championship Manager and its ilk, TIF 2003 is probably the most comprehensive football game on the market. The names of more than 14,000 real players line the backs of shirts in dressing rooms across the game world, and many players have been accurately modelled for close-ups. This authenticity is thanks to the FIFPro license, which leaves only the stubborn Dutch with made-up names. Nearly 700 teams are present, including every major national side and a handful of lower division clubs from England, Spain and Italy. So even if you're a Pompey supporter, you'll find your boys brushing shoulders with the Arsenals, Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds of the world.
There are several modes of play; full seasons, cup competitions, custom leagues and career, where you get to take the reigns of a schoolboy team through pint-sized competitions and upwards towards semi and full professional seasons. Of these, season modes are probably the most involving - you can take control of any team you like, then buy and sell players using an initial kitty of one million quid, building a team and benefiting from larger gate receipts and other perks as they improve their standing.
TIF even lets you create your own team, although this will undoubtedly prove too long-winded for some. Still, those with a bit of creative flair can assemble a legion of crack troops under a custom name and custom manager, and endow them with customised stats, even altering physical and facial attributes to fit the vision.
In fact, TIF's only off-pitch flaw is that transfers are never knocked back - Zidane would play for Wolves if the price was right, which isn't too realistic. However, my list of positives is significantly larger - the aforementioned LMA-esque transfer engine is otherwise superb, the menu interface is easy to use and suitably explanative, you can fiddle with just about any pre-game setting, from the strictness of the referee to the time of day, and once you're good enough, you can opt for "challenge" mode, which rates your performance over 90 minutes (or rather, between 4 and 10) and gives you a password to enter into the official world rankings website. Even the menu music is funky, foot-tapping stuff. So far, so good.
On the pitch, many will look upon This Is Football 2003 as Sony's attempted retort to Konami's masterful Pro Evolution Soccer, but really it's an unjust comparison. The two games are immeasurably different - TIF cherishes instant accessibility and glorious finishing, whilst Pro Evo places an emphasis on tactics, attention to detail and careful build-up play. Finding a scoring opportunity in Pro Evo is 90 percent of the game, whereas TIF hands you opening after opening on a grassy platter, and lets you write your own ticket from thereon.
Previous TIFs were rightly criticized for their reliance on end-to-end gameplay, with no real middle ground. TIF 2003 though is a marked improvement, with its traditionally accessible and arcadey gameplay integrating a fast-paced and relatively smooth passing game this time around amongst other things.
From the first kick to the last throw-in, TIF 2003 is a very good-looking game. Player animations are extremely detailed, and facial detail is at an all-time high, even if the hair doesn't flap around in the wind. Significant players like David Beckham are unmistakable, although some, like Michael Owen, look as though their faces have been mapped to the wrong skull. It's nice little graphical touches which give TIF its glossiness though, like the way you can see the players' breath on the air during a wintry encounter.
Other improvements include the little cut scenes which follow nasty tackles, and these are refreshingly quick to get to the point (or rather, the colour of the card) when compared to Pro Evo's. Camerawork is on the whole okay, although the perspective on the optimal view sometimes makes it difficult to get a handle on players on the far touchline. Give it a goal though and the multi-angle replays show off the TV-level presentation. Perhaps in TIF 2004 though we can control them ourselves? Pretty please?
The presentation is capped off by some superb commentary by Peter Drury. Well, perhaps his lines aren't the best, and his tendency to yell player names whenever they move within batting distance of the sticks is irritating, but his output almost always matches the gameplay and Sony has managed to give him more than enough lines to keep a match going without too much repetition.
The controls are effectively those of Pro Evo with shoot and long pass reversed, although as with previous TIFs, you can make your players perform deliberate and highly dangerous fouls in moments of madness, and even dive over an opposing defender's outstretched leg to the tune of a free kick if you can time it right.
Unfortunately though, the gameplay is a touch too simplistic. It lacks the intricacy of Pro Evo, and takes too much of the football into its own hands. The various individual aspects don't really gel together into a fluid whole, either. You can use L1 and L2 to perform shimmies, but passing is too rigid, and if you resort to one-touch football the pitch starts to resemble a pinball table. And although you can bring the keeper rushing out to intercept the ball, CPU keepers have a tendency to turn around and peg it if they can't get to you first, or simply hug their line to the very last, resulting in some quite boring one-on-one encounters which result in a shot five yards from the goal, which either goes in or doesn't.
That's probably TIF's chief flaw on the pitch - scoring is more about luck than skill. The ball sticks to the feet of the attacker until he hammers the circle button, unleashing a fearsome shot from whatever position or angle he happens to be in, and it almost uniformly bends through the air in the direction of a corner. The keeper either taps it wide, or he doesn't. Scoring in any given game can be high or low on account of this, even if the weight of chances suggests a monumental result.
Fortunately, the AI puts up a reasonable fight, even on the default difficulty level. It's very easy to carve your way through the opposing defence and craft a chance, but the AI is equally capable of scything through your midfield, splitting the defence asunder and giving you some serious competition. Indeed, it's the AI more than the goalscoring which injects excitement into an encounter - however artificial, having to pull yourself back from a goal down three times in a simulated 90 minutes is very engaging and, if you pull it off, rewarding. Should the whole thing go to penalties, the system for taking those is as good as any other, too. Hold the shot button down until the cursor lands on the optimum power bar position, then point the stick and fire.
Back in the dugout
This Is Football 2003 is never going to frighten Pro Evolution Soccer in its current guise, but as its own game of arcade football, it's accessible and absorbing albeit rather forced entertainment. It's a game for people who want to play football, score magnificent goals and undertake historical comebacks without having to tear their hair out over getting the ball past the halfway line, and on that basis, it comes highly recommended.