Matt Bilbey considers FIFA 2003 to be something of a "payback" for fans. The product manager for the world's favorite soccer simulation believes that that upcoming game will be one of the best in the history of the long-running EA Sports franchise. Much of the game has been rebuilt from the ground up with an eye toward providing more realistic action for devoted aficionados who have at times struggled mightily with play that wasn't exactly true to life.
"For a long time, the FIFA series has been a real moneymaker for EA," Bilbey said during a recent tour of EA Canada's design studios just outside of Vancouver. "This year it was time to offer a payback to the fans who have allowed it to be so successful and give them the game that they deserve. We pulled people from other design teams, moving them from some of our other series so we could do what we really wanted to with FIFA this year. The size of the FIFA 2003 design team is almost double what it has been in previous years, and the 112 people have done amazing work. What they've achieved in a short space of time--improving the AI, creating accurate stadiums and player artwork--is quite fantastic."
Spending a day with the nearly completed product revealed that these statements weren't the typical games industry hyperbole. The new game appears to be much improved in every area, including the core elements of play. According to Bilbey, the expanded design team started with dribbling. Many developers weren't happy with how a player became attached to the ball as soon as he took possession of it, finding that this one faulty element sabotaged any pretense that the FIFA series had to realism. So the first thing the programmers worked on was enhanced ball physics. They detached the ball from the ball handler's foot and added all sorts of little touches to make the gamer seem like he or she was really dribbling up the pitch.
This is perhaps the most noticeable improvement in the build of FIFA 2003 that we previewed. Instead of controlling the ball as if it were attached to your feet like some sort of inflated yo-yo, players now must take pains to keep possession. Sprint too much and you'll lose control of the ball. Make too many sudden moves and you'll lose control of the ball. At the same time, the developers don't seem to have pushed their attempts at realism too far. Although it is harder to maintain tight control of the ball in this build of FIFA 2003 than in FIFA 2002, dribbling isn't so difficult that casual players will be put off. On the contrary, the added level of challenge seems to have been balanced so soccer neophytes will be entranced, not frustrated.
"Now, players have to move the ball in FIFA just like players have to move the ball in a real football game," Bilbey said. "We felt that we had to change the AI in this fundamental way so we could make our game more like real football. We had to make the game authentic to the real world of football, so we spent a solid eight to 10 weeks of around-the-clock work on the AI this summer."
You'll Get a Kick Out of This
More was accomplished this past summer than just a revamped ball control system. Once the design team was finished with this new, more realistic dribbling, they felt that it was out of place with the rest of the game. A few holdover elements made FIFA 2003 continue to play more like an arcade game, and since the developers were aiming at a proper simulation of real soccer, the decision was made to keep going with the AI enhancements. This branched into all other areas of the sport. Ball physics were tightened up during shots on goal. Scoring attempts should now benefit from all sorts of deflections and scrambling play as the players react to odd bounces. This was evident in almost every game we played with the preview build. Just as in real soccer, it seemed like almost anything could happen when the ball was loose in front of the net.
Free kicks have been made more authentic through the incorporation of an icon that lets the player decide where to make contact with the ball and a meter similar to ones used when kicking field goals in football games. A floating target reticle pops up when close to the goal, presenting some additional challenge when you're trying to pick the corner of the net from just outside the penalty kick area. Passing has been both simplified and granted greater depth. Passing lanes appear to be more strictly defined, forcing the player with the ball to sidestep out of coverage in order to smoothly move the ball forward. Pinball passing seems to be a thing of the past. You will also now be able to use quick passes over short distances and send out longer, searching passes. This should add a strategic element to play, as the sort of offensive attacks you'll mount will be determined largely by which style of passing you favor. Judging by our play experiences, finding some sort of balance here will be crucial to penetrating opposing territory and getting good scoring chances. As in real soccer, patience seems to be the primary characteristic required for success in FIFA 2003.
Defense has received a fair bit of attention as well. Defenders will be able to square up with the ball with the touch of a button, making it easier to cover opposing forwards. This should also make it a snap to jostle adversaries into losing control of the ball. Doing this may be a major part of FIFA 2003, and the development staff has worked to ensure that it is a more rewarding way to deal with the opposition than the hard tackles of the past. Our experiences indicated that this feature will change the character of play even more than the more realistic ball physics, as it now seems easier to play defense. Squaring up seems to be a big help when it comes to staying between the opposition and your goal, so you will likely be able to maintain better coverage, both individually and as a team. There did seem to still be a few quirks with the AI defenders, however, in that they would occasionally relax their guard to the point of allowing the opposition an open path to the net.
Some of this laxity might be the result of greater attention to player attributes, though. The developers went over all of the 10,000-plus players included on the more than 350 teams featured in FIFA 2003 in an attempt to rigorously model real-life skills. This will be seen on the pitch in the form of vastly different abilities depending on the individual. A player with a high strength rating, for example, will be better at jostling the ball away from a rival. These individual scores also seem to have an effect on games as they're being played. There is a huge difference in pace and overall skill level between a match pitting Manchester United against Real Madrid and one where the leading lights of the Israeli club circuit go head-to-head.
And the Crowd Goes Wild
Superior clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid will be featured in FIFA 2003's new club championship mode of play. This league will boast the finest 18 teams on Earth, including the above clubs and the likes of Liverpool, Inter Milan, and Galatsary. Each one is fully realized, with up-to-date rosters, players with realistic faces and authentic attributes, and accurate stadium art. Added frills include crowd songs to match each stadium and player-specific animations for key moments in the game. So if you're looking for a trademark goal celebration, you'll likely find it here. The other modes of play should be fairly standard. You will be able to play a friendly exhibition match, set up a tournament in one of three different styles with up to eight players, or play in season mode in one of the 16 included leagues for up to five consecutive years. Difficulty and speed will be adjustable. A new stats interface is being included to provide more feedback on how you're playing. Along with the usual numbers, it will feature a map that indicates the location of goals, fouls, tackles, and bookings.
All the modes of play should look great. Although FIFA 2003 has been developed on top of the FIFA 2002 engine, having more people on the design team has allowed for a substantial number of enhancements. Players looked more lifelike than ever before in the preview build. Their faces seemed almost photo-realistic, in large part because EA ratcheted up the number of cameras and the overall level of technology used to motion-capture real soccer players. A motion-picture studio in Vancouver was used to film these sequences, which help create the illusion of a big-budget television broadcast. Crowd animations included excitable spectators and waving flags, not to mention fireworks going off at the beginning of matches.
These visuals should be nicely complemented by high audio quality. The in-game effects and crowd noise in the build that we previewed were, again, virtually identical to sounds heard on television during soccer broadcasts. Play-by-play commentary will again be provided by John Motson. The legendary English broadcaster recorded more than 13,000 snippets of dialogue for FIFA 2003 in the EA Canada sound studios, giving the developers a huge range of options. While playing the game over a period of some six hours, we barely heard the same comment twice. And Motson was sometimes so specific in regard to players and real-life events that it was hard to believe that he wasn't calling each game individually. Many of the lines are laugh-out-loud funny, too. Motson and color commentator Ally McCoist make some hilarious deadpan comments on what's taking place on the pitch, and they don't hesitate to toss some acerbic barbs in your direction if you're playing poorly.
Finally, EA Sports is making an effort to support the FIFA online community through the release of the Creation Center software. This editor program will be posted online ahead of the arrival of FIFA 2003 in stores so users can get a head start on developing add-ons. Creation Center allows you to edit nearly every aspect of play, from player appearance to team and league setup. All in-game files will be able to be imported to the Creation Center for alteration, including team song and chant WAV files. This program should be most appreciated by users who want to set up custom leagues representing the few national circuits that EA hasn't been able to license for official inclusion in the game.
Look for full GameSpot review coverage of FIFA 2003 when the game ships to retail on October 29.